You don’t have to be an art expert to comment on how you feel about a piece of art. If it helps, try to think of the work of art as something that you appreciate from your other interests such as a beautiful car or dress design. The same beauty that you appreciate in these everyday objects are things you can appreciate and discuss in art: shape, color, materials and the technical skill executed in making the art.
Guest contributor Karen Short is a full-time student at Tennessee Tech University, studying for her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting. Karen’s passions are painting, travel, tattoos, crafting and reading. If you are interested in broadening your artistic appreciation by visiting an art museum or gallery, she offers a few tips to help you out. While there is no single correct way to view art, these step can help you get a fuller experience:
- Take some time to first scan through the entire gallery, beginning to end. Take in the overall exhibit first. Often exhibits are based around a theme, time period, a single artist’s work or a group of artists working within the same basic concept. By taking a few minutes to view the exhibit as a whole you can better appreciate the individual pieces.
- Return to the beginning of the exhibit and spend a little more time viewing each piece.
- First, examine each piece up close—from a distance of 6-12 inches. Look for detail in the artwork. For example view the brush strokes, the various colors, and the actual texture of the work in a painting. These kinds of components make up the bigger picture.
- Second, step back anywhere from 4-6 feet away. The size of the work dictates how far away you must step to get the full picture. Naturally, a small piece will require fewer steps and a larger piece will require greater distance. Make note of how the distance changes your perception of the piece.
- Finally, if the piece is a 3D sculptural object or an installation, be sure to view it from different angles. Oftentimes, you can learn more about a piece and the artist’s intentions by moving around the piece.
- Find the pieces you feel drawn to. Never feel the need to linger on a piece that you don’t like. If, however, you find that the piece appeals to you, try to understand what it is about it that attracts you so much. Question the subject, the materials used to create the piece, and your own reaction to it. See if you can guess the artist’s intent.
One of the most important lessons I ever learned from an art professor was that appreciating art is not about wanting to hang the piece on your living room wall—it’s about connecting to the piece on a raw emotional level. That emotion can be happiness, sadness, loneliness, anger, or boredom—but if you feel that a work of art has moved you in some way then I would urge you to further question the piece and yourself. You can learn a lot about yourself by studying how you react to art.
- Use the exhibition label to contextualize the work. You do this by looking at the exhibition label. These labels are where you can find the title, medium, artist and other useful information. After reading the information, ask yourself whether it supports or change the way you initially reacted to the work. By waiting until you’ve formed an initial impression of the piece, you form your own opinion before the exhibit curator tells you what he or she thinks.
- When you move on, try to give each piece in the gallery a fair chance. No piece will appeal to everyone, but sometimes after closer inspection or introspection, you will find yourself appreciating works outside of your usual tastes.
As you walk through the gallery, it is important to keep these dos and don’ts in mind:
- Don’t touch any of the works. While some art is viewer interactive and perfectly acceptable to touch, this is usually the exception to the norm. When in doubt, ask a docent.
- Don’t photograph any of the works. Often, especially in older works, pigments used to create the art are sensitive to UV light and can be irreversibly damaged over the years by the flash bulbs. And your camera may ruin someone else’s gallery experience. There are a few galleries, such as the National Gallery of Art, where non-flash photography is generally permitted. Again, ask a docent to clarify museum policies if they aren’t clear.
- Do bring a pencil and paper. If you enjoy the work, be sure to make a note of the artist and title. For older works, you can often find images or prints. For newer works, you can usually keep up with an artist on his or her website and learn about upcoming exhibits. I recommend a pencil, as some galleries are very concerned about ink. (If you should mark on something important it is much more difficult to remove the ink from a pen mark than to remove the mark made by a pencil.)
- Do take your time. You can stay for five minutes if you don’t find yourself particularly interested, or you can stay for five hours meandering through the show taking in each piece in great detail. Your time is your own!
The important thing to remember about art is that there is no right or wrong way to react. There is no test to take, no questionnaire to respond to, and—and most importantly there is no one you have to answer to. No one will pass judgment about how you feel about the exhibit. Viewing art can be a very personal experience. Examining and questioning the art you are viewing can lead to personal growth and revelations you never expected.
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