First of all, you must choose which piece of art you wish to write about. This particular article discusses paintings, as they are the most common subject of ekphrastic poetry. The genre is not limited to paintings, however, and stretches to encompass poetry of sculpture, photography, music, dance, and more.
Step One: Title
Think about the title of the piece. What does it tell you? Is it a descriptive title, such as, Still Life with Beer Mug and Fruit (Van Gogh) Maybe it names the location, or subject of the painting (Bedroom in Arles [Van Gogh] or Girl with a Pearl Earring [Johannes Vermeer]). Some paintings have titles that embrace metaphors or symbolism within the painting. Many of Salvador Dali's paintings are well-known for their strange and thought-provoking titles (The Persistence of Memory, Nostalgia of the Cannibal, The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table). Now think about your title. You can adopt the same name, or you can add to it. Much of this depends on your poem itself. If you wrote about the famous nighttime painting of Van Gogh, for example, you could title your poem “Thoughts on Van Gogh's Starry Night" or “An Ode to Starry Night by Van Gogh"
Step Two: Subject
Now, consider what the painting is about. Who or what is the subject of the poem? Describe him/her/it. If the painting features a person, tell what they are doing. Paintings, like photographs, are slices of one moment, a single event in time. Create a story of what happened before the moment in the painting, and what you think might happen after. Don't neglect the background- is there a crowd gathered? Are they angry or joyous? Might there be someone hidden behind objects in the scenery? Study the subject's face. Write about the emotions that you sense there. Write what you think that person would say if s/he could speak. Don't be afraid to give animals voices too, or even objects! Anthropomorphizing (giving human emotions to non-human objects) can be quite effective in poetry. What would Van Gogh's sunflowers say, or think about? What would the dialogue of the dogs around the poker table sound like?
Step Three: Color
Color is a major part of the expression of a painting (the same as with a photograph, or the pitch of notes in music). Study the colors of the painting- which are predominant, which jump out at you, which don't appear. Are objects colored the way you'd expect? You can describe the colors not only with adjectives, but with emotions, metaphors, and similes. The color yellow, for example, could be described as “warm? “glowing? “cheerful? “joyful? “dandelion? “daffodil? “sun-like? not to mention all of its shades- pale yellow, gold, goldenrod, neon, etc. Just as the viewer sees and feels the color in the painting, use your words to make them see and feel the color in your poem.
Step Four: Artistic Movement
Consider which artistic movement created this piece of art, because this can affect the form your poem takes. Is it a traditional painting, or a Post Modernist painting? A poem describing an Impressionist painting should embody the same themes and features as its counterpart- highly sensory, often related to the outdoors, etc. Your poem about Claude Monet's colorful lilies should differ in form from your poem on Jackson Pollack's wildly abstract pieces. This also ties into the emotion of the piece. For a steady, sedate painting, the strict format of a sonnet might be best, whereas a poem describing an abstract work of art could be more free verse- as wild as the painting.
Step Five: The Reason
Lastly, it will serve your poem well to think about the why of the painting. Why did the painter create it? Why did s/he choose blue flowers rather than red? Why paint two people dancing on the beach rather than in a golden ball room? Explore these questions in your poem. Consider what a different piece of art it would be if these changes had been made. You can present them in a positive or negative light (ex: the dancers would appear more constrained in a ball room, or perhaps a ball room would represent a more stable relationship between the two rather than the gusty oceanside). Another interesting angle might be to describe the process of the creation of the painting. Did the painter use a model, suspecting or unsuspecting? A myth? A memory? Did s/he smile while painting this part of the canvas, or weep while painting that part? Describe how the painter held the brush, how s/he applied the paint. Make the experience physical for the reader.
Linked to the painter's why is your, the poet's, why. Why did you choose this painting? What about it grabbed you, moved you enough to set aside time to write about it? What about your experience with the painting do you wish to share with others? Write about you and the painting personally, and that will guarantee not only the uniqueness of your poem, but the recognition of the reader of your true emotion behind the words.