Talking About Art


When you see a work of art displayed in a gallery, a home, or a public venue, how do you respond to it? Do you look for something you recognize? Do you dislike art that you don’t understand?

It is easy to say that you like or don’t like something. But it is more challenging to verbalize why you are attracted by a work of art—or repelled by it. A stimulating discussion can help you to understand the work—or even help you to view it in a different light.
Looking at art can be an emotional or intellectual experience, or a combination of the two. A person’s initial response to art is usually emotional. Perhaps the shape or color of a piece triggers a memory or an emotion, or a humorous title might make you smile.
There is no right or wrong way to respond to art. You don’t have to know anything about a piece to begin to analyze it. Talking about how it makes you feel or what it reminds you of is the first step. Learning art terms gives you a chance to explore the art more closely.


Vendors Under the Portal

Luis Tapia
Santa Cruz
Carved & painted wood 30" x 58" x 15"
Image courtesy of Owings-Dewey Fine Art

Even though art objects take many different forms, there are standard art terms used for examination and discussion. The art vocabulary is huge; there are numerous art dictionaries filled with terms. Here are some basic concepts to consider when approaching a work of art. Examples of New Mexico artists are presented to illustrate the terms.



Style is the artist’s language, or the manner in which they make their art. Artists create in many different styles. The terms abstract and representational could be considered opposite ends of a spectrum, with many different styles in between. Representational art has a natural appearance; abstract art departs from the natural in varying degrees. There are many “isms” which define works of art, such as realism, cubism or surrealism.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) is known for her abstract style in which she simplified the lines and shapes of objects or landscapes.



Technique is how the artist has made the piece. How is the work put together? Is it painted with loose and painterly brush strokes or is it more refined? Was the sculpture modeled and cast, or created out of objects the artist found? Some artists use traditional methods while others experiment with new techniques.
The potter Maria Martinez from San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico (1887-1980) developed innovative techniques when making her clay pots which were based on prehistoric styles.

Julian and Maria Martinez

Ramona Sakiestewa
Gravity D
Fiberworked clay prints w. gold leaf
38.5" x 36"
Image courtesy of Eight Modern


The materials artists use to create their work. Painters, sculptors, potters, photographers, printmakers, muralists—each type of artist has a set of materials that they use. For example, sculpture may be made of stone, wood, metals, plastics, wax, or found objects.

New Mexico santeros (saint makers) carve and paint aspen, cottonwood or pine. Contemporary santero Luis Tapia (b. 1950) departs from the traditional styles by using modern paints and mixed media as well as incorporating contemporary themes into his work.



How all of the pieces are put together to make a whole. Elements and principles of art are applied when an artist creates a piece. The elements of art include line, shape, form, color, space and texture. The principles of art include concepts such as movement, balance, contrast and pattern or rhythm.

New Mexico artist Ramona Sakiestewa (b. 1948) uses layered color, line and texture in her contemporary compositions. Using a variety of media, she creates a bridge between modernist concepts and Native American traditions. Her large scale works often contain saturated fields of color, high contrast and movement.


When the work was made and how it fits into history. Knowing when a work was made often gives important clues about its relevance and value. This could be within the context of world history or the span of an artist’s own life, such as whether the work was made early or later in her or his career.

Native American turquoise jewelry has a rich history, native to New Mexico for over 2000 years. Learning about the type of stone as well as the jewelry settings can help determine its historical as well as monetary value.



Information the artist is trying to convey. Artists make works of art for a variety of reasons. Talking with an artist about her or his work is sometimes the best way to learn more about it. Reading what an artist has written or asking someone who is familiar with the artist can also help determine the artist’s intent.
Agnes Martin (1912–2004) created abstract paintings and drawings often composed of grids and lines with subtle variations in hue. Basing her work on Taoist and Buddhist practices, her intent was to speak the language of the inner mind through her art. Martin’s journals help the viewer understand what she was trying to accomplish.

In her journal, Martin wrote: “A work of art is successful when there is a hint of perfection present—at the slightest hint ... the work is alive. The life of the work depends upon the observer; according to his own awareness of perfection and inspiration.”

Looking closely at works of art, whether on your own wall at home or at a gallery or museum, allows you to seek that hint of perfection. Talking about art makes it come alive.


Thanks to Melody Mock.

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 22

Related Pages

Glossary of Painting and Drawing Terms article

Glossary of Photography Terms article

Glossary of Indian Arts Terms article

Glossary of Pueblo Pottery Terms article

Glossary of Prints and Original Graphics Terms article

Glossary of Ceramic and Clay Terms article

Glossary of Hispanic Folk Art Terms article

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