Looking at Paintings:

Descent From the Cross

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Climbing Into a Painting

Kids love art. But viewing paintings with small children can be a challenge, so let me help by sharing a few secrets of looking into the mind of the artist. Painters put tremendous thought into what they do. Understanding their “tricks” will help you make paintings come to life for your child. I’ll use a great painting by Rembrandt called “Descent From the Cross”. (See a larger version of the painting.)

Made ya look! Every artist exerts mind control over you, the viewer. He or she wants to make you look one place first (excluding abstract art). It’s amazingly sneaky; you don’t even know that it’s happening. Artists call it the painting’s focal point.

Here are some ways your attention gets focused:

1. Contrast. This is using light and dark. Notice in this painting that there are three light areas, each a little less prominent. First you see the cross, then Mary fainting on the right, then the people in the lower left.

2. Color. A bright spot of color can grab the eye. Or putting colors together that clash. Since this painting is so subdued, there isn’t much striking color.

3. Direction lines. Most painters construct in their paintings objects that sweep your attention up to the focal point. Here, Rembrandt uses angles. Do you see the triangle of the ladders against the cross that carry your eye upward? And how the three areas of color make the points of a different triangle?

It’s in the little things. Kids love to find details in pictures. This painting has a visual feast of expression. Faces are compassionate, anguished and determined. As you find details, ask your children to find them, too. It’s like “I Spy” in a painting.

Feelings. Ask your children what the painting makes them feel. Explore their reaction to the painting. Remember, the artist is always looking for a response. It may, like in this case, be a clear impact: we’re to see the sorrow and wonder of Jesus’ death. Other paintings might provoke a range of emotions.

Tonight, gather your kids around you and look at a book of paintings. You’ll find not only the pleasure of beauty, but also the richness of the dialogue that follows.

Now, I’ll show you how to bring a story out of a painting.

Text © 2005 Bruce Van Patter
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