How to Identify a Painting. Learning more about a piece of famous art is easy, but identifying an unknown or obscure painting can be kind of tricky. There are so many paintings in existence that the odds of finding information about a specific image can feel insurmountable. Luckily, you can dramatically narrow down your search by assessing the composition, subject matter, and style. Start by using an image recognition app and reverse image search. Museums and art historians are in a perpetual effort to upload and catalogue paintings and artists online, so it may be easier than you think to find the information you’re looking for!
If you’re struggling to remember an artist’s name or you want additional information on a particular painting, download an image recognition app designed specifically for art. There are several apps for both Android and iPhone that allow you to snap a photo of a painting to search through museum catalogues, university databases, and art history texts. This is the easiest way to find a specific painting.
If you’re looking at a painting on your computer or phone, run a reverse image search. Copy and paste the image’s URL into the search engine. Run the search to pull up other websites displaying the painting. This will give you access to a variety of websites that will tell you everything you need to know about the painting
Tip: You can try taking a photo of a painting and uploading the image to the search engine, but you’re less likely to find accurate results. These search engines aren’t great at taking photos and finding digital versions of the image, but it may work!
Look in the corners of the painting to see if there is a signature or monogram. If the name is easy to read, simply search the artist’s name up online to find the painting. If it’s harder to read, look carefully to see if you can break down the letters and read them. This will let you narrow down the search and figure out who the artist is, which can make it easier to find your specific painting.
Email or visit a museum curator, art history professor, or gallery owner to ask if they can take a look at the image. An expert in the field of art will be able to offer insights about the period, style, and give you a better sense for where to look. They may even know who the artist is as soon as they take a look at it.
Contemporary painters may paint people or objects from the past, but they can’t time travel! If there’s a train, company logo, digital clock, or some other time-specific component of the painting, this is a great way to set a baseline for your search. You can get a good overall sense for when a painting may have been made simply by asking yourself when an artist would have painted their subject.
There are various artistic movements throughout history that share similar qualities. Determining the movement associated with an image is a great way to quickly narrow down your search since historians group artists from the same movement together.
Neoclassical – It may be neoclassical if the light looks artificial and you’re looking at a painting of a large group of aristocrats, a general, a raging battle, or a dramatic religious scene. The image was likely painted between 1750-1850.
Expressionism and Impressionism – These paintings tend to have expressive brush strokes colors that aren’t exactly accurate. The image may be “messy” but you should still be able to figure out what you’re looking at. These styles were popular between 1860-1920.
Realism – If the painting looks kind of like a photo (or exactly like a photo) and nobody in the image is dressed up or posing for the painting, it was probably made after 1840.
Abstract and Experimental – For these movements, you’ll probably have no idea what’s going on in the painting. These paintings rarely depict anything you can immediately identify and are only found after 1930.
Get as close as you possibly can to the image. If the color looks flat and the darker colors don’t reflect light, it’s probably oil paint. If the color is reflective, shiny, and looks kind of plastic, it is likely acrylic paint. Acrylic paint wasn’t used in art until 1940, so you have a much smaller period to search through.
If the canvas is stapled into the frame uniformly, it is unlikely to have been made before 1900, which is when canvases were first mass produced. You can also assume the painting is relatively newer if it’s is on paper and there’s no tearing, damage, or general wear and tear. Paper is relatively fragile, and it’s unlikely that a fresh piece of paper is particularly old.
If you know you’re looking for art from a specific time period or movement, go online and search through galleries and websites related to this type of art. Look for paintings that are similar in style, color, and composition. You can also go through museum databases and encyclopedias to find your image to do this as well. With enough luck, you’ll find the artist!
If you really can’t find anything about an image in your possession using traditional search methods, flip the canvas over and look at the back. If the image is a print or reproduction, it may be listed on the back. If the painting is a family heirloom or was bought at a thrift shop, there may be a handwritten note describing where the painting is from.
Inspect the frame on the back and look for an imprint, or label. Frame manufacturers often print a company name on the back. If there is a name, contact the manufacturer to learn more about the frame itself. This can drastically narrow down the region and time period where a painting was produced.
Variaton: If the paintings appear particularly old, contact a museum curator or art historian instead. Older paintings tend to be more valuable from a historical perspective.
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