How To Look At Art

Tripped over this little gem by Grant Snider today:

how to look at art

It’s very true, not everyone knows how to look at art. In art school, we’re trained to look at work and think about it and pick it apart and put it back together again in a way that’s meaningful. It may not be in the way that the artist intended us to take it, but that’s part of the beauty of art. It can mean so many different things to so many different people.

I live a few blocks from a museum and one of my favorite things to do is just to duck in for an hour or so. I’ll pop in at random times to spend 45 minutes in one or two rooms. Sometimes I take a sketch book, sometimes I note artists I like in my phone so I can look them up later. Sometimes I just sit on a bench and stare at a painting for a while. Most of the time, I find a few paintings that really haunt me and walk up close, then far away, then up close and far away again to try and figure out what it is about that painting that has me so intrigued and how I can do the same thing in my own work. When I do this, I’m sure other people think that maybe I’m a ghost, stuck on repeat or that I’ve forgotten there are other things to look at in the museum. I’m well aware of the thousands of other treasures that are to be had in the museum–trust me, I’ve inspected a good many of them! The issue is more that people don’t know how to look at art and fly through museums.

I know the feeling. I spent a summer in Paris and visited a few places in Italy where I had so many museum dates lined up for myself I only had a few hours at each. It’s exhausting, but I couldn’t not see Botticelli or Michelangelo or Fra Angelico or Monet or or or… I understand when you don’t live next door to that museum you want to see everything you possibly can, but running through the museum won’t allow you the time to connect with a work of art on an intimate level. You’ll glance over everything and maybe remember one or two things, but you certainly won’t learn much from a hurried trip.

My advice–if you’re an artist and going to a museum to try and learn something by soaking up some of the energy in the master works, take a small sketchbook and a pencil (museums don’t typically allow pens, and for good reason!). Pick up a map of the museum or spend a little time walking through each room, noting particular works you like. Then go back to those and spend some time with them.

Make thumbnail sketches of the things you like. This isn’t just so you remember what it looks like–we have the internet for that. It’s so you can really look at it and notice things you may not have noticed if you weren’t sketching it. If it’s a sculpture you’re interested in, move around it. Sketch it from multiple sides. If you’re looking at a painting, try to identify qualities you appreciate (I always admire the thick dry white paint in Monet’s work and how Frans Hals renders the faces absolutely precisely but the fabric is painted loosely and almost like it was done very rapidly). If you can, try to pick out colors you know (is that Naples Yellow? Chromium Oxide Green or Sap Green?).

portrait-of-a-woman-1644.jpg!Blog Frans Hals, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1644, oil on canvas

(It’s hard to tell from the photograph, but the clothing is painted very loosely! One of those things you have to see in person.)


Try to be open. This can be difficult, I know. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten frustrated at Rauschenberg or Albers (you’ve all said it about something before…admit it…why is this art?!) but the more I learned about the artists I didn’t like, the more I actually liked them. Look at pieces you don’t like and figure out why you don’t like them. Then read about them. Learn as much as you can. Then you have my permission to make an informed, intelligent, and distanced opinion about artwork that you like and dislike. Until then, keep an open mind and know that as artists, we’re all in this together. Let’s be kind to each other.


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