How to Look at Art

2 Requirements for Appreciating Art:

1. Look at it objectively without prejudice

2. Know enough information about its relationship to history and culture

Fine Art: 

-Not created for external demands (unlike graphic design and advertisements, it’s internally motivated)

-Non-verbal language, looking at art is like hearing a foreign language for the first time

-Content rather than subject matter (not an one sentence “answer”)

-“That’s terrible” really means “I don’t like it” Learn to be aware of personal preference

-If you bring the wrong set of expectations to a work of art you won’t be able to “get it”

-Most people spend an average of 10 seconds looking at a work of art. It’s going to take longer than that to “get it”

How to Look at Art:

-Describe it objectively without interpretation (a skill that needs to be practiced)

-Make subjective connections (this makes me think of_______)

-Analyze the content of the work

-Interpret and judge

Visual Vocabulary:

-Artists communicate in a different language they learn through making art

-Line, shape, space, value, color, texture, etc.

-Artists make a series of decisions based on their knowledge of their visual vocabulary


-If it’s in a book or on a screen it’s not actually the work of art

-Pictures can’t communicate scale or subtleties

“Art may not ‘mean’ anything in the literal sense, but like the atmosphere preceding a storm, it puts us into a frame of mind for pondering the timeless questions of existences and meaning.”

The above outline is based on the book Getting It: A guide to understanding and appreciating art by Becky Hendrick.

How to critique a specific work of art:

I. Describe What You See: What are the elements of the image?

  • Start simple.
  • What are the building blocks that make up the image?
  • Take your time and absorb the experience of the work.

II. Analyze What You See: How do the various elements work together?

  • Speculate about why the artist made certain choices.
  • What are the areas of emphasis?
  • In what tradition is the artist working?
  • Is there an overall plan? What is the overall effect of the individual elements?

III. Interpret: What is the significance of what you see?

  • Examine and explain the cause of your response to the work.
  • Use adjectives and analogies to describe the sensory experience of the work.
  • Think of a theme that could explain the response prompted by the work.
  • The meaning of a work of art should be tied to elements previously analyzed.
  • Be imaginative, let your mind roam for possibilities beyond the obvious.

IV. Judge: Give thoughtful and fair judgment.

  • Start by defining the criteria/standards used in evaluating this particular work.
  • Do your normal criteria adequately match the style of the work before you?
  • Has the artist told the truth in the best way possible according to their worldview?
  • Have all the artist’s choices worked together to create a cohesive whole?

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