How to Look at Modern Art

Co-Founder of The Discerning Palette Saira Kalimuddin shares her tips on how to appreciate ‘Modernist’ art..

As a collector and dealer of Mid-Century Modern (MCM) art, I am surrounded by an ever- growing collection of unique, distinctive and often very charming array of paintings and prints.

The term ‘Modern’ in art is a massively wide genre that encompasses a myriad of different styles or movements  – think impressionism, cubism, fauvism, minimalism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, the list could go on and on. If you are familiar with these movements, you’ll be able to identify them in ‘Modern’ paintings quite quickly. But I think it is also very much worth knowing a different approach to appreciating art, that is less about understanding historical contexts or agendas, and more about trusting your gut, letting your eyes wander, and allowing yourself to feel.

To give you some context, Modernism is an art movement that rejects the old way of realistically depicting people or objects, and moves towards experimentation with form (the shapes, colours and lines that make up the work), and an emphasis on materials, techniques and processes.

Artists working under a modernist ethos don’t want to represent things simply as we see them. They want to incorporate their own emotions and bring attention to the things we normally overlook.

By not depicting what they see around them in a realistic way, they can really embrace their imagination and their unconscious, and unleash their creativity.

They don’t have to work within the rules of the natural world, and are set free to play with new inventions, and transport themselves (and the viewer) to different worlds.⁠

For example, if you look at a realistic painting of a view out a window, you’ll notice the view. But a modernist painting might try to make you notice the actual paint on the canvas, the shape of that window and how it plays with the shapes of things within the view. The artist might also change up the colours completely, so that you get an idea of his mood and emotions while he was painting it.

So, here are my top 3 key points in learning how to look, and hopefully appreciate, modern art:

  1. Let go of trying to ‘understand’..

There is a famous art book from over 40 years ago called ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger, who began with his assertion that a baby learns to see before it learns to talk, read or compute things in the world. A child reacts to its surroundings with electrons and neurons firing off in the brain to form new connections and knowledge centres. This act of visual perception inevitably leads to thoughts and verbal reactions, much in the same way that art stimulates first the eye, then the brain.

So, relieve yourself of the idea that you need to ‘understand’ an artwork. Although it can be interesting and useful to know what the artist was thinking, or how different factors (political, social or physical conditions) affected his or her hand, your personal relationship with a work of art, however superficial, is just as (if not more) important to your own understanding or appreciation of the work than any prescribed meaning the artist was striving for.

If modernist artists were working under the ethos of freedom, then freedom should be your guiding light to looking!

  1. Notice shape, form, colour and texture

Lead with your eyes and notice the physical qualities of the artwork.. Let your eyes scan the artwork from left to right, up to down, background to foreground, and then all around. Pick out shapes and forms, notice if they repeat throughout the picture. Pay attention to the texture of the paint – is it thick or thin? Does it have any other material added to it? Do you see areas of impasto (where the paint is applied so thickly it stands proud from the surface)? If you’re looking at a sculpture or a relief work, see if you can spot any shadows cast by its form. If it is a painting, also pay attention to whether the artist has let the canvas show through. If they have, more often than not that is their conscious attempt to remind you that this is paint-on-a-surface,and not an imitation of reality.

If a painting is framed, it can be quite enjoyable to look at the frame as a work of art in itself. Often a wide profile frame can draw your focus inwards towards the painting and encourage you to focus in on details. Colours on the frame can play with colours within the picture, highlighting certain shades or tones that would otherwise go unnoticed.

  1.  Lastly, can you find your ‘hook’?

Whenever I speak to people who are new to collecting or buying art, I always encourage them to start with one that reminds them of a place they’ve been to, someone they know, or a piece of music they’ve listened to.

Even if an artwork doesn’t resemble anything recognisable, its texture, colour or tactility could make you feel a certain way. Perhaps you want to reach out and touch it, or perhaps it gives you the ‘heebie-jeebies’ (don’t forget a negative response still means it had an impact!)

The same way listening to music can make you feel a certain way – art is much the same, if you let it.


In a nutshell, remember that enjoying art doesn’t have to be about names, dates, and historical context. One of the main reasons why I buy and collect Modern Art is that it reminds me that I don’t always have to make sense of things, sometimes it is important to let go. As Pablo Picasso said, “The world doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”

Saira Kalimuddin

Follow @discerningpalette on Instagram for more tips.

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