How to Create Meaning in Art: Techniques & Examples

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  • 0:04 Artistic Meaning Background
  • 0:55 Shapes
  • 2:26 Technique and Balance
  • 4:11 Imbalance & Contrast
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we tackle the difficult task of creating meaning in art. By looking at three powerful compositions, each created in different time periods and places, we'll highlight the techniques used to communicate with audiences.

Artistic Meaning Background

There's an ongoing conversation whether this or that composition is actually art or just a pretty decoration. There's an even deeper debate about what determines what is and isn't art in the first place. Arguably, the most fundamental way to separate the two is that art makes you think, feel, and engage with an image in a thoughtful or emotional way, while decoration just fits a particular style and is usually nice to look at, but not pay too much attention to. In no way does this dismiss the value of decorative pieces or design, but in the realm of meaning, a work of art speaks to us through layered and complex communication.

Let's peel back these layers and look at some techniques used in works of art. In doing so, we'll see how these techniques play a subtle and supporting role, helping to clarify a message and create meaning.


Shapes are a wonderful example of communication tools. Squares and rectangles can provide a sense of stability and balance. Circles can be soft, feminine, eternal, or complete. Finally, triangles can change meaning based on their direction, but they often represent action and sometimes danger. These are geometric shapes determined by regularity and mathematical principles.

On the other hand, we have organic shapes, or shapes that don't adhere to a formulaic pattern and look like what we find in nature. Geometric shapes engage us logically, communicating in a bold and direct sense, while organic shapes are softer and relaxed; they communicate emotionally.

Let's take a look at shape in The Gulf Stream, a painting by Winslow Homer. In this image, we see a lot of triangles in the choppy waves, the jagged ends of the broken mast, and the prow of the boat. The most prominent triangles, however, are the fins of the sharks along with their open mouths and triangular heads. You can sense danger in the sharp angles, which supports the danger of the sea, the sharks, and the inability to navigate.

The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer - 1899

However, if you look at the face of the man on the boat, he looks relaxed. He's staring off to the side, not down at the sharks or even at the broken mast. We see a quiet confidence and determination in his ability to lean back on the deck of a damaged boat in shark-infested, choppy water. The dangerous triangles contrast greatly with the organic shapes in the fluffy clouds found in the distance.

Technique and Balance

Now let's take a look at A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, which is a painting by Georges Seurat. The first thing we might feel is an overall sense of control, yet it's got a relaxed restraint. In part, this is created by a combination of the subject matter and the technique. Seurat created this entire painting through the technique of pointillism, creating a larger image from tiny dots of pigment. Basically, he used pixels before digital images were invented.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat - 1884

The sense of control pervades the image because his technique required intense concentration and planning to achieve the desired composition. This is even more impressive when you realize his composition is nearly seven feet tall and just over ten feet long.

Let's go back to A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and take a look at how Seurat used balance, which is the principle of art in which the objects are arranged in a way that each side of a composition will command the same attention. This painting uses an asymmetrical balance, positioning a large figure on the right and a number of smaller figures on the left. Seurat uses a greater number of objects with less visual weight to balance something of greater visual weight. This helps to draw the eye from the top of the hill down to the water's edge as if we're following the slope.

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