Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts
Time Required: Short Activity
1 hour in a museum gallery
Author: This lesson was adapted by J. Paul Getty Museum Education staff from a curriculum originally published on the Getty's first education website, ArtsEdNet.


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Lesson Overview

This is the second lesson in a sequential unit. In a museum gallery, students practice looking skills they reviewed in Lesson 1. They reflect upon the differences between viewing original works of art and reproductions, and interpret a work of art using formal analysis and research done for homework.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• point out differences between viewing an original work of art and viewing a reproduction.
• use vocabulary from the elements of art to discuss a work of art.
• use description, formal analysis, and background information to develop an interpretation of a work of art.


• Clipboards
• Pencils
• Copies of the "Discussion Worksheet"
• Lesson 1 homework assignment

Lesson Steps

1. When you first arrive in the gallery where your focus work of art is located, ask students to spend a few minutes looking at the artwork. Ask them to think about how this original work is different from and similar to the reproduction they viewed in the classroom.

2. Have a discussion with students about the physical characteristics of the work that they see in the gallery, but could not see in the reproduction. Bring back the questions you asked about the original works of art in Lesson 1, along with student answers. Ask questions that prompt students to compare their expectations with what they see in the gallery. For example:
• Surface texture: What is the condition of the work? Does the surface have the texture and appearance they expected it to have? Compare the surface to other works in the gallery. Did you expect the artwork to have this texture?
• Vantage point: Is the work three-dimensional? How does the work change when you view it from a different angle? Do you see anything you didn't expect?
• Color intensity and hue: Are the colors different that you saw in the reproduction? Are they brighter or duller? Do the colors appear different?
• Scale: Is the artwork bigger or smaller than you expected? If so, how does the size affect your experience of the work? How is the size of this work affected by the size of the gallery itself? How is it affected by the relative size of the other works around it?
• Setting: How do the color of the walls, the lighting, and the number of other artworks nearby affect your perception of the artwork? If framed, how do the size, texture, and color of the frame affect your experience of the artwork?

3. Take students through a three-part discussion and analysis of the work of art that builds on the visual analysis skills they covered in Lesson 1. This three-step approach helps students isolate the ways that artists use the elements of art to create meaning in works of art. The approach can be applied to any work of art. Hand out copies of the "Discussion Worksheet" for students to take notes on as you lead the discussion:

Step 1—Description:
In this first step, have students describe only what they see in the work of art. Steer them away from statements about what they feel about the artwork or what they think the artist's creative process, technique, or intention may have been.

For example, in Honthorst's painting Christ Crowned, a student might say he or she sees "Christ being tortured" or "mysterious figures in the background." Words like "tortured" and "mysterious" are interpretive—a student using these words is drawing conclusions about what he or she sees. Compliment this perception, but model how to strip the interpretation out in order to make neutral statements that describe only what they see: "This work depicts a seated man surrounded by two others. One man holds a torch in front of the seated figure's chest and the other man holds a stick against his head. There are also several figures in the background painted in dark hues."

Step 2—Formal Analysis:
Next, have students analyze the artist's use of the elements of art by asking directed questions about each element. Ask students how the elements of art relate to one another and affect their perception. For example:
• Where are you, the viewer, in relation to this scene? Above, below, inside? Do you feel like you are part of the action or standing outside it?
• If you could actually enter the painting, where would you most likely enter the scene?
• Describe how your eye moves through this scene. What is it drawn to first, and where does it go from there?
• What has the artist done to guide your eye?

• What shapes and forms do you see in the composition? Where?

• Do any forms or lines echo one another?
• Do the lines contribute to an illusion of space? If so, how (for example, through one- or two-point perspective)?

• What colors do you see? Where? Which colors are the dominant ones in the composition?
• What is the tone of the colors in the painting? Cool? Warm? Bright?

• How did the artist create a sense of space?

• What textures do you see in the work? Where? Describe the quality of the different textures (rough, soft, hairy, smooth, etc.).

Step 3—Interpretation:
Divide students into small groups. Have them use the research they did from Lesson 1 homework assignment, and notes they took on their worksheets during the gallery discussion, to write a concise interpretation of the work of art. Interpretation in this step is focused on context. Students will think about how the context of the work within the museum, near other works—lighting, curation, framing, etc.—compares to the original context and intent of the artist. How does this affect the interpretation or meaning of the work of art? Based on their homework research, what do they think the artist's original intention might have been? How does that compare to the students' own, modern interpretation?

Have each small group offer their interpretations to the class and explain their justification. Ask whether other students agree with their fellow students' interpretations. Encourage students to express differing opinions and back them up with visual evidence. Lead students to see that different viewers often come to different conclusions about the same work of art.

Getty image
Students in the Getty galleries

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–12

Production and Distribution of Writing
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 6

1.0 Artistic Perception
Develop Perceptual Skills and Visual Arts Vocabulary
1.1 Identify and describe all the elements of art found in selected works of art (color, shape/form, line, texture, space, and value).

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
Derive Meaning
4.1 Construct and describe plausible interpretations of what they perceive in works of art.

Grade 7
1.0 Artistic Perception
Develop Perceptual Skills and Visual Arts Vocabulary
1.1 Describe the environment and selected works of art, using the elements of art and the principles of design.
1.2 Identify and describe scale (proportion) as applied to two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of art.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
Derive Meaning
4.2 Analyze the form (how a work of art looks) and content (what a work of art communicates) of works of art.
Make Informed Judgments
4.3 Take an active part in a small-group discussion about the artistic value of specific works of art, with a wide range of the viewpoints of peers being considered.

Grade 8
1.0 Artistic Perception
Develop Perceptual Skills and Visual Arts Vocabulary
1.1 Use artistic terms when describing the intent and content of works of art.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
Derive Meaning
4.1 Define their own points of view and investigate the effects on their interpretation of art from cultures other than their own. Are they looking at cultures other than their own?
4.3 Construct an interpretation of a work of art based on the form and content of the work.

Grades 9–12 Proficient
1.0 Artistic Perception
Develop Perceptual Skills and Visual Arts Vocabulary
1.1 Identify and use the elements of art to discuss, analyze, and write about visual aspects in the environment and in works of art.

National Standards for Visual Arts Education

Grades 5–8

Content Standard #2: Using knowledge of structures and functions
Achievement Standard: Students employ organizational structures and analyze what makes them effective or not effective in the communication of ideas.

Content Standard #3: Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas
Achievement Standard: Students integrate visual, spatial, and temporal concepts with content to communicate intended meaning in artworks. Students use subjects, themes, and symbols that demonstrate knowledge of contexts, values, and aesthetics that communicate intended meaning in artworks.

Grades 9–12
Content Standard #2: Using knowledge of structures and functions
Achievement Standard, Proficient: Students evaluate the effectiveness of artworks in terms of organizational structures and functions.

Content Standard #5: Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others.