How to “Understand” Art

November 25th, 2013

You know, we talk about comics here, but I rarely talk about “Art.” This is because: 1) Interpretation of Art is absolutely personal and; 2) The art in a comic is less important to me than the story and/or where story and art intersect. This is why I separate out the Art and Story categories for my Ratings, because the one does not guarantee (or even compliment) the other in manga.

Because I am not naturally visual, I’ve relied on a lot of other people to tell me what I was seeing…and why I should care. Today on Quora, I had a chance to share my process in learning to “get” art.

What is the point of this picture by Carlos D. Donjuan? I understand that it must have something to it because a lot of people seem to like it. I just don’t “get” it. Is there a message? Does it appeal to people emotionally?


Here is my answer:

Here’s the thing about Art. Not everyone needs to resonate with every artistic endeavor.

For instance, here is a very famous work of Art that millions of people come to see from all over the world. They stand there and sigh and cry and are all sorts of emotionally moved by it:

I don’t “get” it at all. The women have male bodies with breasts. It’s allegory, which I think should not work as a guiding model  for a life after 8 years old or so. People love this painting.

There all different ways a person can enjoy Art. It might speak to you personally on an emotional level. You can think it’s pretty. It can evoke a memory. You may hate it. You may admire the technique, the draftsmanship, the skill…and still not like the piece.

Art is largely subjective. The piece you used as an example means nothing to me yet. Neither did Picasso’s Guernica, until I had a chance to learn about it and really grasp what he was doing with it. I can’ say I “like” it, but I can appreciate it.

I don’t know Donjuan’s art, but I have always liked graffiti and collage as media, so I’m kindly disposed to the piece from the outset. The more I look at it, the more I like his take on portraiture. So, yes, in the time it has taken me to write this, I’ve come to a place where I “get” this piece. Here’s what he’s done. He’s taken a picture of a mother and son and…pets…maybe…

…and rendered it in collage. Both mother and son look happy, even though they have no faces. They look comfortable with each other and their environment – an environment that is…water? They appear to be chest deep in water. 

And oh, look, there is a halo around the child’s head. This is not a “mother and son” this is a Madonna and Child picture. The “pets” are the Evangelists, I’ll venture. And the water is meant to evoke the Baptism, at a guess. 

So, yes…I “get” this painting now. And I don’t dislike it, although I’m not moved by the theme.


What does that have to do with manga, you ask? It has everything to do with “understanding” what you see and what you read here. Right now, I’m reading Sakura Trick, Volume 1 (桜トリック), in preparation for the upcoming anime.

Here is the manga art:


What can you tell about the series from the picture? Well, right away, we can see it is a school-life romance, so we can guess there will be nothing ground-breakingly new here. But, we can also see that the relationship is consensual…and as this is the first page of the book, we have to presume that the relationship is established either before the book starts or early on. Why do I say that? Because if the relationship is the climax of the story, the first page gives it away.

If we look at the publisher of the manga, we can see that is published by KR Comics. We then know it is very likely a gag comic strip, because that is what they specialize in.

When we look at the anime art, we can see that, if anything, the character designs have been simplified.


We are not yet given any backgrounds, but it seems likely, as it is a gag series that focuses on schoolgirls and the art is simple, rather than realistic, that we’re looking at something rather like Yuri Yuri than, say, Strawberry Panic.  If you said to yourself just now, “Yeah, I knew that,” you already understand some of the conventions and tropes of manga art.

(As an aside, based on all this, I am looking for someone else to consider reviewing the anime for me, since I can tell that it probably will not be my cup of tea. ^_^)

What does it mean when a manga page has a black border and background around the panels? Do you instantly realize that this is a visual indicator of a “flashback?” Then you “understand” this visual cue, probably without realizing it. Certain kinds of motion and speed indicators are almost universal, as well, – think of the visual convention for “scuffle” – a cloud with random body parts and items protruding at random angle and motion lines.

Understanding art is about context. It is up to the artist to initially supply the context or the reader may just never have any idea what is going on. Genre checklists shortcut that process. Evil eyebrows and big-ass swords are indicators of personality and motivation…and skills.

If you pick all this up without explanation, that’s great, but if you’re out there wondering what the heck everyone sees in a particular manga, you’re not alone.

When you next look at at a picture or series that makes no sense to you, you can of course, just slide past it and give it no more of your time – or, you can slow down and see if you can “understand” it.  ^_^

If you have any questions about manga visual conventions and tropes – or you just want to wax poetic or complain about a visual indicator you like or love, hit us up in the comments!

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6 Responses

  1. Grisznak says:

    Being deeply conservative when it comes to an art, I don’t get modern art at all. My fav painters are Caspar David Friedrich, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. I admire how skilled they were, how big imagination and talent they had. I like going to galleries and museums. But when I see “modern art blah blah blah” I know this is something I should rather avoid.
    Curently in Poland we have scandal, because some “modern artist” borrowed medieval crucifix from museum and made a movie where he tries to make love (literally) with Jesus nailed to this cross. You can imagine what fury this “art” unleashed. And that’s why I don’t get modern art…
    For me art is something to be admired. And comics could be work of art as well, why not? Comics graphics are artists, after all, worst or better, but they are. And there many comics, European, American or Asian that are impressive. I have no problems with praising pictures or Moebius, Nihei or Frank Miller – they’re all artists.

  2. The reaction he engendered, “fury,” is still a form of engagement with his Art. If you feel anything at all about it, you do “get” it. You just don’t “like” it.

    This is the lesson I have been trying to explain here for a decade:

    – Just because we like a thing doesn’t make it good.

    – Just because we dislike a thing, doesn’t make it bad.

    – Just because something is bad, doesn’t mean we can’t like it.

    That artist is using moe style of Fine Art – he reached for the simplest, least complicated response from an audience prone to that reaction. It’s still Art, but of the lowest common denominator. (In the same way moe art checklists characters: Red-head – check; twin-tail – check; tsundere – check. Okay, fans of that will like her now.) It relies on simple reactions by a simple audience.

  3. Michael says:


    Have you read Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics?” It’s an entire book devoted to the same sort of explication of visual conventions in comics that you’ve written in this post. I recommend it highly.

    I’d also recommend McCloud’s “Zot!” comic, though it has no Yuri and is probably older than many of your readers.

  4. mudakun says:

    I’m not a painter, but I have some familiarity with some of the minor trends and controversies surrounding recent painting practice. As in manga, there are tropes and devices that are well used, recycled and over-done. To continue your analysis of the work as a “madonna and child” you would only have to look at a stack of 30yr old back issues of Flash Art to see the rise of the “witch/peasant/pagan/mob persecution/ carnival mask motif in European, then in some Central American contemporary portraiture. This serves as a “Duh” secularism in contrast to the sacred trope of the M&C. The unfinished hand is another “device”, an eyecatcher. A deeper analysis of the work would end somewhere like your recent review of Koi ha Hisokani Minorumono… In other words, does what it says it will do, by the numbers. Needs a gold leaf frame to crank it to 11. The most interesting thing about it are the foreground floating little beasties, and the suggestion of mixing in a baptism motif, though again secularized.

    Google reports the painter is from around Texas, currently abroad in Milan and that the meta-theme is portraits of immigrants – possibly illegal persecuted immigrants, so that the tie to the “burn the witch” mask and the water together could be: she is crossing a river, escaping poverty and ready to suffer vilification for it – but this is not apparent on first reading.

    A good contemporary work, but nothing to wild and declare the next big thing over.. The painting mag it is in is conservative, materials & techniques centered, not exactly a hotbed of cutting edge crit theory. Uncharitable folks would call it a hangout for painting instructors, mid-level collectors and Sunday painters. If you care to see what is breaking the rules, grab recent back issues of Flash Art (borrow, don’t buy, its more a trade mag and the ads are thick) and be prepared to modify Sturgeon’s Law to “%99 of everything just don’t work for me”, but the %1 is mighty interesting…

    But I go on… Point is that taking apart this stuff is not really that esoteric an exercise in the age of Google, if you care to “get into it”. Much like manga…

    Thanks again for your great reviews!

    • Point is that taking apart this stuff is not really that esoteric an exercise in the age of Google, if you care to “get into it”. Much like manga…

      Exactly! Just saying “I don’t get it” is really saying, “I don’t have an immediate engagement, or I just don’t like it”. But take a moment or two to understand it and even if you don’t like it, you can articulate that. I don’t “like” Guernica, but I am blown away by it’s execution because I know what Picasso was doing with it.

      Thanks for weighing in on this!

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