How to Look at Art

Titus Kaphar

Titus Kaphar

Henrietta Harris 

Henrietta Harris 

Summer Evening,  Edward Hopper

Summer Evening, Edward Hopper

As you all know, I studied Art History in college and was absolutely crazy about it. Some of my best memories involve sitting in my art history lectures taking notes by hand and working on projects at all hours of the night. 

Back in those days when I was spending hours poring over gigantic art history books spread across entire tables in the library late into the night, I was typically just repeating a four step process of analysis: looking, seeing, thinking, connecting.

Now, there's certainly a difference between academic analysis and the kind of art appreciation that occurs in the context of a museum. You don't really need any factual information or a well-researched argument to simply enrich yourself and your point-of-view by viewing art. 

But, the process of looking, seeing, thinking, and connecting is very much applicable to the museum goer, however casual or fanatic they may be. I was tempted to fill this post to the brim with works of art. Instead, I'll go through each of the four points using Edward Hopper's Summer Evening as an example.

This first step is the easiest. When you walk up to a painting in a museum, start by taking it for what it is in its simplest form. What is it made of? What colors did the artist use? What kinds of shapes and textures do you see? Basically, what do you see? 

Using our Edward Hopper painting as an example:
I see a canvas painted with dark edges, with white and green in the middle. I see basic, rectangular shapes and two figures toward the center right. The center of the painting is much lighter than anywhere else.

However similar they seem, looking and seeing are two distinct actions. Seeing is to go beyond the simple act of looking by applying meaning. At this point, you're still using your very basic human knowledge. What is happening in the work? 

Using our Edward Hopper painting as an example:
There is a girl and a boy leaning against a half-wall on the front porch of a house at night. The porch light is turned on above them. She is wearing a pink outfit and he is wearing a t-shirt and trousers. He is turned toward her as if they are mid-conversation, but her face is turned toward the floor. 

The third step is beginning to think critically about the work. This is the step that seems to be most commonly ignored by the typical museum goer who spends an average of 15-30 seconds in front of an artwork. Once you've looked at the painting and once you've seen the painting, examine the context. When was it produced? What do you know about the artist? What relevance does the subject matter have to the time or situation in which they were produced? What context clues in the painting can use to determine what's going on beyond the surface? 

Even thinking about the title of the work can be beneficial. If you don't know much about the painting or artist, take a quick look at the informational plaque beside it or simply go off of your imagination. All art is left up to interpretation, so there isn't a right or wrong way to see it.

Using our Edward Hopper painting as an example:
I know that this painting was produced in 1947 and that it is called Summer Evening. I know that Edward Hopper was from New York and that he was well-known for his realist paintings depicting his vision of modern life in America. I know that Hopper uses light as a means to create an intimate vibe. From what I know based on my own life experience, the girl's outfit indicates that the time of year might be summer and the couple's body language seems to indicate that they are returning to her house after a date. 

The final step is connecting, which I also consider to be a form of digestion. Allow yourself to take in the work as a whole, using all of the information you just uncovered in your thoughts. This is the most visceral step because it focuses on the questions: How does the work make you feel? How does this relate to your own life? What does it remind you of?

Using our Edward Hopper painting as an example:
At first glance, this painting always gives me a sense of comfort because of the intimate lighting and nostalgic feelings Hopper's paintings evoke. Just looking at it, I can hear the crickets chirping and feel the humidity as well as the occasional summer breeze. I can hear the muffled sounds coming from beyond the front door and the buzzing of mosquitoes around the porch light. Judging by the girl's body language, I imagine that she is feeling a bit awkward. Maybe this was her first date with her crush or maybe it was her first date ever and she's feeling a bit lost as to how it went. Perhaps it's vice versa. Maybe he's the infatuated one. His body is pointed toward hers, after all, while she doesn't give off a very open vibe. Perhaps they both like each other but are so new to dating that they are just naturally awkward. Regardless of the storyline, the painting evokes the feeling of a youthful summer night and all of the hopes, expectations, and disappointments that come along with it.

Next time you're looking at art, be it in a museum or on Google Images, try to go through each of these four steps. They'll not only allow you to enjoy the process of viewing art, but are a great way to improve critical thinking and imagination.