Art Appreciation 101

Art Appreciation 101: How to Look


The first step in turning yourself into a bona-fide art connoisseur is learning how to look. While this might sound obvious, actively looking at what’s in front of you isn’t always easy. Fortunately, close looking is easy to learn and doesn’t require any specialized knowledge.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when looking at works of art.

Stop, but then move around. If you really want to experience a work, you have to take at least enough time to stop in front of it. Start at a comfortable viewing distance (depending on the space and traffic), but feel free to move around as necessary. Some works are meant to be viewed closer than others, but any work is best appreciated when seen from a multiple vantage points. Many three-dimensional artworks are meant to be viewed in the round, so walk around them completely if the display allows for it.

Guido Reni, "The Immaculate Conception"
This painting is over 8′ high and 6′ wide. What do you think is its optimal viewing point? “The Immaculate Conception” by Guido Reni, 1627. Metropolitan Museum of Art (Creative Commons Zero (CC0)

Check out what catches your eye and go from there. One area, color, or aspect will probably catch your attention immediately. This is completely fine and normal. Take your time to enjoy that section first, but don’t ignore the rest of the image. Good compositions are designed to direct your eyes through all the important points, so just take your time and let your focus travel naturally. Stop and enjoy new points of interest as you come across them.

View of La Crescenza by Claude Lorrain
Let your eyes naturally travel from the figures in the foreground to the architecture in the background. What path does the painting suggest you take? “View of La Crescenza” by Claude Lorrain, 1648-50. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons Zero (CC0)

Scan. If you really want to make sure you’ve seen everything a busy composition has to offer, briefly scan the whole image. It’s entirely possible that some areas hold nothing interesting, but you won’t know that if you don’t look everywhere.

"July Fourteenth, Rue Daunou, 1910" by Childe Hassam
There’s a lot going on in this painting, and you won’t get to see all of it without scanning through the entire image. How many flags can you find, and how many different places are represented? July Fourteenth, Rue Daunou, 1910″ by Childe Hassam, 1910.

Start with the wide view, then zoom in on the details. After taking in the work as a whole, shift your focus to interesting little details you’ve noticed during your scan. I call this “hunting for Easter eggs”, since it can turn up the most unexpected and delightful stuff.

"Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family" by Eastman Johnson
See the adorable little dog in this painting? Would you have found him without looking closely? “Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family” by Eastman Johnson, 1864. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons Zero (CC0)

Look for signs of the artist at work. One of the most compelling details in any artwork is how the artist applies the paint, draws the lines, carves the stone, etc. Paying attention to individual marks, brushstrokes, or lines can give a very different feeling from the work as a whole. It’s also very diminished in photographic reproductions, which is why it’s so much nicer to look in real life.

"The Cup of Tea" by Mary Cassatt
Impressionist paintings often show brushstrokes beautifully. How are they different in this painting from the others in this post? “The Cup of Tea” by Mary Cassatt, 1880-1. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons Zero (CC0)

Notice the surface. Is it bumpy or smooth? Glossy or dull? Made of one medium or several? The surface of an art object is something that you can only see in person, so it’s definitely worth checking out. This is especially rewarding when looking at sculptures and other three-dimensional artworks. These often have more than one kind of texture – at least one from the medium and then more that have been applied by the artist (see above). You might enjoy guessing the medium and techniques used based on the surface appearance and them checking yourself my reading the wall text.

"Cypresses" by Vincent van Gogh
If there’s any exception to that rule that a painting’s surface can’t be seen in a photo, it’s the work of Vincent van Gogh. What do you think it would feel like if you could touch it? “Cypresses” by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons Zero (CCo).

Read the text, but don’t pay too much attention to it. In museums, most works of art are accompanied by labels or wall texts. This information can help you, but it may become harder to really look after reading about what you’re supposed to see. Form your own interpretation first, then read the text and look back to the artwork once again with this new information in mind.

Edo Mask
I’ve mostly used paintings as examples, but all the ideas I’ve mentioned apply to pretty much any art object with small modifications. How might you use them when looking at this mask? From the Edo culture in 15th-17th century Nigeria. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons (CC0)

Added December 2017

Notice the size. I’m not talking about size in inches or centimeters, but in terms of a work’s size relative to you and to the works around it. Scale can tell you a surprising amount about a work. A huge painting might tell you that its subject was considered extremely important, or that it was meant to hang in a massive building. A tiny work might have been meant to be carried with its owner, or it might reflect the intricacy of the craftsmanship in its details.

Gathering visual information is an innate human skill. Once you get yourself in the habit of looking closely, you’ll experience art in a more meaningful way. If you want to look and understand even more deeply, stay tuned for Art Appreciation 101’s next class appearing some time soon. In the meantime, as me a question, start a conversation, or request a topic – all can be done in the comments below.

If you want to become even more sophisticated in looking at artwork, read the follow-up here.


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