Okay, I'm looking at a painting... now what?

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First, let’s get one thing clear: I am not an art historian. I have very little formal education in art history, composition, and technique. 

I am, however, an art fanatic. I love – LOVE – the visual arts. So over the years, I’ve tried to learn more and more and more about how to engage with works of art. How to read them. How to understand them. I know I adore gazing at a giant painting from a Renaissance master… but why? And how do I make the absolute most of my time with a great work of art? 

As many of you know, I trained to become a professional opera singer, so when I take in classical music, I don’t have to think as hard any more – a lot of the processing is happening in the back of my mind, where I’ve tucked away all my knowledge of music history and theory. But with visual art, not having the advanced level of understanding has actually turned out to be such an interesting gift for me, because I get to actively learn how to love art as an adult.

My fundamental beef with most arts appreciation information (and not just visual art, but all the fine arts) is that it either (a) uses the assumption that you can enjoy the arts with zero knowledge base, or (b) starts way too difficult and intimidates the prospective arts lover. The problem with (a) is that it’s kind of right – you can walk into a gallery or a symphony concert and have a nice time. It will be nice. Nice nice nice. However, unless you’re a really mindful, super open person, it’s probably not going to be transcendent. It’s probably not going to be earth-shattering. But yup, you will have a nice time. And of course, the problem with (b) is that it doesn’t serve its audience whatsoever.  

We need the happy medium, people! You are smart, even if you think you’re not smart about the fine arts (yet). So you don’t need someone patting you on the head and saying “just wander in there and look at the paintings and see how you feel!” IMO, that’s ridiculous. People who write things like that about visual art are often art historians – people with such an exceptional level of knowledge about technique and composition, as well as the timeline and forces of art history, that they are thinking you can just look at a great work of art and soak it in because they can. Even if they don’t mean to do this! Even if it’s subconscious, it’s not helping you.

What is helpful is permission to take the painting in in whatever manner you want. If you were going on vacation to, say, Paris, and you want to go to the Louvre while you’re there, wouldn’t you rather have some specific tips and tools you can use to locate the works of art you’re going to enjoy the most, and know some ways to look at them to really soak in the experience? Otherwise, it’s just another tourist conveyer belt, moving people along so they can take a selfie outside at the end.

So please. Here are five ways that I like to look at a painting. Just try a couple next time you look at a work of art (even if it’s on your laptop screen). There shall be no head patting here.

Five Ways to Look at a Painting 

1.     Ask yourself “What the heck is going on in this picture?”

Unless you’re looking at a piece of abstract modern art, most paintings are “of” something. Like a group of people, or a vase of flowers, or a guy with an apple floating in front of his face. This one seems obvious, but in a museum or gallery packed full of works of art, we often don’t slow down long enough to actually see everything that’s going on in a painting. So stop, and think of the painting as a story (even if it’s of a field or garden or something else without people). What is the painting of? Look alllll around the canvas, because there are often little gems you might not see at first, like Where’s Waldo. Find the story the painting is telling (even if it’s just a bowl of fruit, there’s a story – is it overflowing? Is it rotting? Does it look humble but appealing? You get the idea.)

2.     Find the “star” of the painting

Is there a main person right in the middle of a crowd? Is there a barn up in a corner of a big field? Is there an ominous row of trees? Focus on the main object that jumps out of the painting, and think of it as the star of the painting – what it’s all about. Stare at that thing or person for a minute and let the rest of the painting kind of fall away (like one of those Magic Eye books from the ‘90s). You might hear people talk about a painting’s “composition” – that just means: where did the artist put stuff on the canvas, relative to all the other stuff. Finding the star of the painting is the way to get your eyes and mind to start thinking about composition.

3.     Find the paths

When you look at the “star” of the painting (or “point of focus”), you might start noticing that there are other parts of the painting that point toward or circle it. For example, there are so many great paintings of ships on the ocean (such a classic). Is the nautical beauty riding on the crest of a wave that comes up from a bottom corner of the painting, so that there’s kind of a path for your eye to travel from frame to ship? Or a lightening bolt in the distance that pulls your eye down from the top of the frame back to the ol’ star of the show, Boaty McBoatface? The artist made those paths for your eye on purpose, so see how many you can find – they may be straight lines, spirals, arcs, or even boxes around the main attraction.

4.     Think about what feels wrong

This is one of my favourites, and it works across eras of art, from ancient greek to paint-still-drying newness. Let your mind wander around the painting a bit, taking it in gently and without criticism, and see if any part of it makes you feel a little queasy. Does the rigid symmetry of the piece, with the big ass line down the middle, make you uncomfortable? Does the deep colour make you feel like you might fall into the painting and float downdowndown, Get Out style? Is a character in a portrait staring into your eyes in a way you’re not real jazzed about? Or is there something comically odd hiding in one corner that you think the artist put in just for fun, that you’re like “why is that damned thing over there?!” Ohhh I love this one, because it’s such a great opportunity for self reflection. Don’t turn away. Look deeper (and I don’t mean deeper into the painting). Why does this feel so wrong?

5.     NOW turn your chatty mind off and see how it makes you feel

Once you’ve cycled through a couple of the above ways to look at the work, try to enter a more meditative state. If you’re talking to yourself in your mind, let that voice in there fall away, and focus on your breath while you continue to look. Feel your heartbeat as you take it in. Let your breathing and your pulse slow down and let the work speak to your subconscious. I get teary just thinking about how profound this experience can be in front of a true masterpiece. This is why people use the word “transcendent” to describe great works of any type of art – you can actually transcend your own present circumstances and spend a moment communing with the divine. I find it so beautiful to see someone positively lost in this moment, so I encourage you to try it next time you’re in a museum or gallery (or a coffee shop with paintings on the walls, or a corporate office, or – hell – even on your computer screen). Contemplate, think, actively look and see – then embrace a state of no-mindedness that lets the artist speak to a much deeper, bigger part of you. It will not disappoint.