Learning to Look at a Painting

‘– a day of dappled seaborne clouds.
The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words… Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?’ – James Joyce, ‘A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man’

Perhaps it is because I myself am ‘weak of sight’ – my shortsightedness going undetected and therefore uncorrected for a number of years during my childhood – that I’ve never been a particularly visual person. For some people, the appreciation of art comes naturally. For me, it’s a huge challenge and I can literally spend far longer reading about a painting than I do actually looking at it.

Keelmen Heaving in Coal by Moonlight, William Turner, 1835

But one thing The Culture Project has taught me is that the ability to enjoy art – or wine, or classical music, or anything else – is something which can be learned. Below are a few tips on how to really look at, and enjoy, a painting.

In drawing up these tips, I am indebted to Justin Paton’s book ‘How To Look At A Painting.’

  1. Take your time. Don’t expect to either enjoy or understand a painting in a single glance. Slow down. Let your gaze linger. If the gallery is large and time is short, prioritise the in-depth appreciation of a handful of paintings over trying to get a quick glimpse of everything.
  2. Following on from above, wherever possible give yourself as much time as you can. Try to visit galleries either alone or with other people who are willing to take their time, too. I once took a class of children to an art gallery: I don’t think I looked at a single work.
  3. Instead of immediately asking yourself ‘what do I think?’ try asking ‘what do I notice?’ What colours stand out? What is the eye immediately drawn to? What other details capture the attention?

    Veneziano 1380 Virgin and Child
    Virgin and Child, Antonio Veneziano, c.1380
  4. If something seems to be missing – for example, if the artist has omitted a certain colour or colours – ask yourself what, and why? What might they be inviting you to notice instead?
  5. Look at the painting the way it invites you to: step back from large canvasses, lean in close to small, detailed works. Take it in all at once or ‘explore’ it bit-by-bit.
  6. Read the notes: context is important, and the context in which the work was painted might lead to a very different interpretation from what you expected (learning that it was okay – even important – to do this made me very happy). But…
  7. Trust your own impressions, too. If the way you interpret the painting is completely different from what the artist, or anyone else, says, then that’s alright.
  8. If you think ‘this painting just isn’t for me’, try and imagine the type of person it might be for, and what it might say to them.

    Mondrian Composition with Red Blue and Yellow
    Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow, Piet Mondrian, 1930
  9. Finally, remember that there is a lot of ‘bad’ art in the world – but seeing ‘bad’ art will enhance your ability to recognise, and enjoy, quality when you encounter it.

What are your top tips for enjoying the visual arts?


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