The Art of Seeing Art
“One looks, looks long, and the world comes in”
- Joseph Campbell
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When you stand before a painting in an art gallery or museum what goes through your mind? Do you start examining the wall label hoping to make sense of the image before you? Do you follow a guide or a recorded tour in hopes of understanding what you are supposed to see or understand? Do you judge the painting on its likeability? Do you walk past everything you don’t recognize already?
Did you know that the average museum visitor spends seventeen seconds viewing each work of art? Throngs of people line up inside the Louvre to snap cell phone photos of the Mona Lisa who smiles blissfully unperturbed behind bulletproof glass at the crowds as they briefly glance her way. Of Da Vinci’s seven known paintings three hang inside the Louvre. Two incredibly beautiful Da Vinci artworks hang in relative repose just steps away from the Mona Lisa ignored by the hordes.
The Mona Lisa seen through a camera lens is not the same as a close, careful observation of the work itself. Each artwork you see hanging on a museum or gallery wall is the result of hundreds of choices and decisions, the moves the artist made and did not make when faced with the blank canvas. Whatever its subject, whatever its style, the artist spent many, many hours gazing at this image and preparing it to meet you.
Every work of art gives concrete expression to a whole series of perceptions and memories that belong to both the artist and the viewer. The work may be new to us but it never stands alone. To give that canvas our attention is to give ourselves an opportunity to discover the power and relevance of our own perception.
What you see first, what you interpret from the relationships of shape, color, and character will be different from every other person who stands before it. Through detached noticing, awareness allows the observed object to reveal more of itself without our intervention. Learning to pay close attention to a work of art has the potential to change not only the way you visit a museum or a gallery but also the way you live your life.
Goethe says “The hardest thing to see is that which is before our eyes”. Seeing clearly is no easy trick.
What stands between us and seeing clearly are distractions, mindsets (distortions, received ideas, prejudices, and preconceptions), and mental fabrications our mind makes up for us.
Most of us go through our lives without really looking at what is there, around us. Instead, we choose to see through the smoked glass of ignorance, presumption, or delusion. We end up being fooled by what we imagine we see rather than what is really there.
Humans are bombarded with stimuli, both externally in the form of sights, sounds, and other sensory information and internally in the form of thoughts, emotions, and memories. Our brain automatically filters our surroundings and our internal state and allows only a small percentage of available information to pass through to protect us from an information overload that would otherwise paralyze us.
What this means is that we don’t “see with our eyes” we see with our brain. Visual processing begins in the retina, a part of the eye that is also a part of the brain. What we see engages a full 25% of our brain and over 65% of all our brain pathways - more than any of our other senses.
By throttling down to the minimum amount of information in our chaotic world we are able to carry on conversations in crowded restaurants or drive a car while helping our children recite their multiplication facts, or play a sport in front of a screaming crowd. We grow accustomed to the brain’s fast, general interpretations and categorizations of our surroundings even when doing so means we focus on some things at the expense of others.
The power of observation can be developed by simply opening our eyes, turning on our brains, tuning in, and paying attention. In life, the scene in front of us constantly changes and re-organizes itself. Four people at an accident scene often report markedly different versions of the same event. The unchanging nature of a painting allows those four viewers to discuss, review and reach an agreement on their experience.
Looking at art can be mind-opening in ways you might never have considered before. Do you know that detectives, doctors, writers and others who need to enhance their perception of detail use slow looking at art to pierce the veil of bias and judgment that clouds their first impressions? A two-year study published in the Journal of the AMA found that medical students who studied artwork improved their diagnostic skills considerably but that their observational skills, specifically their detection of details also increased by 10%.
A painting sits unchanged in quiet solitude waiting for the viewer ready to come before it. Secrets and stories hidden inside its four corners wait to reveal themselves to a viewer ready to show up open, aware, and prepared to listen. The more we observe art specifically for the details, the more we will see them. Art permits us to take all the time we need and return to it again and again to look some more.
Consider the famous painting by Edward Hopper called "Nighthawks". You may have seen it 10 or 100 times in your lifetime, but you probably never stopped to really look at it carefully. Where do you think this scene takes place? It looks like it might be taken from a film noir detective story. What time of day is it? The streets are dark and the only light comes from inside the bar. What are the relationships of the four people in the painting? Is it a coffee shop, a restaurant, or a bar? Is this picture inviting you in?
The man and woman might be touching hands, but they aren’t. The waiter and smoking man might be conversing, but they’re not. The couple might strike up a conversation with the man facing them, but somehow, we know they won’t. And then we realize that Hopper has placed us, the viewer, on the city street, with no door to enter the diner, and yet in a position to evaluate each of the people inside. We see the row of empty counter stools nearest us. We notice that no one is making eye contact with anyone else. Up close, the waiter’s face appears to have an expression of horror or pain.
Are there other details you notice? What other questions arise for you?
When you are ready to practice observing a work of art, select a museum or gallery and a painting for your extended art experience. Take yourself on an artist date, by yourself or with a friend who will enjoy a leisurely day looking at just a few pieces for a longer period of time. You might even try this with a work of art in your own home.
Select an artwork with enough detail to keep you engaged. Your artwork can be from any time period and any genre. Bring a journal for taking notes. Find a comfortable spot where you can sit undisturbed as you observe your selected painting. Most museums have benches in the galleries for just this purpose.
Scan the whole surface of the painting, working methodically, and rhythmically from side to side and top to bottom. No judgments, no evaluations, no search for meaning. Just looking. Do nothing but look at the painting with painstaking concentration developing a sense of increased awareness along the way.
As soon as you label any aspect of the painting you are no longer noticing, you are studying it. You want to form a connection with the painting first, live the experience and only afterward attempt to understand it.
Take a mental snapshot. Try to get the whole image in focus and then press the button. Close your eyes and consult with the mind’s eye to see how effectively it recalls the recorded information. After a minute or so, open your eyes to compare your mind’s eye image with the real thing.
You will probably notice that your mind registered very little at first glance.
Next, choose a corner and then follow a three-inch perimeter around the entire painting, making the trip as slow and thorough as possible, so that no single detail is skipped along the way. When you return to your corner, turn around and make a second tour in the opposite direction. You can go around a third time if you desire.
Next, locate the center of interest in the painting. It is usually not in the physical center of the work and can usually be recognized because it has the most detail and the most contrast of value, shape, and color. Look at one area of interest at a time in the painting. Closely examine the details and relationships of shape, color, and movement.
Allow your focus to zoom out all the way back to the edges until the entire surface is again in focus. See if you notice a physical sensation or a strong emotion.
Take a break. Close your eyes and pause for a few moments. Pay attention to what is happening at your heart and gut level, and what thoughts, judgments, and emotions might be arising. It could be as simple as “I’m bored” to a welling up of grief or sadness.
Return to the painting and find a new unexplored area to review and record in your mind’s eye. You should have a growing resource of remembered detail. Continue alternating exploration with breaks for recreating the art in your mind’s eye.
Once you have observed the painting for a while and you feel like you have the image captured in your mind you are ready to go deeper.
Assess, Analyze, Articulate, Ask and Adapt:
Assess: Begin by collecting the facts; who, what, when, and where.
What do you think is going on in the painting? What relationships do you see - between people and objects? What questions does the painting elicit?
There is a clear distinction between passive sight and active assessment. Observation is a study of facts. Knowing we have perceptual filters that can color or cloud what we see means it will take time to cull the actual facts from our observations. Which is a fact and which is a judgment from these statements below? There are nine people in this painting. The tall man is wearing a pony tail. The two people standing close together are married. (see painting above)
Analyze: Pay attention to your perceptual filters. Are you seeing relationships or emotions in the artwork that are not explicitly stated?
Change perspective physically and mentally, reorient to better see the small details and the big picture. Ask yourself, what am I tuning out? What might I be taking for granted? What would a foreigner or alien coming into my world not know? Would the scene above make sense to them?
Much of the interaction by the artist with the work in the studio is time spent sitting and gazing at/contemplating the image he/she is creating. How much time do you think the artist spent gazing as the work progressed? What judgments, choices, and decisions might they have followed?
If you are a painter yourself you might want to consider “how” the artist created the work. What processes, tools, and techniques were employed? Is the artist particularly skillful in your opinion? Can you tell which materials were used and how they were applied?
Articulate: Writing about art is a great way to develop your descriptive powers and spelling out your observations will help you to notice if there is something you overlooked in the painting. Make notes in your journal to describe what you see and do not see in this artwork. What words would you use to describe and explain it to someone else? Note anything conspicuously absent that should be there to give an even more precise description of what you perceive.
One of the intriguing things about a painting is the paradox between its literal silence as a purely visual object and its implication of sound. What sort of music would you like to be listening to as you gaze on the painting? It is unmoving and yet agitated movement is sometimes suggested. Can you articulate how the painting makes you feel, smell, hear?
Continue taking breaks to envision the work every few minutes
Each time you return to the painting, notice if there is anything new to surprise you. Regardless of how slowly and carefully you look there is always some undiscovered detail to call out to you.
Ask: Many people feel asking for assistance will make them seem incompetent but the opposite is true. People have probably approached you as you sat. Ask them to share what they notice and perceive in your chosen artwork.
Ask Google about the story of this painting and the artist who created it to give it more context in terms of history and the movements and discoveries being made in the art world at the time of its creation.
Adapt/ Realign: How has your perception of the artwork changed as a result of your extended observation and investigation? How have you changed through this process? What have you discovered about yourself?
I hope you feel that even if you never see this painting again it is now as alive inside you as it is with the artist who created it.
Because we live in a culture of distraction, extended focus like this can feel very uncomfortable at first. Are you aware that the average person checks their phone 110 times a day and nearly once every 6 seconds in the evening? Our perpetual byte-size interactions are a detriment to our concentration, focus, productivity, and personal safety and they lower our IQ. Students who were distracted while working on complicated math problems took 40% longer to solve them.
Extended looking at art can train you to be more present and to recognize the ways your mind filters the world around you and inside of you in a way that can keep you trapped inside your prejudices and preconceptions.
Would you enjoy putting this process of extended looking at art into action? Would you find it tiresome or invigorating? Thoroughness and thoughtfulness are not core values for everyone, and if you make them a priority, they can help you stand out from the crowd of people who just don’t bother. Close observation of art is a practice that will help you to build both of these important values.
Simply knowing how unreliable your first perception is can help alleviate miscommunication and misunderstanding. Recognizing that you can’t always trust what you see can prevent you and me from getting upset with others when they don’t see things the way we do. The fact is they don’t and they can’t. No one can see things like you do except you. There is always more to be discovered and uncovered when you stay curious and engaged.
Pay close attention to everything around you, breathe consciously and do all you can to stay in the present moment. This is what DaVinci meant by “seeing”. Invention is less about creation than it is about discovery. What can you notice that no one else sees? Awareness makes each moment in every area of our lives more creative and meaningful.
Here are the books I used as resources for this essay. I found them fascinating and you might too.
“Slow Looking” by Peter Clothier
“Visual Intelligence” by Amy E. Herman
“How to Look at a Painting” by Francoise Barbe-Gall
Please reach out to me if you would like my help discovering yourself through art. I welcome the opportunity for conversation, collaboration, and commissions.
With Light and Delight