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How to look at art - questions to ask in front of paintings

lookingatartIt is September, which means back to school for kids, parents, university students and professors alike. As a perpetual student and prof myself, I tend to feel the rhythm of the school semesters even when I'm not teaching. A few articles I've read lately remind me of the strong need to help people look at art, which is what we do when we teach art history. There is method and vocabulary associated with looking at art; many people have trouble expressing an opinion about or even describing a work because this is a language in which they have not been trained. It's nothing about which to be embarassed! So in honour of the start of the school year, how about doing a little "Art Appreciation" here on Tuscany Arts blog? If you like this idea, please let me know and I'll do more. Today I want to start with the premise that we learn by asking the right questions. So let's take one painting and ask a bunch of questions. No answers here, just questions, and some hints as to how to solve them. (Seasoned Florentines or art historians will know this work, but maybe some of the questions will surprise you!)

Say you are in the Uffizi museum and you come across this: uccello-battle-uffizi A big painting with horses and soldiers. But what about the five W's - who, what, when, where, why? and most importantly, How? The W's help us identify the work, the How helps us understand what visual aspects of the painting help communicate these things. But for today let's stick to the W's, which is what art history teachers always insist that their students memorize. There's no real order in which to start, but I like to start with WHEN. And before we get going: it's okay if you cannot answer these questions! Often the image itself does not provide enough information to get to the bottom of things.


When was this painting made? If you're inside a museum, often other works in the room will help you answer this question - or the name of the room itself! But even out of context, there are elements inside the work that might help answer this question. Do you think this artist knew about scientific perspective, that is how to depict objects so that they look like they are receding in space? Is he good at it? When was this technique invented? Does that help approximately date the work? Are there things like costume or subject matter that help answer this question?


What is depicted? What figures do you see in the painting? What poses are they in? Based on this observation, Is there action or is it static? Is the sentiment violent or pleasant? What can you deduce is going on? (In this case, you've figured out that it's a battle, so you'll probably automatically ask yourself what battle it is, which might easily lead to one of the other W's...) Also, What medium is it? You know this is a painting, but what kind of painting? is it oil, watercolour, fresco, or egg tempera? can you see brush strokes? gilded gold leaf? Can you see an underdrawing beneath the paint, or is the paint thick? Are colours blended on the support? and what support is it - wood? canvas?


Closely related to the first "what" question, Where does this action take place? Is it inside or outside? (Ok, in this case if there were horses inside I'd worry, but trust me, I can think of examples...) What things are there that allow me to know this? Are they realistic or stylized? Does it look like anywhere I've seen before? Does it look like a nice place? A real or invented place? in what time period might this be? past or present?


Why did someone paint this? Usually works have a function, often related to their original placement. But even if we don't know the circumstances of its creation or installation, we can wonder - was it for propoganda? commemoration? a gift? decoration?


Who. For "who" we want to know multiple things: who made it? for whom was it made?", and Who paid for it? While the wall text will probably tell us the artist's name, that might not be useful to you. And knowing who the patron was isn't always clear, but there may be hints in the work. Is there someone in the painting who stands out? Someone looking at you, or wearing a funny hat; someone bigger or smaller than everyone else? Might that person be one of our "who"'s? At the end of these questions you won't know everything about the work but you'll be one step ahead. Next time we'll talk about the How - how artists use visual elements like line or colour to communicate.

More art appreciation resources on the web

Get to know your historical time periods with the Met's timeline of art history (with illustrations and in depth essays) - one of the best resources online! Smarthistory's videos tells stories about art; if you listen to these people talk in front of paintings (they are curators, art historians, or other experts) you'll start to pick up on their language. This site gives you a series of questions to help you place a painting in history and to start to understand formal properties.