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My partner teaches college art classes. Commonly she has students exercise (1) describing the brute surface appearance of a work of art, and then separately, (2) giving an interpretation of what the work "means".

Surprisingly her students have a really hard time focusing on part (1) without slipping into interpretive aspects. In the hope of helping them distinguish the categories, she spends a lot of time working and talking about part (1). But it's a little awkward because neither of us can come up with a concise term-of-art that means that thing.

Example usage: "Please describe this artwork's _______, without giving an interpretation."

(To which a correct answer might be, "This painting is a black square, with a cracked surface, inside a whitish border", while an incorrect answer might be, "The artist is saying that human perceptions and feelings are more important than any concrete objects in the world that may or may not produce them".)

What would be the best word or short phrase for this classification?

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    How about "objective appearance"? Here are some more ideas: Describe what you see, objectively. Describe the shape(s), the color(s), the texture. I'm looking for a dry description. Please do not include anything that alludes to an emotional response to the work. Include several examples showing what would be acceptable and what wouldn't. – aparente001 Jan 30 '20 at 7:43
  • Arts and Crafts.SE has a terminology tag. // Perhaps giving @Sherwood's clinical etic (that which someone – from the planet Zilchcon, say – who'd never seen a painting or similar, or even been to Earth) description to the class would focus them. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 4 '20 at 15:13
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In photo metadata we make a distinction between the Photo Description, and the Photo Caption. So Description would be something like "red voyageur canoe proceeding from upper left to lower right through rapids with chaotic currents. Far shore is red veined grey granite, with dense spruce. Where the caption may be, "Shooting Otter Rapids on the Churchill, June 2008" Caption isn't the same as interpretation.

Similarly I may describe

One way to think about this: How would you describe this image to a computer so that you could find it later? Or how would you describe it to someone who was blind?

E.g.
enter image description here

The site I snitched this from describes it as:

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken up (1838)

"Turner paints the veteran warship, hero of the battle of Trafalgar, as a pale and ghostly mass looming against a rich, panoramic sunset. It has a sense of latent power still not quite eclipsed by the raw mechanical energy of the flaming and smoking steam tug. Here we see Turner's interest in the new as well respect for what is past. This may be an elegy to what is gone, but is also an affirmation of the continuing energy, power and modernity of Victorian England."

(https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/turner-paintings-top-ten-timothy-spall)

But describing it for computer or the blind:

Picture lower left: An early coal fired black tug is pulling a pale large three masted sailboat. The sea is nearly flat. Picture lower right: The sun is a dark orange and grey patch near the horizon nearly obscured behind smoke and cloud. Extreme lower right is a black object in the foreground. Upper half of the image is a patchwork sky of smoke and high overcast.

Style is impressionistic, with soft contrast and little fine detail.


Depending on your class, you may want more use of style descriptors, brushwork, glazes, underpainting.

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I would suggest composition:

  1. (painting, photography) The arrangement and flow of elements in a picture.
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  • In photo metadata we make a distinction between the Photo Description, and the Photo Caption. So Description would be something like "red voyageur canoe proceeding from upper left to lower right through rapids with chaotic currents. Far shore is red veined grey granite, with dense spruce. Where the caption may be, "Shooting Otter Rapids on the Churchill, June 2008" Caption isn't the same as interpretation. – Sherwood Botsford Feb 3 '20 at 1:32
  • Try telling your students to "describe the scene so a computer could recognize it" Make a list of words that cannot be used. E.g. Mood, feeling, commentary – Sherwood Botsford Feb 3 '20 at 1:37
  • @SherwoodBotsford That is not a suggestion to improve my answer, that is a different answer. Feel free to post it as such. – CJ Dennis Feb 3 '20 at 1:38

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