How to describe a painting in English?

Working with students, I’ve realised many of them struggle with tasks connected with art. They are often reluctant to approach the subject because they don’t know much about the history of art, or they feel they lack relevant vocabulary. As they tell me, they wouldn’t know how to describe a painting even if they had to do it in their mother tongue!

As a language teacher, though, I love designing lessons based on art. Paintings, in particular, can be used to teach or revise all kinds of vocabulary and various grammar points. In this article I’ll give a few pointers on how you can use paintings to practise your English; and vice versa, how you can utilise your English to talk about paintings. I’m hoping this will be useful to learners and ESL/EFL teachers alike.

I’ll be using a painting by one of my favourites, John Atkinson Grimshaw. I happen to be writing this post on Autumn Equinox, and I can’t think of a better painter to capture the mood of the season. If you’ve never heard of him, all the better: there’s going to be a little research task for you at the end of this blog post.

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)

To make things as easy as possible, I’ve broken up this subject in several steps. While Steps 1 and 2 can be done by both elementary and more advanced students (to various extents), Step 3 is intended for students who are intermediate and above.

Step 1: Talk about subjective feelings and impressions

Regardless of whether you are a student or a language teacher, you don’t need to be an art expert in order to talk about art; don’t let the lack of previous knowledge discourage you. You can always start with talking about something you do know quite a bit about, namely your feelings and emotions. 

Here’s one of Grimshaw’s paintings, “Under the Silvery Moonbeams”:

In a formal lesson, this could be done as a speaking or writing practice. If you’re presented with such a task, simply ask yourself:

  • what mood or emotion does this painting convey? 
  • does it speak to me in any way, or does it leave me completely indifferent?
  • is there anything in particular you like or dislike about it?

Here you can use a variety of adjectives describing feelings and emotions, such as any of these:

POSITIVE: happy, excited, joyous, optimistic, calm, serene

NEGATIVE: angry, gloomy, nervous, moody, sad, cold

NEUTRAL / CONTEXT-SPECIFIC: nostalgic, sentimental, wistful, longing

There are many, many other adjectives you can use; look them up in a dictionary. A handy grammar structure you can use with them is the causative make, here in the Present Simple tense:

x makes me feel y (x = who/what causes the emotion, y = adjective)

e.g. This painting makes me feel sad. Then add a simple explanation as to why that is: This painting makes me feel sad, because it’s very dark and gloomy. Or, you could be more positive, and say something like The painting makes me feel so calm and serene, because of the lovely moonlight.

(Teachers can use this to reinforce the difference between because and because of.)

Step 2. Describe the painting itself

Now we step away from you, the observer, and move onto the object – the painting. No previous knowledge of art required, either. Simply describe the image you see, which can be a speaking or writing task (or both).

  • describe the composition / layout

Use this to practice prepositions of place, possibly in combination with the there is / there are structure: There’s a young woman on the left side of the road, under a bare tree. There are two large houses on the right.

You can add some Present Participles here, as well (the -ing form): There’s a woman standing under a bare tree and waiting for someone. There’s the Moon glowing in the midnight sky. There are no birds sitting in the trees.

Commenting on the composition, identify and describe who/what is in the centre, in the background and the foreground of the painting. What can you see in the distance?

  • comment on colours and shades

Colours, shades and the use of light are, obviously, crucial in visual arts. Which colours can you identify in this painting? Are their shades predominantly dark or light? Would you say the colours here are bold or soft and delicate? What kind of atmosphere do they create? Do you like it? If not, what colours would you use?

  • describe the scene

A useful thing to remember is that we normally use Present Continuous to describe any actions seen in an image. If you feel particularly creative, you might want to write a short story based on this painting. Who do you think is the person in this painting? Where is she going in the middle of the night? Does she live in one of the large houses on the right, or is she perhaps a servant there? Does it look like she’s walking away, or perhaps waiting for someone? Who could that be?

Since we have no idea who she is or what she’s doing out there on that road, we can also use various forms to indicate that we’re simply guessing. A good way to do that is by using modal verbs: The girl might be a servant. She may be running away. She could be waiting for someone.

You could set your story in the past and practice the use of narrative tenses. Again, this can be easily adapted to a class setting with students first discussing their ideas in small groups or pairs. But you can also work on it individually, letting your imagination run wild!

Teachers reading this are sure to think of many other grammar points they could practice with their students, these above were merely suggestions.

Step 3: Historical and cultural background

So, you’re not well versed in art, your teacher may not be, either. That’s a fantastic learning opportunity for all! You may do a bit of reading on a painter or a particular painting you’re interested in, or watch a YouTube video on the subject and use that as a listening practice. Both can then be used as a preparation for a writing assignment. Anything you write can serve as material for a presentation – a speaking task. All four language skills put to use! Obviously, this step would be appropriate for students who are at least at an intermediate level, as it does require a greater range of vocabulary.

  • find out some basic information about the painter (dates of birth and death; key life events)
  • learn something about their style and any distinctive features
  • what historical period did he/she belong to; did they belong to a wider art movement; how did that reflect on their artwork?
  • were they very popular during their lifetime, or completely marginal and almost forgotten?

If you’re an advanced student, and you have a proper, formal essay to write (or a presentation to give) on this topic, you should do these steps in reverse order:

  1. give the general introduction to the painter and his/her background
  2. narrow down to the factual description of a particular piece of art 
  3. end with comments on your subjective feelings and personal impressions / opinion 

Prior to each step, do some brainstorming and think of the relevant vocabulary you will need for the task.

Much more could be said about each of these steps and points within them, but if you’ve never done any writing or speaking on the subject, this should be more than enough to give you some basic ideas and get you started.

If you decide to do some research on John Atkinson Grimshaw and write an essay on him or any of his paintings – even if it’s just a simple paragraph, feel free to email me your final version and I’ll write you back with any corrections and suggestions as to how you might improve it. Just hit the Contact button at the top of this page, or write to me at grammaticus.blog [at] gmail.com. You can also post a comment below if you have any questions about this at all.

I’d love to read your work and help any way I can!

P. S. You can see more of Grimshaw’s paintings on the Grammaticus Pinterest board dedicated to him.

4 Replies to “How to describe a painting in English?”

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