6 Tips for Looking at Art: Getting the Most out of a Museum Visit
Written by Nana Gongadze
Looking at art is paradoxically simple yet difficult. Of course, just running your eyes over a painting or sculpture is the easiest thing in the world, but many of us find viewing art, especially in museums, complicated and intimidating. Considering the complexity of curatorial art writing and how little art history education the average person ever got growing up, the struggle can is very understandable. We have all stood before an artwork and thought okay, what am I supposed to be seeing?
The best way to understand artworks, however, is to train yourself to really look. Just like any other skill, it is something that you can improve with practice and the proper guiding questions. In that spirit, here are six tips and techniques that all of us - from your average Joe to a wannabe art historian - can use to better guide ourselves in those hallowed gallery halls. Keep them in mind next time you are at a museum. Happy viewing!
1. Slow Down:
This is the most obvious tip, and therefore the best place to start. Researchers say that the average person spends 15 to 30 seconds in front of a piece of art, and I can’t say I blame them. Museums can be huge, crowded, and overwhelming, especially with just how many works there are.
Of course, it would be impossible not to skim over most of a collection whilst you wander around. To defeat the common tendency of simply walking from gallery to gallery and letting your eyes slide past walls of work without noticing much at all, I suggest stopping when you are struck and staying for a while. Not every type, style, or subject of work will appeal to us all equally and indeed, most people may not have a particular favorite kind of art, but they certainly know what they don’t like. Once you are settled in front of a work that you do enjoy, take a few minutes to be in its presence, and apply the next few tips below to your viewing experience. You will see that in order to take advantage of them all, you will need a solid amount of time.
If you have the issue of entering a museum and being overwhelmed or totally unsure of where to go, consider grabbing a map or talking with the people behind the visitor’s information counters. They generally have excellent knowledge of the collection and are there to help guide you. Ask them what they think is a must see, or where to locate works in your favorite style or by your favorite artist, and jump off from there.
Lastly, remember that there’s no way to see everything. I always think it is more worth it to spend a thorough amount of time with the types of art that really interest you, instead of trying to run around and see everything, while not really seeing much at all.
2. Get Close and Notice Details:
Now, this tip works best when you have your chosen artwork directly in front of you - the real thing, not a photograph or a poster. Anyone who has ever looked at an artwork in real life can tell you that reproductions will simply never do them full justice. These reproductions can suffer from distortions of color produced by computer editing and printing or the loss of the sense of texture and tactility of the work’s surface. There is much that can only be gleaned from an in-person viewing of an artwork.
What I always do is walk right up to the work, close enough to where I can pick out individual brushstrokes and tiny textural details (providing there is no barrier keeping me a certain distance back). Being really close allows you to get a sense of the artist’s hand, and the labor that it took to create the work, as well as to pick out the sometimes microscopic, but often delightful details included.
Take a moment to imagine the artist’s process and picture their materials. Notice the finish of the paint. Is it varnished and smooth to the point where brushstrokes are invisible, like the work of an Italian Old Master like Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael? Is it bumpy and rough, and does the thick impasto paint application have an almost structural quality, like a Van Gogh? Think about how this affects the energy of the finished work. Just make sure you don’t get too close where you bump your nose against the art - museum guards typically don’t look kindly upon that!
3. Get Far and Notice the Big Picture:
This is one of three distances at which I like to view an artwork - next to being up very close, and at a neutral viewing distance of a few feet. Just as getting up close and personal gives you a sense of a work’s smallest details and medium treatment, taking a few steps back and looking from a distance gives you a sense of the overall composition, or arrangement of visual elements.
Notice any lines and shapes that run through the work. How do the colors change slightly as you look from afar? What details are lost, and what visual energy becomes more apparent? How does the framing and hanging (best appreciated from some distance) affect how you view the work? Notice any unity or lack thereof, and consider what the implications are of the artist’s choice with that.
4. Read Placards and Signage:
This may also seem obvious, but take a moment to glance and take in the information on any signage or labels around an artwork. A typical label will tell you who the artist is, where they are from, the material used in the work, its date, and perhaps information about its donor or what collection it is part of. This information may be meaningful or meaningless depending on your knowledge of the particular artist or era given, but context is extremely important to help make sense of an artwork. For better or for worse, much of that is lost when works are hung in the homogenous, sanitized style of a traditional museum.
Take at least a moment to lean on your knowledge of history and consider what was happening in the world, in the country, where the artist was working. This can have either very little bearing on the ultimate meaning of a work, or it can be key to understanding it. But what a particular society at a particular time saw as worthy or important to document in artwork always tells us something about it. Consider this interplay to deepen how you think about a work not just as an art object, but as a document of history.
More and more museums are adding additional signage to their exhibition spaces these days in order to give viewers more contextual information about the artists and movements of their works - take a moment and take advantage of them, as well as brochures or audio guides, if you have them. Background knowledge always enriches the viewing experience, and helps us feel less left out in the cold when looking.
5. Notice What Strikes You:
I often think - especially when we are looking at a very famous artwork that is firmly established in art historical canon as “Good And Important”- we either forget to, or feel too intimidated, to check in with our own impressions. Take a minute to take stock of what strikes you. What do you like about the artwork, and what don’t you? Consider what emotions the work conveys and how it makes you feel. To deepen your personal experience even further, carry a notebook or open the notes app on your phone and write down your favorite pieces, or pertinent observations.
6. Try to Limit Distractions:
I am not going to profess to being some anti-smartphone luddite: I know I always have the internet and social media at my fingertips, at best a few feet away from me at any given time. And technology can certainly help you at the museum, especially resources like Wikipedia and layman’s online art encyclopedias like The Art Story and Khan Academy, where you can fill in informational gaps with a simple search.
But do your best to take your visit to a museum as an opportunity to briefly unplug and focus your attention to what is directly in front of you. Think of the museum as an oasis in a loud world where a million things are competing for your attention, money, and time. It would be hard to argue these days that most of us are not simply overstimulated. A quiet gallery can be the ideal place to decompress, relax, and take in some culture. It is one of the few places these days that is almost completely devoid of screens. Appreciate that by leaving yours in your pocket or purse for a little while.
Also, try to keep your photo taking to a minimum. It is tempting, but it disrupts other people’s viewing experience as well as distracts from yours (I always recommend going to the gift shop and getting a postcard reproduction of a work if you really want to keep it with you - they’re usually at most a dollar or two).
I will, however, make an exception for listening to music, if that helps keep you focused on the artwork instead of the sometimes distracting ambience of surrounding museumgoers. I always recommend something neutral or instrumental like classical music or natural sounds; your favorite music streaming app is packed with playlists.
Much like literature and music, art is one of those things that can be consumed in a passive, shallow way - just a glance can give you the idea. But it is so much more rewarding when you put in a little effort into your looking. Next time you are at a museum, use these six tips, and hopefully, you will be on the road to discovering just how much more.
Edited by Sydney Hamilton
Cover Art by Amber Shemesh