Appreciating Art: A Guide on Ideas and Expression in Chinese Artwork

How Americans talk about art and how they appreciate art seem to be two different things. 

In 2022, average museum attendance numbers were 38% less than they were before the pandemic. Yet, 97% of Americans think that museums are important educational assets. What could be the issue?

Perhaps some Americans are avoiding museums because they're not getting enough out of them. If these Americans learned how to appreciate art, perhaps they'd visit museums more often. 

Do you want to gain a better appreciation for art? If so, you're in luck! This article will teach you some tricks for appreciating art and use Chinese art as an example. 

Read on! 

Tips for Appreciating Art 

People who don't know how to appreciate art may experience art like how casual wine drinkers may experience wine. These drinkers can enjoy the smell and taste of wines. However, wine connoisseurs can challenge their minds by identifying, say, the location a wine comes from by its taste. 

Art connoisseurs can stimulate their minds by identifying what went into a piece of art. They might think about why an artist chose specific shapes, colors, etc. Those who know a lot about the styles of eras and artists may consider how these influenced the artwork's creator. 

Diving deep into this is far more stimulating than just staring at and describing artwork pieces as ugly or pretty. Want to get more out of your next museum visit? If so, consider the following aspects when looking at forms of artistic expression. 

Color Feeling and Symbolism 

Works of art are highly appreciated when an artist effectively communicates something to his or her audience. One of the primary communication tools of a piece of art is color. By choosing particular colors, an artist can communicate certain symbols, emotions, and more. 

White Clouds and Red Trees 

For example, if an artist uses a lot of bright colors in their work, they can portray feelings of excitement. As an example of this, look at the painting White Clouds and Red Trees by the Ming dynasty painter, Lan Ying. The wide variety of colors in this painting represent the lively energy of nature well. 

Difference Between Cultures 

As far as color symbolism goes, this can vary from culture to culture. White symbolizes purity in the Western world but mourning in the East. To fully appreciate the color symbols an artist tries to portray, you may have to learn about their culture. 

Object Choice and Symbolism 

The particular objects that artists choose to place in a painting or sculpture can also have symbolic meaning. As with color, an art connoisseur might need to dive into a person's native culture to understand the artist's true meaning. 

Symbolism Example 

In many early Chinese carvings, you can find bi (pronounced as "bee") disks. These look like round disks with circular holes in their middles. Many of these carved artifacts also have animals like dragons attached to them. 

According to ancient Chinese texts, these disks were representations of the sun or heaven. The early Chinese used these disks in rituals to communicate with the heavens. However, if an art conoisseur doesn't research this aspect of Chinese culture, the disks will remain disks to them. 

Color and Shape Placement 

Paintings are still images. However, great artists can make audience members experience movement as they take in a piece. The trick is to draw the eyes of observers to certain locations in a painting. 

Colors Attract Gazes 

Color is one tool that artists can use to draw a viewer's eyes. The subject artists want viewers to focus on often has colors that are complementary to those present in the rest of the painting. Oftentimes, focal points are lighter than darker components throughout the rest of the painting. 

Shapes Direct Gazes 

Artists will also arrange their paintings' elements to suggest certain shapes. You may see the arms of people and/or branches of trees can point in certain directions. This can divide paintings into sections and draw a person's eyes toward certain subjects. 

Style and Technique

Look at how artists put down their brushstrokes in a painting or the edges of a sculpture. These lines and shapes can be long or short, smooth or rough, and so on. The choices artists make in this regard are a part of their unique style or technique. 

This can enhance the feelings and symbols that colors portray. Rough brushstrokes may suggest more negative feelings like madness when they're paired with darker tones but liveliness when paired with bright colors. Smooth lines can be calm with neutral colors but sorrowful with dark colors. 

Court Vs Literati Paintings 

As will be explained later, court and literati paintings are two major styles of Chinese paintings. Consider looking at some examples of these paintings. Compare their brushstrokes. 

The court paintings should have more focused and orderly brushstrokes. This was important as these painters were representing an orderly empire.

Literati paintings have wilder brushstrokes. These represent artists' inner emotions. 

Style Influences 

You can also appreciate style and technique by learning where a particular piece came from. Artists often mimic other artists and earlier styles. It can be fascinating to follow styles through generations and see how they changed and evolved.  

Applying These Tips to Chinese Artwork

Art history as a practice originated in Europe. However, you can still apply the methods of this field of study to Eastern art. You just have to keep any cultural differences in mind as you analyze Chinese artwork.  

Chinese Pottery 

It's somewhat difficult to interpret ancient Chinese pottery as the true meanings of some symbols have been lost to time. However, experts have determined that many of these pottery pieces were used for rituals. So many of these pieces have symbols related to these rituals. 

You can also find familiar images in these pieces such as rams and roosters. These may have symbolized abundance and new beginnings back then as they do now. You'll have to analyze some of this art yourself and reach conclusions. 

Later Works 

Later sculptures went through many transformations as the dynasties went on. If you look at how the techniques changed over these eras you can see how different types of pottery influenced each other. Learning about these pieces and their transformations can be highly fascinating. 

Literati Paintings 

Chinese paintings in the ancient world tend to fall into two distinct categories. These are the Literati and Court paintings. If one compares these two painting styles together, one can see how differences in styles, symbols, and more can change how a painting feels. 

What They Were 

The Literati paintings were mostly painted by nobles and scholars as a form of hobby. These painters were amateurs. They focused more on objects' spirit and essence and expressing their emotions. 

Expressive Brushwork 

This approach led to more expressive brushwork. Lines suggest natural shapes like trees and mountains but don't accurately portray them. A mountain can be a simple curve and a tree can be some lines. 

Still, the softer lines in these paintings can portray calmness. The jumbling of many natural images together can portray chaos. 

Court Paintings 

Court paintings usually look neater than Literati paintings. Many portray scenes from the imperial courts. Others portray simple natural scenes. 

An important fact to note is that Court paintings were commissioned by nobles. Artists had to paint what these people preferred. It's understandable for nobles to prefer depictions of order as they benefited from it. 

Accurate Linework 

The lines in court paintings are smoother and more accurate. This linework can show imperial courts in the best light. Emperors were bragging about the success of their empires to people in the future. 


Court painters were also very specific with symbolism. Symbols often had to show the prosperity of an empire. Booming flowers, for instance, were a common symbol of prosperity.

The same was often applied to flowing water. You can also often see animals like birds looking up. This imagery symbolizes that there are greater times ahead. 


It's also important to pay attention to the colors in court paintings. You'll probably see a lot of red and yellow in court scenes. Those colors were very important to Chinese nobles. 

Yellow is a color that represents nobility to the Chinese. Chinese emperors and often only emperors wore yellow. In a way, the ancient Chinese treated yellow similarly to how purple was treated in European cultures. 

Red is a highly important color in China because it represents success and happiness. As mentioned, emperors wanted their court paintings to depict their empire's prosperity. Red was the perfect color to use for this. 

Appreciate Chinese Artwork With Our Collection 

Now you know some steps for appreciating art and how to apply it to Chinese artwork in particular. The next time you visit a Chinese art gallery, you can easily talk about art with the experts there. 

And we have a great recommendation for a Chinese art gallery that you should visit. Consider visiting the Weisbrod Collection in Hong Kong, China. This collection features several early works of Chinese art from the Neolithic Period to the Qing Dynasty. 

Learn more about how you can visit us on this page