A bunch of years ago, I contributed to a book called GirlWise: How to Be Confident, Capable, Cool, and in Control. My chapter was all about how to appreciate art, without looking like a fool. I was feeling rather nostalgic this evening and so thought I would post that bit of writing here.
In order to appreciate art, you don't need a degree in the stuff. All you need are your eyes - and some time. Really. In fact, you don't even have to like what you see.
The more time you spend looking at art, the more you will notice. It’s really just that simple. Looking at art is no different than listening to music, reading a book, going to a movie, or even eating - the more you involve yourself in any of these activities, the more you will "pick up".
Sometimes, what you "pick up", isn't pretty.
When looking at art, accept the fact your gut can tell you a lot about what you are looking at. If a painting, drawing or sculpture makes you feel angry, frightened or sad, try to figure out why. Generally, when a work of art makes us feel uncomfortable, we don't always work through those feelings, usually because we think we might be – heaven forbid - wrong. After all, if all your friends think that van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” is a wonderful work of art, who are you to say it makes you feel creepy? Like it or not, confrontation is not an unusual occurrence in art and it is not something to be afraid of. Allow yourself the option to say, "I really don't like this work." It's ok. Just because a painting shows up in every art history book doesn't mean you have to adore it... even if your friends do. Think in terms of food; some of us like turnips while some of us don’t. Contemporary artist Anitra Redlefsen says, “The more we expand the range of foods we eat, the more nutrition we are likely to get and the more we like and appreciate foods from all over the world. The same is true of art. The important thing to remember is that taste is just that, and by stating that we like it or do not like it does not make the food or the art good, or bad.”
What Makes Something a Work of Art… or Not?
You've probably heard the saying, "One picture is worth more than a thousand words" - I happen to think that this old Chinese proverb pretty much hits the nail on the head. Art is a way of telling a story, sharing a point of view or expressing an idea or feeling. Simply put, art is a form of communication that goes beyond language. Don’t believe me? Consider that you don't need to know how to speak Italian to look at a Leonardo Da Vinci painting, nor do you need to understand French to look at a Henri Matisse sculpture.
What About Abstract Art?
Abstract art is sometimes difficult to understand. You’ve probably seen paintings and sculptures that made you say, “What the heck is that?” or “I did that in kindergarten!” Before you walk away from the gallery shaking your head, you have to keep in mind the times in which the art was made. Consider this… today anyone can fling some paint at a canvas, give it a title and call it art, but imagine living in a world where no one ever did such a thing and seeing someone do it for the very first time. Throughout history, artists like Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock have shocked society by doing something different – for the first time. That’s why we know their names today.
It Pays to be Popular
One of the main mysteries surrounding the art world is why and how one painting can sell for millions of dollars, while another is worth maybe hundreds. While there are no easy answers, there are a few truths, which exist. Generally a work of art is worth as much as what someone will pay for it. Sounds simple right? Not really. How much a work of art is worth is based on many things including:
The Artist's Reputation - Basically whether or not they are “popular” in the art world.
Training - Who did the artist train under or with and were they popular?
Education - Did the artist go to a well-respected (popular) school?
Provenance - Who has owned the work before, and were they popular?
Talkin’ the Talk and Walkin’ the Walk
Once you realize there are no wrong answers when talking about art, the freer you will feel. The following ideas can be used to help you understand and share your feelings toward works of art.
Look at a few paintings you like and some you don’t, and literally talk about what you see. There are no wrong answers here so feel free to say anything. Talk about your feelings with friends or family; compare notes.
Have a look at how the paint was applied and try to determine if a brush was used, or maybe a palette knife, or perhaps even fingers. The texture of the paint will help you to determine this.
Talk about the kinds of lines you see. Are they straight or wavy? What shapes do you see?
Look closely at the work and see if there are any areas you are particularly drawn to. Talk about why that is.
Ask yourself if the painting makes you think of things in motion. Think about how or if the artist is trying to show movement... is this achieved with line or color?
Does the painting look flat or do you feel as though you could "walk right in"? Discuss where you think the artist might have been standing when he/she created the painting. This can give you some clues as to why the work might have been created.
How do you feel when you look at the painting? Talk about it... remember, there are no wrong answers. Ask yourself why the artist might have chosen the subject he/she painted? Talk about how the artist might have felt about the subject matter.
Don't feel intimidated when looking at or talking about art. Never be afraid to share how you feel, because your opinion is a valuable one.
What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say
Let’s say you find yourself at an art gallery or museum and someone asks you to comment on a work of art. What do you do? You could panic, cry, or stand quietly and sweat. Or you could say one of the following phrases and sound like you actually know what you’re talking about…
"I don't know why but I am really drawn to this painting."
"This work really invokes feelings of - (fill in the blank - warmth, fear, etc.)
"The artist's use of color is divine."
"Such a bold statement."
"What a wonderful use of --- (fill in the blank - color, texture, etc.)."
"Nice balance... fabulous depth."
"Very unique and original."
"I love the rough, sweeping lines."
"I like the texture."
"The thick layers of color are very striking."
"The brushwork is very expressive."
"I enjoy the use of perspective."
"My, the composition is very strong."
"This image is one of mystery and depth."
"I feel the artist's pain."
"That's extremely interesting."
Some Final Thoughts
When discovering art, it doesn't hurt if you live near a museum or gallery - nothing you view in a book will ever compare to the real thing. It's not unlike talking to someone on the telephone vs. face to face. I can remember the first time I saw a van Gogh portrait "in the flesh" the colors and the brush strokes were so much more vivid than I ever could have imagined them to be. There's a good reason museums have guards on duty…