Tips… How to Look at Paintings

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No knowledge needed
Being able to understand paintings is not a skill you either have or you don’t – it’s something anyone can learn. You don’t need detailed knowledge of art history to enjoy an artwork or develop your own taste. You just have to know how to look at art. With a few tips you can get started and become an art enthusiast yourself.

When we look at something, whether this is a work of art or something different, our human brains read it and generate meaning. Different clues make up our understanding of images, often even unconsciously. So when learning to look at art, you basically only have to slow down this process that is already happening in your mind. It only takes three simple yet very effective steps to become conscious about this process.

Step 1: Take a look 

This step may sound very obvious, but it actually isn’t. People often don’t take enough time to look at artworks. In museums, visitors spent only an average of 15 seconds in front of a painting. So let’s start with taking some time to notice what you are looking at. Try to pay attention to the size, colours and material of the artwork. What kind of shapes and lines are shown? What is the composition of the painting like? What textures are visible? All these different visual elements were decided deliberately by the artist, and will therefore determine the overall feel and meaning of the work.

Step 2: See what is there

Seeing is not the same thing as looking. Whereas looking is about describing what is in front of you, seeing requires applying meaning to a picture. This is called iconography in art history terms. We see symbols in paintings which we can interpret.

Iconography can be easy or more difficult to read, depending on the painting. The iconography of the famous ‘Bal du Moulin de la Galette’ (1876) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir for instance is relatively easy; you will immediately recognise what’s going on in this scene. The iconography of more abstract paintings, such as ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) by Pablo Picasso or even completely abstract works by Jackson Pollock are much more difficult to read. Still, you can try to recognise shapes, lines or patterns and ascertain what feeling they give you.

Step 3: Think 

The last step is to think about what you have observed. This step is about connecting the first two steps and thinking about possible interpretations. Giving meaning is something relative; it’s not about facts.

The broader context of a painting will help make reading the artwork easier. This context can be found through labels and descriptions. They can help you to place the work in a certain time period and relate it to an artist or movement. Maybe you even already have some knowledge about the subject. With all this information you will be able to put the pieces together in your mind and come up with your own interpretation.

Becoming an art enthusiast 

By combining the elements in these tree steps, you can give meaning to a painting which can help you when bidding on artworks in the weekly Art auctions. It is not very difficult to become an art collector. All it really takes is some practice, attention to detail, a passion for art and winning your first lot.

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