I sometimes wonder if there is a little natural fear of going into an art gallery. People sometimes live in a community all their lives and never go look at the art that may be created by their neighbors. Is there apprehension that you might not understand what you see, or know what is going on or say something wrong? I’m going to see if I can dispel that fear.
Here are 10 simple rules about looking at art that will make it an easy, enjoyable experience.
Bring a friend. While art preferences are totally personal, you like what you like and you don’t have to like what someone else likes, its fun to talk about art. As a member of the Adirondack Artists Guild, a co-op gallery, one of us is always staffing the gallery. The last time I was on duty, two women came in, who regularly make the trip to Saranac Lake to browse our galleries. I always enjoy just sitting back and listening to them. They aren’t talking to me – they talk to each other about the art. “Do you like that? Look at what this artist did with watercolor! I like that painting but not the frame – ugh! Why do you think the artist did that?” It goes on and on like that. They spent over an hour looking at all the pieces in the Annual Juried Show. Sometimes they directed a comment or question to me and I would join in the conversation, but it was clear that they took great pleasure in looking at the art and talking to each other about it.
Come when the gallery or exhibit site is not busy. It’s always fun to come to opening receptions (there’s often free refreshments!) but they are usually crowded and you can’t half see the artwork. Plus all the other people around can sometimes make one feel more self-conscious about not being familiar with an artist or a technique. Come, with a friend, when you have a decent block of time to spend.
Observe. When at the gallery with your friend, open your mind and heart and start looking. The first thing that usually registers with viewers is the subject matter. Things that are recognizable or familiar often generate interest but the strange or unusual can also grab your attention. If there isn’t any subject matter, that is, if the piece is something mostly abstract, then some of the following conditions will take on more importance. Subject matter also often generates likes and dislikes – but be careful. An unlikeable subject, say a painting of a dead animal, might still have a lot of merit as a work of art. Try not to dismiss a piece just because you dislike the subject.
Look with your mind as well as your eyes. Lots of people pass judgment on subject matter and then walk away, believing they don’t like what they were looking at. Here’s the trick – you need to look at what else there is. There will be shapes, colors, textures, lines, lights, darks, designs and patterns. These are called the elements of art. In abstract pieces, those are the things you see when there isn’t any subject matter. Look at a beautiful piece of printed fabric, or a lovely pattern in a tile floor and the design jumps right out at you. Shapes can be organic (based on curving, organic forms) or geometric (mostly composed of straight lines and angles). When you are looking at a pattern, your eyes begin to see how the shapes and colors repeat and connect to each other. Looking at art (with or without subject matter), those are still things you can look for. The pattern or design is just not so obvious.
Analyze what you see. How the elements of art are arranged is called composition. When someone composes music, they put notes and rhythms together to produce a specific melody or sound. Same with art. Whether with subject matter or not, the artist is composing with shapes, colors, textures, lines, and values (lights and darks). Again similar to music, those elements of art are often arranged by applying techniques of balance, harmony, and pattern. Sometimes the balance or pattern is very regular and organized, other times things can be wild and unstructured!
Look deeply. Depth is when things appear 3-dimensional. In realism, it might be the portrayal of a bowl of fruit on a table, or the interior of a room, a person in a chair, or a landscape with mountains in the distance. Artists use various techniques to show depth. A painting of an apple might show a cast shadow that helps our eyes perceive it as a 3-dimensional form. Even in non-objective art (abstract) shapes can appear 3-dimensional. Value (lights and darks) are often applied to objects to make them look like they have depth.
Study the technique. You don’t need to have any experience making art or have any knowledge of techniques. You just have to look – how did they do that? As you study a piece of art, figure out what medium was used. You can always read the identifying tag that usually accompanies work on exhibit. Is it painted? A photograph? Made of clay or wood or stone? Is the technique careful and meticulous, or loose and expressive?
Listen to your heart. How does each piece of art you look at make you feel? Warm and fuzzy? Disturbed? Happy? Puzzled? We are capable of feeling of huge number of emotions and art can communicate all those feelings too. Subject matter can evoke feelings, but so can colors. Why do you think the artist wanted the viewer to have a certain emotional reaction? Is a piece meant to be thought-provoking? Or is it more decorative – something that would simply look great hanging over a fireplace mantle?
Be flexible. See how much you can find in a piece that you like? Do you like the subject matter, the shapes, colors, textures, values, patterns, harmony, design, balance? Do you like how it makes you feel or what it causes you to think about?Think history….. Most art, even the most abstract contemporary pieces, are built upon the past. The artistic accomplishments of the human race are astonishing. Look at some art history books and see what was done in the past. You don’t have to like everything you see. But then when you go to a gallery, sometimes you will see connections to the past and it can help you understand what you’re seeing.
Have fun and enjoy the process. We all like to watch movies – it’s much the same visual process and no one is afraid to do that. Some you like, some you don’t, some you love and watch over and over again. Sometimes it’s the great story that really hooks you and holds your attention. Or it could be the great acting performed by the cast. Maybe the stunning cinematography, amazing period costumes and sets, or the moving musical score. Perhaps the shocking ending is what has an impact on you. We usually take the time to experience the movie before we pass judgment. Do the same with art – go experience it and then decide if you like it or not.