How to Look at Art

A painting can hang right in front of our eyes, and yet at the same time can seem so very far away. Just thinking of old master paintings in museums, where you have a composition of tumbling angels or portraits of unrecognisable ladies and gents from a bygone age, how are we meant to connect with artworks like these when at first glance they seem such a long way off, stuck in an immemorial past, unknowable objects as a result of the chasm of time between us and its creators? Is it the case that only viewers well acquainted with the history of art can understand and access these pieces? Do we need to be familiar with the political and social attitudes of the time in order to break that barrier?

I’m here to suggest that although the history of art can certainly shine a light on the contexts of paintings and perhaps help us places them into definable categories, there certainly exists a ‘way of looking’ that doesn’t require background knowledge or experience. And this ‘way’ that I’m about to talk about will I think really help those of us that find it difficult to engage with or are baffled by works of art when walking around museums and galleries. 

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. 

Which is why I am proposing that we relieve ourselves of the idea that we need to ‘understand’ an artwork. The simple fact is, that you will never be able to fully comprehend an object of the past. It is impossible to discover exactly how an ancient sculpture was made or ascertain which was the first or last brushstroke to touch a canvas. We can never know precisely what the artist was thinking, or how different factors (political, social or physical conditions) affected his or her hand. 

So rather than concerning yourself with the possibility of fully understanding a piece, allow yourself instead to have a purely physical reaction to the art you see, before you turn inward to process its finer qualities. Lead with the eye and body,  the mind will fill in the gaps later. Trust me, it will. And if it doesn’t, move on to the next piece of art. When I say ‘lead with the eye’ and physically react, I genuinely mean those words. Let your eye scan the picture or object from left to right, up to down, background to foreground, and then all around. Believe you me, as you allow yourself to look, your brain will instinctively start to ask questions, make observations and begin a process of analysis. Pay attention to things like the size of the people/object in the picture, if there is a background and what is in it, the texture of the paint, pick out individual colours. Walk around the picture, to and fro, or come up close and intimate with it (but try not to set off any alarms..). If you find yourself getting distracted or your focus waning, take 3 deep breaths while looking again at the picture. 

I would advise doing this first before reading any labels or texts. Come to these later because although the labels can enhance our knowledge, they can also make us lazy onlookers. So I challenge you to try first to rely on your wit – I promise you will surprise yourself. Labels or audioguides can certainly provide knowledge, history and context, but at the end of the day the object in front of us is in the here and now, and we shouldn’t be afraid to teach it as such, using our faculties as  contemporary person with contemporary faculties. 

Feel free to try it out on the picture I have attached below, a dramatic moment captured in oil by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. Of course looking at this on a computer or phone screen won’t provide the same intimacy as seeing the painting in person, but give it a go anyway. Notice every little detail – the open window, her reflection in the window, the caught curtain, the expression on her face, the way her fingers clutch the letter, the tumbling fruit, I can go on and on. Let your eyes wander and feel yourself slowly moving further and further into the picture, until you are standing in the same room as the young girl. Enjoy the meditative process.


  1. Great content! Super high-quality! Keep it up! 🙂

    February 16, 2020 Reply
  2. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back later. Many thanks

    June 1, 2020 Reply
  3. I’m still learning from you, but I’m trying to reach my goals. I certainly enjoy reading everything that is posted on your website.Keep the information coming. I liked it!

    June 2, 2020 Reply
  4. I pay a visit everyday a few web sites and blogs to read posts, but this webpage offers feature based content.

    June 7, 2020 Reply
  5. It’s nearly impossible to find well-informed people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!

    July 1, 2020 Reply
  6. I blog quite often and I truly thank you for your content. The article has really peaked my interest.
    I will take a note of your website and keep checking for new information about once per week.
    I subscribed to your Feed as well.

    July 1, 2020 Reply
  7. Howdy very cool website!! Man .. Beautiful .. Superb ..
    I’ll bookmark your website and take the feeds additionally?

    I’m satisfied to search out a lot of helpful info right here in the put up,
    we need work out extra techniques in this regard,
    thanks for sharing. . . . . .

    July 3, 2020 Reply
  8. I get pleasure from, cause I found just what I used to be taking a look for.
    You have ended my four day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day.

    July 5, 2020 Reply
  9. It’s amazing to pay a visit this site and reading the views of all
    mates concerning this paragraph, while I am also keen of getting knowledge.

    July 5, 2020 Reply
  10. I have joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more

    July 15, 2020 Reply
  11. Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Many thanks, However I am having issues with your RSS.
    I don’t know why I am unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone else having
    the same RSS issues? Anybody who knows the answer can you kindly respond?

    August 8, 2020 Reply
  12. Excellent post however I was wanting to know if you could write a
    litte more on this subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more.
    Thank you!

    August 9, 2020 Reply
  13. I’m impressed, I must say. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and
    engaging, and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head.
    The problem is something that not enough people are
    speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy that I found this in my hunt for something relating to this.
    adreamoftrains web hosting

    August 9, 2020 Reply
  14. Hi there colleagues, how is all, and what you would like to say about
    this piece of writing, in my view its really amazing
    for me.

    August 9, 2020 Reply
  15. I am really impressed with your writing skills as well as with the format on your weblog.
    Is this a paid topic or did you customize it your self? Anyway stay up the
    excellent high quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one these

    August 10, 2020 Reply
  16. I don’t know if it’s just me or if everybody else encountering problems with your
    website. It looks like some of the text on your
    posts are running off the screen. Can somebody else please provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them too?
    This may be a problem with my web browser because I’ve had
    this happen before. Thanks

    August 11, 2020 Reply
  17. Hi there, I would like to subscribe for this weblog to take most
    recent updates, thus where can i do it please assist.

    August 11, 2020 Reply
  18. I all the time emailed this webpage post page to all my associates, since if
    like to read it then my contacts will too.

    August 12, 2020 Reply
  19. Thanks for some other magnificent post. Where else may just anyone get that type of information in such a perfect manner
    of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week, and I’m on the look for
    such info.

    August 15, 2020 Reply
  20. Hey! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a
    quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading through your posts.
    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that go over
    the same topics? Thanks a lot!

    August 16, 2020 Reply
  21. Hi! Someone in my Facebook group shared this website with us so I came to look it
    over. I’m definitely enjoying the information. I’m bookmarking and will be tweeting this to
    my followers! Fantastic blog and amazing design and style.

    August 17, 2020 Reply
  22. I am in fact grateful to the owner of this web site who has shared
    this enormous post at here.

    August 18, 2020 Reply
  23. Terrific post however , I was wondering if you could write
    a litte more on this subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate
    a little bit more. Thank you!

    August 19, 2020 Reply
  24. I’m extremely pleased to uncover this website. I want to to thank you for
    ones time for this particularly fantastic read!! I definitely really liked every bit of it and I have
    you bookmarked to see new information on your site.

    August 23, 2020 Reply
  25. Woah! I’m really enjoying the template/theme of
    this website. It’s simple, yet effective. A lot
    of times it’s very difficult to get that “perfect balance” between superb usability
    and appearance. I must say that you’ve done a great job with this.
    Also, the blog loads very quick for me on Internet explorer.
    Excellent Blog!

    August 26, 2020 Reply
  26. I am not sure where you are getting your information, but
    good topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more.
    Thanks for wonderful information I was looking for this information for my mission.

    September 15, 2020 Reply
  27. Have you ever considered writing an e-book or guest authoring on other sites?
    I have a blog centered on the same subjects you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my
    audience would value your work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free
    to shoot me an e mail.

    September 18, 2020 Reply

Leave a Reply

Select your currency
GBPPound sterling
EUR Euro