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Is There A Right Or Wrong Way To Look At Art? How To Look At Art [Studying The Masters]

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Is there a right or wrong way to look at art?

The short answer is no.

However, there are steps that can make the process more enjoyable, more enriching, and give you a much greater understanding of what the artist was trying to communicate.

A common problem that art viewers and gallery or museum visitors share is that they can feel like they’re looking at the artworks, but not really seeing them. This can be an isolating feeling and cause viewers to start doubting themselves.

The good news is that you don’t have to be an art scholar or possess any natural talents in order to really see art, and analyse the works that really catch your eye.

In order to develop as an artist, especially an artist intent on Studying the Masters; being able to effectively break down and analyse art is an essential skill for the toolbelt. Without understanding a little about what is going on in an artwork, it would be difficult to truly study it and learn from it.

This doesn’t only apply to artists though; if you are an observer, a casual viewer of art, then you will certainly find that developing a better understanding of how to analyse art will give you more of an appreciation for it.

In this article, we’ll discuss a method for analysing artworks using a series of questions; a systematic approach that can be followed as much or as little as you see fit.

After reading this and giving it a go, you will see for yourself that you do not need to be an art scholar in order to view art like an expert.

Quick Tips


An absolute first and foremost tip that I strongly believe to be essential in this process is:

Resist The Description Plaque

It’s easy to give into the fear of the unknown, the fear of coming across as ill-informed or uneducated and immediately head to the description plaque to try and ground yourself and regain some form of control over the mysterious artwork in front of you.

Resisting the urge to do so should certainly be your first step!


“Most works of art are made to be enjoyed on an intuitive level.”

Christopher P Jones – How to Look at Paintings

Spend Time

Simply put, you get out what you put in. If you only spend a moment considering a piece, you’ll only gain a moment’s opinion on it. You really need to hit pause and take it all in.

An investment of time is a requirement to fully appreciate an artwork and benefit from
the enrichment it brings.

How to Steps


There are many methods for analysing art, and each individual may adapt and combine such methods in order to create their own way of analysing art. This method is summed up simply as four questions to ask yourself when looking at an artwork, with an accompaniment of sub questions to ask yourself also.

1. What can I see?

2. How is it made?

3. What is the artist trying to say?

4. How do I feel about the artwork?

Let’s look at each question in some more depth, get familiar with the sub questions and really dig into this analytical approach.

1. What can I see?

First impressions.
Take note of the initial things that you notice, think and feel when you look at the artwork and bear these out throughout your analysis; be sure to take a moment to focus these thoughts and remember them.

When you first encounter an artwork is usually the moment that you identify the basic information about it such as its medium, size, surface, art style and genre.

List everything that you can see in the artwork, describing it without value judgements. Focus on the Elements of Art as you look.

Line – Shape – Form – Space – Texture – Value – Colour

Imagine that you are describing to a blind person exactly what it is that you can see in as much detail as you possibly can.

Eye Movements.
Try to take note of how you view the artwork, the way your eyes are guided throughout the piece in front of you. Artists intentionally create compositions that serve the purpose of drawing the viewers eyes to where the artist wants them to go.

Be attentive as to where your eye is drawn, in what order, and what the underlying cause of this movement is; consciously doing this will improve your understanding of composition massively.

2. How is it made?

Now it’s time to delve into the structure of the artwork you’re looking at, and begin to pick apart the composition.

What is the centre of interest in the composition and how does the artist draw your attention to it?
Note your earlier observations of your eye movements.

Does the composition contain energy and movement, or is it still and peaceful?
How does the artist convey this movement/stillness?

What are the most distinctive features and characteristics and what do they inform about the artwork?

How does the artist use light and colour to set the mood and atmosphere for the piece? What is the mood and atmosphere of the artwork?

Analysis of the composition using the Principles of Design as a guide.

Balance – Emphasis – Movement – Pattern – Repetition – Proportion – Rhythm – Variety – Unity

3. What is the artist trying to say?

What do you think the artist is trying to say in the artwork?

Can you determine the genre and subject matter from what you see?

What is the theme, or general idea behind the artwork?

What does it mean?

Is the artwork an allegory, a narrative, realistic, or free from any recognisable associations?

Imagine you were a part of the artwork, what would you be thinking?

Do you know anything about the time period or geographical location of the piece?

How would explain the artwork to someone else?

4. How do I feel about the artwork?


How do you feel about the artwork you are looking at?

What are your likes and dislikes? Why?

What does the artwork mean to you?

Does the artwork resonate with your memory?

What feelings does the artwork evoke in you?

Adding some context

Begin with the description plaque.

Now that you have your intuitive, observation based analysis, you can flesh it out with some facts and information.

For added understanding you could even dig into the artist responsible for the work, the time period that they lived in, the art style they practiced, the list goes on.

Always do further research into any artworks that really capture your interest, this will not only build upon your analytical foundation but it will improve your knowledge, increase your appetite for learning more and it will be a sound investment into your art history bank.

There is an abundance of resources at your disposal for research; internet, books, articles, etc.

After you’ve added context and had some time to digest it all, try doing another analysis of the artwork. Does your new awareness of the facts and information behind the artist and the artwork change how you feel about it?

How to look at art: in action

Pedro Orrente – Sacrifice of Isaac – c.1616

1. What can I see?

My first impressions are:
Religious Art. Narrative. Oil Painting. Reminded of Caravaggio – Baroque.
Abraham Sacrificing Isaac.

My eyes start on Isaac and are then led around the painting through each figure in a clockwise manner. From Isaac’s head down through body to right foot, then to the ram and up to angel; angel’s gaze leads to Abraham and onto his left arm back to Isaac.

Even if I follow from Abraham’s white sleeve my eyes are led by his gaze to the angel, pointing at the ram, the branch in front of the ram leads to Isaac’s right foot and onto Isaac.

Line – Lots of Diagonals, gives a dramatic feeling.
Space – Artist has used the space well in framing the scene and tying all the elements together. Each character overlaps nicely.
Texture – Variety of texture, skin, drapery, foliage, stone, wood, wool.
Value – Good use of contrasts between the older man, the young man and the figure on the left. Scenery around the figures and the ram nicely desaturated.
Colour – Abraham’s green jacket complementary to the red drapery that must have been Isaac’s clothing. Angel’s blue robe complementary with Isaac’s orange blindfold.

2. How is it made?

The figure of Isaac catches my attention first and then my eyes are led throughout the scene, settling momentarily on each figure and the ram, watching the scene unfold.

The most distinctive features I notice are the blindfold on Isaac and the blade in Abraham’s hand; I then notice the angel’s hand pointing to the lamb.

The mood of this scene is quite solemn, as would be expected given the narrative; the artist has created an atmosphere of awe and suspense in the way the figures have been placed, the dark clouds in the background and the expressions on the faces of the figures. Isaac’s posture doesn’t suggest that he is struggling, however he certainly seems uncomfortable with the situation.

Balance – The placement of the figures balances well within the artwork as a whole, there is also a harmonious balance of the negative space too, the rocky foreground balances with the heavy clouded background which is also testament to the proportion of the artwork as a whole.
Emphasis – The focal point is emphasised well using the lighter skin tones of Isaac as a contrast to not only Abraham’s skin tones but the darker surroundings too.
Rhythm – The eyes are led around the scene in a very well paced rhythmic manner.
Variety – Variety of colours when it comes to the clothing of each figure.

3. What is the artist trying to say?

The artist is giving us a glimpse into Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, a visual representation of the scene from the book of Genesis. It was immediately apparent to me that this was a religious artwork, depicting a bible story in particular.

The theme behind the artwork and the narrative depicted is faith. Abraham is proving his unshakeable faith in his God by following the instruction to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. God the sends an angel to stop Abraham from doing so and provides a ram as an alternative offering.

4. How do I feel about the artwork?

I find this scene to be an extremely powerful example of what faith in action is. The artwork does a great job of giving me a visual reference for a narrative that I’m already familiar with in its written format.

This artwork shows me the possibilities that are at hand in terms of storytelling through visual media, the way a scene can be captured as though it’s happening as I watch. The message and undertones that can be given and even suggested; this painting shows that depicting the moment leading up to an action is a powerful method of storytelling.

From scriptural knowledge I am very familiar with this scene, the artist portrayed it in such a way that I recognised the scene immediately and that resonated with my memory. There are times when dire circumstances require an unshakeable faith, whether that faith is in a higher being or not, it’s a feeling that most humans can relate to.

Extra Research

Pedro de Orrente (April 1580, Murcia – 19 January 1645, Valencia) was a Spanish painter of the early Baroque period who became one of the first artists in that part of Spain to paint in a Naturalistic style.

The painter stayed in Italy at the height of Caravaggio’s popularity, and the influence of Caravaggio can be seen in this painting. It is even assumed that Orrente used a lost Caravaggio painting as a model of his composition.

Several versions are known of this composition that prove its success. In fact, Orrente’s impact can be traced in all Valencian artists of the time, particularly in the Venetian quality of their brushstrokes and in their sumptuous use of colour.

I also had a read of chapter 22 of the book of Genesis, to take another look at the source material with this painting in mind as a visual reference.

Conclusion

At this stage you now have the tools at your disposal to venture forward into the world of art and analyse away, look at artworks and truly delve into their inner frameworks and come away with a better sense of understanding.

From now on , when you look at an artwork you know how to see it.

Remember the four main questions to ask yourself:

  1. What can I see?
  2. How is it made?
  3. What is the artist trying to say?
  4. How do I feel about the artwork?


The sub-questions within these questions are at your disposal also to use, to change, to add to; they provide you with a firm foundation to build your own analytical approach upon.

Also important to note is that this process is best used on artworks that capture your interest in the first place; to go to a gallery and try to analyse everything you look at would be exhausting indeed.

It’s also good to remember that an artwork that captures your interest isn’t always one that you like the look of; it is equally, if not more rewarding to analyse artworks that you don’t like.

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