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How to Look at Paintings

Slow down, have a seat, and stay away from the information plaques

Photo: Bianca Isofache/Unsplash

One of the first and best lessons I was ever given was from my art teacher. It was over 20 years ago, during a school trip to London, but I’ll never forget it. Since then, I’ve come up with some other tips that can guide anyone wanting to better understand and enjoy artwork.

Take a Seat

I was standing in front of a Mark Rothko painting when my teacher suggested that I sit down. “There’s a bench over there. Why don’t you get comfortable?” So I sat down on the bench and began to look at the painting. My teacher said, “I want you to look at this painting for as long as you can manage. Stay here for at least half an hour. See what happens.”

‘№5/№22’ by Mark Rothko, 1949-50. Photo via Museum of Modern Art/WikiArt

And that’s what I did. I stared at it until I got bored, then I stared at it longer still. It wasn’t obvious to me what the painting in front of me was meant to do, but at a certain point, a wonderful thing happened: I became entranced. The colors of the painting (bands of yellow, red, and orange) began to swarm and pulsate. I saw new colors emerging, as if layers of paint were revealing themselves to me. The painting appeared to come alive; perhaps this was the genius of Mark Rothko or perhaps my eyes were simply growing numb. I didn’t think to question it. I was simply grateful to my teacher for making me push my attention span beyond a few seconds so I could see beneath the surface glance.

Resist the Plaque

Countless times I’ve heard people say they “know nothing about art,” as if they can’t begin to look at the items that clutter an art gallery without some orientation first. They tend to walk straight up to the little information plaque on the wall next to the work and try to find something to grasp hold of.

Most works of art are made to be enjoyed on an intuitive level.

Knowing about art has as much to do with looking with your own eyes as it does with any kind of academic study. Even if you have no idea where to begin, just looking at a painting will tell you a lot about its artistic value. The reason for this is simple: Most works of art are made to be enjoyed on an intuitive level. Artists work on this level—seeking out just what feels right—and the viewer too can gain so much from the same approach.

Try to resist the temptation to rush toward the information plaque and instead stand back and stare for a few minutes.

Take in the Composition

All works of art have a composition—that is, a manner of arrangement, a certain flow or harmony of parts. Some artworks seek balance in their composition; others purposefully move off-kilter.

Speculating how the composition contributes to the feel or meaning of a work is an excellent way to acquaint yourself with it.

Take Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (1516–18), which lives in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, in Venice. It is truly a masterwork of composition.

First and foremost, the painting is split into thirds, one on top of the other, to represent the earthly and heavenly realms, and the virgin’s transition between them. Beyond that, Titian has employed numerous devices to create a sense of consonance and rhythm.

Triangular and spiral compositions (above). ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ by Titian, 1516–18, via Wikimedia Commons, modified by the author
Further compositional dynamics within the painting (above)

Above all, Titian uses the shape of his figures—the angles of arms and faces—as well as the light and shade to give energy to the painting and patterns within it.

Just look at the way the two men in red robes at the bottom of the painting stand out, creating the two sides of a triangle, which has as its top point the red dress of the Virgin Mary. By using this geometric shape, Titian not only guides the eye upward in the direction of the virgin’s movement—suggestive of spiritual ascension—but also stabilizes the painting around a formal, symmetrical structure.


Part of the benefit of resisting the urge to rush up to the little information plaque to read off the facts about the painting is to allow yourself time to speculate what the work is meant to represent.

Here are three things to have a go at: 1) Estimate the period of history when the work was made, 2) wonder why the work is the size and shape it is, and 3) try to guess what the artist is trying to show you.

Sometimes works of art are about nothing at all and sometimes they are about lots of things in particular. Either way, there is no reason to think that a work of art is in any way “complete” before you stand in front of it.

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY

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