7 Tips For Approaching Artwork

A Quick Guide To Viewing Artwork

Have you ever felt intimidated or lost when you look at artwork? This resource might just be for you. In this entry, I will provide a few helpful tips for the people whom find themselves saying “I don’t get it” when they walk into a gallery. This guide showcases just a few tips regarding the best way to approach any piece of artwork for the first time.

Check Your Baggage At The Door
  • One of the biggest difficulties when viewing artwork for the first time is approaching it without a negative mindset–especially if this new style challenges your norm.
Like Vs. Appreciate
  • Believe it or not, whether you like a piece of art doesn’t really impact the ‘artness’ of it. It’s indeed OK if you don’t like something after you’ve considered why other people might. Learn how to appreciate aspects of the work even if (maybe especially if) you don’t actually like it as a whole.
That’s Not Art!
  • “monument” for V. Tatlin by Dan Flavin. 1969

    This is a topic so important that I wrote another blog entry about this exact statement. Whether it is or isn’t art is sort of a moot point, isn’t it? It’s in a gallery and presented as such. My suggestion is to think about what makes it good art or bad art rather than debating if it is art. 

I often put it this way: Let’s say you went to a world-class restaurant and ordered their most celebrated entrée. It just so happens they are most renowned for their caviar and you’ve never been a big fan of caviar. Is it less of a dish because you don’t like it–Even if the rest of the world says it’s fantastic?

Need A Place To Start?
  • Antithesis In Black (detail)
    Antithesis In Black (detail): Oil on wood panel

    If you’re stuck, try looking at the formal elements first. Compositionally, does it appear that the artist wanted you to look at a specific spot first? What about size, mood, and color? As a loose rule: bright colors can signify fun or aggressive emotions while dulled colors speak of calmness, sadness, or mysteriousness. Is it 2-D or 3-D? If it’s viewable from different angles like a sculpture, try looking at it from different vantage points. Ask why. Why did the artist choose to do what they did instead of what they didn’t?

Pretend That You’re Describing Your Favorite Food
  • Sticking with the food analogies: everyone has a favorite food. Let’s say you like herb-crusted oven-roasted chicken. It’s not very informative if you say, “I like chicken,” without specifying which type of chicken you like. What makes the dishes that you like different from the ones you hate? After all, herb-crusted chicken is quite different from chicken nuggets, Mongolian chicken, and jerked chicken. What makes it better than say, beef? The same goes for describing artwork. Comparing attributes between different pieces of art can build a case for why one works and why the other doesn’t. This can provide the same sort of informed conversation about your tastes in art.
Are You Their Intended Audience?
  • "The Shy Machine": Fully opened in the Soft Volume Position. Slow undulations of rainbow light.
    “The Shy Machine”: Fully opened in the Soft Volume Position. Slow undulations of rainbow light.

    Just like with music, art has genres. Most artwork isn’t made for everyone in every demographic. Some pieces are aimed at the trendy, low-brow, or anti-establishment crowd while others might be meant for the art scholar; or the ‘mom’s demographic’; or the politically driven. Try figuring out for whom the artwork is intended. Do you fit that genre? Perhaps–perhaps not.

Look, Don’t Touch… Maybe
  • Some pieces of art are actually meant to be played with or engaged. In that case have the best time ever! However, if you’re not supposed to touch it, don’t! This isn’t just a suggestion made by the crusty people at the mean ol’ galleries & museums. Priceless works of art are often damaged as a result of carelessness, greasy hands, and the all-too-common, “I just wanted to touch it” action. Don’t believe me?….

Check out these examples:

  1. Woman Falls Into Picasso Work Valued At $130 Million
  2. Tracey Emin’s Work: Snagged, Backed Into, Burned, & Damaged
  3. Michelangelo’s Pietà Absolutely Mangled By Psychopathic Horseplay
  4. An Art Critic Accidentally Shattered a $19,000 Glass Sculpture at the Zona Maco Fair With a Wayward Can of Coke

You can find more free articles like this on my Artist Resource page. My mission is to provide free and accessible tools for artists, educators, and enthusiasts. I encourage you to share and refer people here as often as you wish. Naturally, these articles take many hours to thoroughly research and write. If you’d like to support me as an artist and advocate, please consider donating whatever you can. Thank you!

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