art · Empowering Art

Learning to Look

It may be impossible to find a work of art that is globally regarded as beautiful. Aesthetic beauty is as hard to define — and certainly as subjective — as physical beauty. Museum-goers generally spend less than 30 seconds looking at a work of art before moving onto a new image. Surely it takes more than half a minute to understand an object and respond to it emotionally and/or intellectually. Certain works may instantaneously attract or repel you, but assessing a work’s value and and determining its significance requires time. 

Looking at art provides a different experience than interacting with other daily objects. When you encounter a ripe, red strawberry, for example, you probably think about eating it, and how refreshing and sweet it would taste. It’s hard to look at a strawberry and see it as something other than food. It’s easy to ignore the fruit’s material attributes, such as its vibrant, complementary colors, bumpy texture, wedged or conic shape, and evenly distributed, indented seeds. But if you let yourself indulge in the visual qualities of the strawberry instead of thinking about your relationship to it, you begin to perceive its inherent beauty. Such is how you should approach art. Before concerning yourself with how a work of art relates to you, consider its form. 

A thorough art evaluation typically consists of two parts: a formal analysis and a contextual analysis. During a formal analysis, the writer studies the composition’s physical aspects — its color, line, shape, space, texture, etc. Did the artist apply warm or cool colors? Are the lines straight and orderly or undulating and dynamic? Are the shapes open or closed? Answering these simple questions help us recognize the mood of the work, and the potential message it carries. A contextual analysis, on the other hand, demands that you search beyond the artwork for information. You must consult resources and examine the work’s context. When was it created? Is it reflective of the time from which it came? What religious, political or historical events inspired it? 

Broaden your visual playing field — and learn to pay closer attention to the objects that surround you — by taking a stab at your own formal analysis. 

  1. Enjoy a museum-quality viewing experience of world-famous artworks by visiting The Google Art Project: http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/project/art-project. View the featured item, or tour and select a work from the extensive image collection. 
  2. Spend at least five minutes just looking at the piece. Play around with the zoom feature and inspect details that you would otherwise overlook.
  3. Make a list of the work’s formal characteristics. Ask yourself whether the piece is abstract or realistic, and closely inspect everything that you can see: the subject matter, color palette, line, brushstroke, texture, light, etc. Form your ideas into a short, one-page essay, in which you not only describe what you see, but also consider whether the artist employed such formal elements to express emotion or convey a message. 
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