Art is so many things. For some people, art is about beauty; for others, it’s about ideas; and for others still, it’s about extremes. For artists, the important aspect of art is often the process of art creation. For the audience, the important aspect is often our response or what we learn from engaging with the artwork.
Everyone can engage with art. Here’s a tried-and-true method to get you started:
1. Before entering the gallery or museum, be aware of your mood.
This ensures you are aware of the attitude with which you are approaching the art.
For example, if you just took Washington DC’s redline metro from Silver Spring to Judiciary Square and there was track work at New York Ave, you are probably in a bad mood, and you will approach the art with a tense, defensive attitude.
2. Gaze at the artwork and describe how it makes you feel.
Some artworks will elicit a positive reaction (happy, relaxed, empowered); some will invoke a negative reaction (sad, awkward, dejected); others will reinforce how you already feel; and others still will not affect you at all (blankness, disengaged, bored).
3. Look more closely at the artwork and describe what you see.
Pay attention to the color, shapes, brightness and composition. Scan the artwork from left-to-right, right-to-left, up-and-down, down-and-up to ensure you see all the detail.
Try looking at the artwork from different angles, especially compare the picture from close up and far away.
4. Close your eyes, re-imagine the artwork and work out where you see yourself in the picture.
Do you see yourself as part of the scene or are you an on-looker? How do you relate to the figures and objects in the artwork? For example, if there’s a human in the picture, is this person a friend or foe?
Reflect on how much more context your imagination applies to the art. For example, if you are looking at a history painting, how much of the historical story do you re-create? Or, if you are looking at an abstract artwork, do you envision any realistic scene?
5. Open your eyes, re-look at the artwork and reflect on why the artwork creates this reaction in you.
Think about what you have learnt about the artwork, the world and yourself.
This method takes at least five minutes per artwork, so only plan to intensely view a couple of artworks on your next visit to a gallery. Extraverts can use this method with a friend – discuss your thoughts and discover the plethora of responses that artworks evoke. Introverts could write or draw about their thoughts and reflections. Ambiverts can do both!
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is a great place to use this method. Located in two buildings on the National Mall, a five minute walk from the Archives metro (green and yellow lines) or ten minutes from Judiciary Square (red line), their collection has something for everyone. If you are uncertain where to start, ask the volunteers at the information desk for the Building Highlights pamphlet for both the East and West building. Decide which artworks interest you most, and head straight to those locations. Matisse’s bright, rhythmic cut-outs, located in the East building are a great place to start.