How to Describe a Painting

There are lots of ways to talk about paintings. We can talk about color, texture, the subject matter, the historical context, etc. Let’s learn how to make a description of a painting.

A description of a painting may have the following structure:

  1. Details of the painting (title, artist, materials, size, location)
  2. Description (subject matter and structure)
  3. Technique and colours
  4. Theme, symbols, atmosphere

I. Details of the painting (title, artist, materials, size, location)

The title is generally written in italics.

The painting belongs to a particular genre. It can be:

  • the portrait
  • the landscape (seascape, cityscape)
  • the still life
  • the genre scene
  • the historical/ mythological painting

Genres of Painting

A genre is a particular type or style of art, literature, film, or music that you can recognize because of its special features.

History Painting

A history painting shows a scene from a well-known story. Traditionally, history paintings showed scenes from mythology or religious texts, like the Iliad or the Bible. History paintings are often painted on large canvases and usually depict multiple people.


A portrait is a painting of a person, often of their head and shoulders. Unlike a history painting, the person in a portrait is not participating in a particular story.

Genre Painting

A genre painting shows scenes from everyday life, such as people dancing in a tavern or a woman sewing by the window. A modern genre painting might show a family playing in the sprinkler on a hot summer day.

Genre painting developed particularly in Holland in the seventeenth century. The most typical subjects were scenes of peasant life or drinking in taverns. The modern moral subject is a type of genre painting that was invented by English artist William Hogarth (1697–1764), which satirizes the manners and morals of the period in which he lived.

Landscape / Seascape / Cityscape

A landscape is a painting that shows a view of the countryside. A landscape might show towering mountains or rolling hills. It might show a lake, or a canyon, or a forest.

A seascape is a painting that shows a view of the sea. Some seascapes show a peaceful view of the ocean, and others show high waves and storm clouds overhead.

A cityscape is a painting that shows a view of a city or urban area. A cityscape might show skyscrapers, or city lights reflecting off the wet pavement, or a row of merchants shouting to passers-by.

In all of these, the focus of the painting is the place itself and not any specific event or person.

Still Life

A still life is a painting of arrangements of objects, such as fruits or flowers. Oftentimes, the objects in a still life are symbolic.

The most common painting techniques are oil on canvas, watercolour, pastel on paper, tempera on board or wood panel.

To begin with, this painting is a portrait which belongs to the brush of (… the name of the painter)

This artist lived in the … century and worked in the style known as Classicism, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, Expressionism, Abstract Art.

The painting measures … by … (inches / cm) and it is painted in oil on canvas.

It is housed in … / It hangs in …

II. Subject Matter and Structure

The subject may be religious or it may be a natural scenery (mountains, hills, valleys, fields, woods, sky). If it is a portrait, it can be a family portrait, a self-portrait, a nude. A still life may have as a subject a vase with flowers, some books or some fruit. A historical subject may represent a hero of the past or mythological figures.

The verbs that you may need to describe the subject are:

  • to depict
  • to show
  • to represent
  • to illustrate
  • to portray

Mention the composition/ the space:

The space of the picture is symmetrically/ asymmetrically divided.

Try to describe what you can see in general:

In the centre/middle of the painting we can see a …
In the foreground there is a …
In the background there are …
In the far distance we can make out the outline of a …
On the left/ right stands/ sits…

Give some details

At first glance, it looks strange/ confusing/ depressing/ …
But if you look closely, you can see…
It looks like …
The artist managed to capture the sitter’s impression/ the atmosphere of a…/ the mood of the moment, etc.

Make guesses about the situation:

They might be talking about …
She may have just woken up …
It looks as if …

III. Technique and colours

Talking of technique, you might consider perspective and sfumato (the technique of allowing tones and colors to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines).

Lines may be straight and curving and shapes are geometric, spherical and linear.

Brushstrokes may be broad, loose, fine or blended, while texture can be rough, smooth, glossy, opaque.

Colours can be:

  • warm/ cold colours (warm colours are yellow, orange and red; cold colours are blue, purple and green) 
  • bold colours
  • oppressive colours
  • bright colours
  • deep colours
  • light colours
  • soft and delicate colours
  • pale colours
  • dark colours

The picture is painted in …… colours. These colours contrast very well.

The dominating colours are ….

The colours contrast with each other.

IV. Interpretation: Theme, Symbols, Atmosphere

The theme of a painting may be natural / urban world, life and death, myth or a historical event.

The verbs you may need to describe symbols are:

  • to symbolise
  • to be a symbol of
  • to stand for
  • to represent

Describe the atmosphere. Give your opinion about the painting. Use adjectives:

  • lifelike (true to life)
  • dreamlike (work of imagination)
  • confusing
  • serene
  • peaceful
  • gloomy
  • sad
  • violent
  • colourful
  • romantic
  • lyrical
  • powerful
  • outstanding
  • heart-breaking
  • impressive

To my mind, it is a … picture, which shows (….say what you see)

Finally, give your impression:

  • Well, I feel that it’s difficult for me to put into words what I feel looking at the painting.
  • To my mind, it is a masterpiece that could stand the test of time.
  • Well, it seems to me that I couldn’t put into words the impression made on me by this painting.
  • I feel extremely impressed by this painting.
  • It is brilliant, amazing. It is a real masterpiece by (….. the painter).

Make a description of a painting to have practice in speaking.


Learn English Vocabulary for 5 Genres of Paintings (with Quiz!)