Interpretive Frameworks

Consider….your view on art

This is a ‘quiz’ you can give to your students before introducing the idea of different Interpretive Frameworks. There are no right answers of course- the purpose of the quiz is actually to reveal how often value judgements are based on popular opinion and assumptions that we may not even recognize.

What is your favorite painting?

• Who is your favorite artist?

• Who is the greatest artist?

• Name the greatest painting or sculpture ever made.

• Is some art better than others?

• What is the most valuable work of art in the world?

• Can anything be art, who decides?

print Art and Values QUIZ

What are the standards by which we judge art and how can we justify them?

Increase Appreciation

It is possible to learn to apply different aesthetic or interpretive stances and develop different frames of reference for viewing and appreciating art. The more a person is able to understand and apply these perspectives the richer the experience she/he might have. These frameworks are a way of expanding understanding, appreciation and encouraging open mindedness towards art!
Applying interpretive frameworks is particularly useful when looking at contemporary art with students, when the framework is not as accessible. It is also a chance to integrate some art history into your teaching with an informal and non-chronological approach!

Interpretive frameworks are essentially different lenses or view points through which to view art.



Vermeer Woman holding a balance.Imitationalism is essentially the same as Realism or Naturalism. To imitate the appearance of nature, skill and craft is required. Imitationalism is by far the most accessible and easily understood frame of reference for looking at and evaluating art work.

How often do your students think the most realistic work is the best work? The skill involved in imitating nature is very easy to appreciate. Often times however, it is used as the ONLY framework and can lead to being dismissive of work that does not conform to this point of view.
For this framework let’s look at examples by two artists from very different historical contexts, Johannes Vermeer and Chuck Close.

Vermeer, a Dutch master from the 1600s, built his paintings from layers of glazing with a particular attention to the effects of light. Woman Holding a Balance embodies a spiritual principle that is often found in Vermeer's work: the need to lead a balanced life. He may have experimented with a camera obscura to achieve optical effects.

Chuck Close self portraitDrawing or Photograph? Close’s drawings do appear to be photographs at first glance. Almost all of his work is based on the use of a grid. Some students get very excited about this kind of handmade “digital” look and the heightened realism. You can discuss how the KNOWLEDGE of the medium (pencil) and process (drawing) influence our response to the image.


The Formal Interpretive Framework is the most fundamental framework used in interpreting art. This framework focuses on the visual qualities of the work: COLOUR / LINE / TEXTURE TONE / SHAPE / FORM and COMPOSITION.

The framework of formal interpretation is used to analyse how an artwork’s formal elements contribute to its meanings and messages.
Meaning is derived from how the art work ‘looks' or how it has been 'put together' as distinct from deriving meaning from other factors such as cultural or historical context. It involves terms that describe the visual appearance of the artwork.

Piet Mondrian, Background info

Piet Mondrian was a Dutch painter, part of the De Stijl art movement. Mondrian's paintings exhibit a complexity that belie their apparent simplicity. The non-representational paintings for which he is famous, are actually the result of a stylistic evolution that occurred over the course of nearly thirty years, and beyond. Talk about in depth pursuit of a single concept!
In a painting like this, the obvious choice is the Formalist Interpretive framework, there is no narrative content, no figurative associations; it is the FORMAL qualities of line, color, balance, and proportion that we respond to.

Of course most art can be looked at using the formalist framework, because most visual art is based on visual principles. A good exercise to do with students is to analyse ANY work of art, including their own, using this formalist approach. Try these pages

Painting Visual Analysis

Easy Visual Analysis

Compare and Contrast

Emotionalism or Expressionism

Ernst Ludwig KirchnerThe intensity of expression and the emotional content of the artwork are more important than a formal rendering or likeness. Emotionalism is a framework that can be applied to any artwork that privileges expression over representation; it is also a way of appreciating many forms of outsider art.

Expressionism can be an interesting area of discussion for other TOK questions such as “ To what extent is the artists intention relevant to the viewer?” and “What are the roles of emotion and reason in the arts?”


Conceptualism is a type of art in which the artist's idea, or concept, of a work of art and of the means of executing that idea have primary importance while the artwork itself, which may or may not be produced, is regarded as secondary.
Conceptual art was intended to convey a concept to the viewer, rejecting the importance of the creator or a talent in the traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture. Works were strongly based on text, which was used as much as if not more often than imagery. Conceptual art also typically incorporates photographs, instructions, maps, and videos. The movement challenged the importance of art traditions and discredited the significance of the materials and finished product. Conceptual works were meant to be proactive questioning of the nature of art.
This is very clear in John Baldessari’s piece from 1971 “I will not make any more boring art”

There are many other Interpretive Frameworks, come up with some of your own…. and there can be multiple frameworks for any one work

• Gender interpretive framework
• Cultural interpretive framework
• Narrative interpretive framework
• Psychoanalytic interpretive framework
• Materials and processes interpretive framework

Interpretive Frameworks Activity

A great activity to do with a combined TOK/Art class, it's very participative and requires no prior knowledge of art history.

Level: medium

Timeframe: one lesson

Interpretive frameworks slideshow

20 screens

Present the 4 principle frameworks first to the whole class using the slideshow above. Divide students into small groups, ask them to discuss the subsequent images in their groups first using Interpretive Frameworks student activity the same as the slideshow minus the notes, then view the rest of the slides as a whole class, each group offering a possible framework for the works shown.

When you are finished, return to the quiz at the top and RE consider your view on art!!

Teaching Tips

Remember there can be more than one interpretive framework for any work and encourage students to come up with frameworks other than the ones discussed. Allow plenty of time for the small groups, and when the class looks at the slides all together invite each group to share their findings. This will result in a lively, productive, critical discussion.

Each slide contains teacher notes to support discussion. If you refrain from giving out this information beforehand then students can witness how access to a bit of KNOWLEDGE about a work of art changes the viewers understanding and interpretation! Feel free to modify this teaching idea to use whatever artists you want to look at with your students.

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