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What to Look For in Your Trip to the Art Gallery

In this piece, I will outline some helpful hints on what to look out for when viewing artwork in galleries or museums. This is mostly to help gain understanding of the different techniques and mediums used in pieces of work. If you want, you can turn the art gallery into a treasure hunt: finding a piece from each medium! This understanding of how an artwork may have been created is a fantastic way of breaking down the boundaries of famous works of art, and understanding the artist behind them. This is by no means an exhaustive list! I have just put together a few different painting techniques and other mediums that you are likely to see in any art gallery.

I haven’t included acrylic painting, as the techniques used in oil painting and acrylic are very similar. There are also many other techniques such as charcoal, pencil and pen that haven't been mentioned either, but these are quite widely known and are easily spotted.

Oil Painting

Cezanne - Mont Sainte-Victoire

You can see the blockish ends to his palette knife here, and the scraped-on texture of the paint. It can be either thinly spread by pushing the paint into the surface, or thickly layered up by scraping lumps of paint on top of one another.

Auerbach - Head of Paula Eyles

Note the thick layers of paint in this piece: the rounded brush marks, as well as the lines, which indicate the individual hairs on a brush rather than the flat edge of a palette knife. It seems Auerbach mixed his colours on his canvas while they were wet, as well as on his mixing palette.

Turner - The morning after the deluge

Turner has used many layers of thinned paint to create this piece. You can see there are very little, if any, brush marks, and lots of layers of colours shining through each other. The colours are very well blended, rather than seeing defined outlines of where one colour begins and another ends. If you see a Turner in person, you will see that they have relatively flat surfaces. There are few lumps of paint compared to an Auerbach, meaning the paint has been spread across the canvas rather than thickly layered on top.

Van Gogh - Detail of Wheat Field with Cypresses

Here we can see the layers of paint, thickly put on top of one another, much like the brush technique. However instead of adding the layers when the paint was wet and causing them to mix like Auerback did, Van Gogh waited until layers were nearly dry to stop colours blending too much. You can see some colours blending slightly in the clouds and bushes, for example, but not to the same extent. Also the smaller brush marks, which Van Gogh is famous for, reveal his use of harder brushes.


Georgia O'Keeffe - Watercolour Study

In her stunning watercolours, O’Keefe uses big bold washes of watercolour. Watercolour is often portrayed as thin misty layers of paint, but it can be very versatile. It can have strong colours in bold simple shapes. We can see that it is watercolour, and not oil painting, by the water-spots, and the way the blue and greenish blue have blended together

Constable - Study of Haywain

Here we can see the use of thin watercolour layers. Constable has thinned down the paint with water, and gently layered up the colours on top of each other so they shine through each layer and build up the depth of colour.


Warhol - Marilyn

Probably the most famous screen-print, this Marilyn piece is a classic example. In the time it was printed, this sort of bold graphic image was very typical of the style of screen printing. However, with modern technology the technique has expanded, and now there is the ability to create fine detailed work. The main characteristic of screen printing is the ability to easily reproduce an image; in this instance with multiple layers and colours.

Paula Rego - Tilly in Kensington Gardens

Rego’s work is a beautiful example of etching with aquatint. This process is a long and complex one, but with stunning results. You can get light and watercolour-like tones (like in Norman Ackroyd’s work), or strong and bold ones, like in this piece. The strong outlines are the etching part, and aquatint is the part that adds the tonal variation. You will be able to see in old etchings, the tones are created by using larger and smaller dots, dashes or lines, whereas now we can create vast plains of shading within etchings without the use of lines at all. For an amazing example of etching without aquatint, have a look at the work of Lucien Freud.

Edward Bawden - Covent Garden Flower Market

Lino printing and woodblock printing are fairly similar, though they do produce different results. They are alike in using a sharpened tool to cut away all of the surface (wood or lino) that you don’t want to be printed, leaving a raised part that will be inked. Bawden created beautiful lino prints that hold both simplicity as well as delicate details. Using layers of colours he is able to create these stunning prints, which capture various parts of London. Although you can achieve very fine detail with these methods, they are normally characterised by blockish chunks of colour.

There are many different techniques of printmaking, as the medium is so varied. If you’re still interested, have a search on mono-printing/monotype. It is a wonderful technique, which you can easily try at home!

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