First, you should know something about art history so you can place each painting in context. Thousands of years ago, there were two-dimensional cave paintings. Then came two-dimensional church paintings. In the Renaissance, artists began painting non-religious three-dimensional subjects, like bowls. A little later, during the Enlightenment, they painted well-lit bowls full of fruit. Romantic artists painted what those cavemen would’ve painted if they’d looked outside, were aware of lighting and perspective, and had more colours at their disposal. Next came Impressionism, which depicted the world as it appears after two glasses of absinthe. Expressionism was after the whole bottle. This was followed by conceptual art, which is meaningless until somebody buys it – the more money it fetches, the more profound it is. Lastly, there’s figurative art, which is for homeowners who can’t afford conceptual masterworks. There are four common tropes: an old boat washed up on a beach, a young couple kissing in a garden, one of the Big Five, and Table Mountain.

When you first encounter each work, you’ll want to say something about the boldness and smoothness of the lines, the contrasts in colour, the brightness of the light, whether shapes are stylised or natural, the placement of the figures, and the smooth or coarse texture. Where relevant, describe the symmetry, the figures’ movement and the effect of open spaces. Hopefully, one of your friends will have brought wine, and everything you say will sound intelligent.

It’s important, and often informative, to hear what others have to say on these points. Critical discussion hinges on differences in perception. You’ll need to know what others see to understand their judgements.

Your own judgement will involve how you feel about the artist’s depiction of the subject and the combined effect of all the elements you’ve described. Be as specific as possible, and don’t let others’ opinions sway your convictions.

On your way out, try to get a replica poster of one of the works you liked to put up on your wall at home. This is our own modern version of the cave painting.

Image: Jackie Zhang

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