Connecting an audience to an artwork: How can artists evoke emotion in their work?

Many people think of a painting as an abstract concept or an idea on a canvas, and many even think that paintings do not contribute to human lives at all. Art is the silent language; you don’t say anything, but instead you stare, experience, and learn. One of the most common types of painting is figurative painting: where the artist reimagines themself in their work. It’s like the selfie of today’s world. Strangely enough, non-biographical paintings can keep the audience engaged once they understand the story or the reason behind the painting. Once they understand, they can start empathizing with the story and each artist uses different colors and shapes to convey the right message.

When you see a painting, and you understand the story behind it, you are able to feel the artist’s emotions and thought process as you understand where the idea is rooted. But if you just look at it with no previous knowledge: without expectation or presumption, you might feel differently about the piece. The colours might be extremely enticing when you look at the painting, and it may keep you engaged, but your mind does not “travel” to a different time or empathise with the painter. Meaning, when you comprehend the story behind the painting, you would be able to let your thoughts and imagination travel to another place.

We understand how biographical work gives us art experiences related to empathy. Biographical paintings, whether figurative but non-bio or abstract and non-figurative, do this when you first observe the paintings and see pay attention to the colors and the story behind the painting.

I’m going to look at both a mythic painting and an abstract painting, and compare how they each achieve something similar to what biographical art can do.

Biographical paintings

Biographical paintings are direct with their emotions. If you look at the painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (Johannes Vermeer), you can see her facial expression and maybe try to understand why she is looking at you in a specific way. You would probably guess that she is not sad nor happy, and possibly show some sympathy because she is a human figure. Similarly, “Sad Clown” by Keith English lets you sympathise with the subject because you are able to see their facial expression. The artist chooses dark colours, bringing feelings of misery and melancholy, which can in turn provoke you to reflect on very low moments in your own life. The colours the artist chooses are intentional so that they can convey the story through different shades and tones, which builds upon the relationship between the painting and the artist.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – a mythic painting

Pieter Bruegel, an influential Dutch artist of the sixteenth century, is well known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. One of his most interesting paintings is “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”, which as described by John Sutherland, is “a parable on human aspiration” (British Library).

Pieter is representing human character despite the mythology of the piece, allowing the viewer to travel and connect to the artist in some way. When you look at the painting and you understand the story, your mind would automatically still wonder why the artist did that and somehow you can feel like you are living in it. This type of painting makes you rethink your body, mind, and time, and how vulnerable we are as humans.

The 24 Squares – an abstract painting

In this painting, there are 24 squares, and these squares depict the 24 most important people in Nask’s life. Each person chose a square, which enabled her to then understand why they chose that one.

When I looked at Nask’s painting for the first time without understanding the backstory, the colours enticed me at once. And since there was no obvious thought process behind the piece, I grew curious to ask about the meaning behind the painting. However, when she then told me the story of her parents and the reason why she created the piece, my mind started immediately wondering about her experience, and I could relate to what she was feeling.

How do these two paintings connect?

The details and appeals share a common experience. Even though both of these paintings are abstract and not real, they both share an experience of suffrage and pain in addition to the details that give the story some flavour; like attention and pain.

There are small details you won’t notice for the first time. For example, you won’t notice Icarus for the first time; you have to contemplate and then notice him. Pieter’s painting reminded me of the harsh life many people live in the world, and the pain that many of us live and no one pays attention to.

Nask’s painting reminded me of the people I trust the most in my life and how society’s past influences the present and the future. Paintings from this society teach us how to form bonds between each other, trust each other, and show vulnerability.

In both of these paintings, the artist unconsciously makes you travel and imagine the situation of being alone, melancholic, and vulnerable. In addition, Nask’s story reminded me of the human bonds and personal connections I have in my own life. It made me realise how I might take people for granted, and how uncertain life can be.

What makes a bad painting?

In my opinion, good non-figurative paintings are the ones that keep you engaged and can make you travel to different places and you still standstill. The artist makes the viewer experience what they have experienced.

Bad paintings are the ones that give you only a solo experience. Modern paintings are very famous for that! For example, I’m not making any more boring art. This painting does not make you travel through time and empathise. It’s a solo experience, which makes it very boring to look at even though the painting “demonstrate his thinking at the time and his developing interest in Conceptual art”. Even though the artist chooses specific colours, there isn’t any empathy; it’s as if the artist is in a white room alone and drawing by her/him self instead of telling the story to others, so they can empathise.

What makes it boring is that the colors are not engaging, the font is italicised and it is not highly complex nor advanced. I think humans nowadays should value the meaning and the story behind the painting.

Even though conceptual art rejects the standards of “personal” art, I judge art by its ability to make a personal connection, and conceptual art fails at showing stories of humans. Whatever good conceptual art achieves on its own terms isn’t so valuable and does not outweigh the fact of losing its resonance with people.


The artist chooses different colours based on the story they want to tell. For example, if they want to tell a happy story, they’ll use bright colours. For instance, Nask chose matt colors with dark shades. Artist’s also choose angles to show another perspective of their stories. For example, if we compare Nask’s painting with the Landscape and the Fall of Icarus, angles are chosen differently.

What makes a good painting?

Good artists know how to convey these ideas by understanding the message behind it and the details it has.

There are three important elements for a high standard non-fiction painting that depicts the story of the artist:

1.  Discreet details

2.  Layers of colour

3.  Angles

Personally, when I looked at Nask and Pieter paintings, they reminded me of the reality I’m living in now. It made me think of how connected the world is and how connected our experiences are.

Nask’s painting reminded me of how important people are in my life and how my parents’ past does influence me today. Both of them made me think of life as a conundrum; it might be comprehensible, but not easy to solve.

Non-fiction paintings make you travel through time. They can be the past you’ve never lived, the reflection you’ve never experienced, or the perspective you’ve never seen

We might live in a world of illusion, we might be hallucinating, which indeed we are all the time, but through paintings and art, we have the chance to exist in someone else’s world. These paintings are the reality many of us live and many of us can’t experience.

Art can make you silent because you run out of words to describe it. Nask’s parent’s experience was traumatising and affected her art. She chose only 24, neither more nor less, to show how she feels about her parents. Pieter showed a different angle of pain and neglect. These artists make you travel through time and experience feelings you would not experience otherwise.

Abstract paintings can achieve, on the surface, some of the standards of biographical art by telling you the story about something with a much deeper meaning. But “good art”, in my opinion, is more than just storytelling. It’s the way a story is conveyed, using angles, colour, details and imagery, to make a story come to life and make you feel like you’re the one living it.

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