Dear readers, welcome back! Today, we will try to address a dilemma many of us face; yet never really solve… visiting art galleries! Ladies and gentlemen, we’re tackling the popular question: “how do I look at art?”
Perhaps some of you have been to an art gallery once or twice during a trip abroad, or in Cairo. Maybe you’ve never been to any galleries, but always wondered what do people do when they visit?! Should you stand in front of the artwork until you finally “get it”? Should you study the information on the label next to it, observe the artwork, then proceed to the next one? Should you steal a look at one artwork, shuffle to the next, then the one after until the whole gallery is glided through?
These are all questions that I thought of, and I’m sure that many of you have thought about as well (even those of you who are frequent galley visitors), so let’s dig right into it!
Just a note before we start: I’ll be applying all of what I’m suggesting on Van Gogh’s masterpiece, The Starry Night.
Step 1 – “Look”:
It is as simple as it sounds: start with looking at the work of art. Notice its details, colours, material, shape, texture, etc. For example, if you’re looking at a painting, you can make a mental note of what’s drawn: humans, animals, plants, lines, shapes, an abstract mixture of some or all of them. Consider its colours: are they light or dark? The lines used in it: are they abrupt or smooth?
Practical application: The painting is mainly dominated by blues and vibrant yellows. The lines in it seems like they echo the movement of a strong wind. The sky seems to be the main focus. I’m guessing that in real life, the painting will have a thick texture given the combination of dramatic brush strokes and oil paint.
Step 2 – “See”:
You can think of this as an extension to the first step: to “see,” you should take “looking” a few steps further. Start thinking of how the individual elements of the artwork connect to one another. How the subject matter of a painting connects with its colours and lines, for example. Try to describe what you saw. The MFA H’s article states that ‘instead of saying, “I see the sky,” you could say, “I see a dark, foreboding sky full of heavy clouds that sulk across the composition.”
Practical application: I see a strong wind with the sun and stars shining. There are tiny houses that seem to be of secondary importance subject-wise. A dark green tree is standing abruptly in the foreground. It eerily feels like part of the painting yet not part of it, as it seems to be springing out of nowhere, cutting the view of the sky, yet it adds perspective to the painting. It gives me the perspective of someone who’s removed from the situation. Someone who’s watching the landscape from above.
Step 3 – “Think”:
This is when we start “connecting the dots” in order to extract meaning from the artwork you’re looking at. Start reflecting on all of what you saw. Think of the mood that the artwork inspires, and a possible theme that it seems to suggest. What did the artist intend to communicate? Something that’d help you when thinking about these questions is checking the following: the date when the artwork was made, the place where it was painted, the background of the artist (nationality, etc.). All such information can typically be found on the labels put near the artwork. This information might help guide your thinking about the artwork, as you start learning of its context.
Practical application: the painting inspires a mixture of wistfulness and sombreness in me. That is mainly because of the choice of scene and perspective. Especially given the lone, brooding dark tree in the foreground, I feel as if the painting tells of someone who is alone in the midst of this vast landscape. The stars and sun are unusually bright. That, along with the dramatic lines that give a strong sense of motion, and my hearing of Van Gogh’s mental illness, make me suspect that the painting is an expression of the turbulence he might have been experiencing in his own life.
Final Step – “Connect”:
Last, but not least, try connecting the artwork, or relating it to something from your own experience – something that you’re familiar with. Perhaps it reminds you of another art piece you’ve seen? Maybe the feeling it inspires echo ones you’ve previously experienced. The key here is that you try to relate the artwork to your own experience.
Practical application: I have a soft spot for any painting of the night sky. I love looking at the sky and stars at night, so this painting speaks to me in that regard. The sense of brooding and loneliness that the painting inspires is also something that resonates with me. I feel like I am familiar with such feelings. The painting reminds me of those iconic film scenes where the hero or heroine can see the whole vast landscape from where they’re standing.
Hopefully, if you think about these four steps and try to apply them, your next experience to the art gallery becomes one that is more enriching than daunting. On your next journey, head to the gallery with an explorer’s attitude. Try to “see,” not merely “look,” then think about what you saw, and relate to what you’re already familiar with. You don’t have to cover the whole gallery or go through everything in it; however, make sure that you go for what you’re interested in. Give yourself time to actually “see” and enjoy it, and I promise you, the inspiration and insights you’ll gather about the artwork (and yourself!) will be quite worth it.
-“Practice Looking at Art”, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston MFA H.
-“Three simple steps to understand art: look, see, think” by Kit Messham-Muir. The Conversation.
Have you ever been to an art gallery before? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!