How To Look At Art

The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

Last year when I visited museums in Boston and Seattle, I was always in a time crunch since I was only in the city for a few days, so I never had the luxury to really look at art. To contemplate and deeply study an artwork, sitting with whatever emotion that bubbled up from within me, whether good or bad.

Hopefully when I'm back in the U.S., I will have time to visit the museums there and take the time to appreciate art.

But how should we look at art?

Courtney Tenz presents us with three ways in this Vox article.

  1. Look at art as an interactive adventure
    • instead of asking "what does this even mean?", look past its physical, artistic qualities, and focus on your response to it (memories, emotions)
    • Surrealist belief: meaning is derived from the triangulation of (1) the work itself, (2) the artist's intention, and the viewer's response to it.
    • "There are no right or wrong ways of reading a piece, only ideas that can be expanded."
    • Molly Ovenden: "It's more about an openness to a conversation... or an invitation to an experience"
  2. Be open to sitting with discomfort
    • art can give rise to feelings we aren't in touch with everyday like awe, melancholy, and transcendence
    • the role of an artist is to convey ideas with honesty, and truthful art can make people wildly uncomfortable
    • Susanne K. Langer on art and emotions

      teaching art is an education in feeling; when art gives rise to emotions we do not always have access to, it can feel too tough to manage. Yet it is in grappling with those emotions that the connection to art – and, ultimately, understanding it – is forged.

    • Ovenden: "How do you teach a willingness to be uncomfortable?"
  3. Notice glimmers of your own experience
    • Barry on art as proof of catharsis.

      That’s what the arts do. In the course of human life we have a million phantom-limb pains — losing a parent when you’re little, being in a war, even something as dumb as having a mean teacher — and seeing it somehow reflected, whether it’s in our own work or listening to a song, is a way to deal with it.

    • think about arts as a way of transforming time or transforming your experience – move beyond the surface response of "this is a nice picture" or "this is a picture that sucks"
    • art, like Vermeer, can portray the beauty of everyday moments, inspiring you to look at your life anew.

10 questions to ask and answer for yourself when standing in front of a work of art by Nicole Haroutunian, a Museum Educator.

  1. Form a couple of first impressions from a few feet away. Ask yourself, what is going on here? What do you see that makes you think that?
  2. Step closer. How does the work of art change as you move towards it? Are there details you didn’t notice before?
  3. Close your eyes and picture the work of art. What stands out in your memory? Open your eyes and compare—was it the colors you recalled? A specific form or shape? Are there any elements you didn’t recall? Why might that have been?
  4. What is the tone or mood of the work of art? Does it have a point of view?
  5. How would it feel if you could touch it—both the actual object and what is being portrayed? Name the textures. What sounds, smells or tastes could you associate with it?
  6. If the work is narrative, imagine it as the center panel in a comic strip or story board. What might have happened five minutes earlier? Five minutes later?
  7. Look to each side and notice the works of art installed beside the one you are studying. What do they have in common? Is there a thematic or stylistic resonance you can pick up on? How are they different?
  8. Does the artwork remind you of anything in another medium—a song, a movie, a book or a poem?
  9. If you were to describe the work of art to someone who could not see it, what would you say? If you only had one sentence to describe it, what would that be? What about only three words?
  10. Only after you’ve spent time exploring the work for yourself, read the label or wall text. Does the information you learn change the way you think about the artwork? If so, how? If not, why not?

more resources


A great book on how we view art