How to Look at Art

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Whenever I mention that I am an art historian, one of the first things people say is either how intimidating they find museums or how they ‘just don’t get art’. Both as an art historian and an art lover, let me tell you that both of these things are easier to overcome than you think. It is all about how you look at. So, if you’re one of those people who just doesn’t ‘get art,’ this is a guide for you.

  • First things first. Don’t let your perception of how scary and confusing art is stop you from looking. You don’t have to like or understand all of it or even any of it, but the first step is walking into the museum or gallery or wherever you are and taking the time to look and appreciate. 
  • The first step with art is simply appreciating it. Whether you think it is pretty or you are interested in what is depicted or you just like the colors. Appreciate the effort and creative talent that went into the creation of this object. 
  • This might be the most important thing that I think most people forget…you don’t have to love or even like every piece of art you see. I sure don’t! Plus, you aren’t even supposed to like some of it. The whole point of art is to inspire some kind of emotional or intellectual response. If everyone likes a painting or sculpture, then it might not actually be serving its purpose. Disliking art is just as important as liking it as long as you appreciate all of it.
  • Finally, focus on the stuff you enjoy. You don’t like sculptures? Spend your time with the paintings. You don’t have to look at everything and you will enjoy it more and get more out of it if you are looking at something you like. Me, I always go to the Renaissance section first because that is my favorite! 
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Alright, you’ve made a great start! You’re looking at art! Step one, complete. Once you figure out what you want to focus on and look at, it can be hard to know where to go from there. Here are a few key things you can think about or discuss with your family and friends when looking at a work.

  • What is the piece of art made of and what went into that process? Is it a sculpture? A painting? A photograph? What was it sculpted out of and what does that process look like? Why do you think the artist chose that material instead of another material? Does it help tell the story of the object or something else? 
  • What is the artwork depicting? Is it an abstract painting (meaning there are no recognizable shapes, objects, or figures) or is it a landscape painting, portrait, or other kind of figurative painting? If an abstract painting, what do you see when you look at it? Do you see something different from your friends? If there are figures, what is the narrative of the painting? Is there an action or a story? 
  • What is the narrative of the art work if there is one? Can you tell just by looking or do you need to read the label? Wall text is there to help you and sometimes gives you great insight into what the art work is about and the context within which it was created.
  • Who is the artist? When were they creating? Why were they making art? Where they making art as a commission for a patron or of their own volition? Have you heard of this artist before? 
  • Was the piece originally in an art museum or was it made for somewhere else? Maybe it was originally in a church or a castle? Does that change how you see the work? 
  • What do you like about the art work? What drew you to it initially? Do you only like it aesthetically (nothing wrong with this) or do you want to know more about the background of the work? 

Obviously, there are hundreds of other questions and lines of thought you could explore when looking at a piece of art. The important thing that we want to remind you today is that art does not have to be intimidating. You don’t have to know everything, understand everything, or even like everything. All you need to do is to take the time to appreciate everything and be open to learning more. 


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