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More than Just Looking

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

Art museums used to discourage me. I remember standing in front of a beautiful Édouard Manet painting as a young artist and feeling like I should just go ahead and drop out of my life drawing class. After all, I would never be able to achieve such beautiful technical skills. This self-degradation went on for years, but I continued to wander through museums playing the comparison game. Then something started to click for me about looking at art. If I could forget about beating myself up as an artist and look closely at what the art could teach, I could actually improve my own work.

On a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, I made little geometric thumbnail sketches of El Greco’s paintings. Each painting seemed to have a triangular arrangement of core values, shapes and lines. I started to consider the underlying shapes in my own art.

At the Denver Museum of Art, I stood in front of Elaine de Kooning’s, Bullfight, 1959, and noticed the way the chaotic arrangement of color felt powerful and energized. This brought me an awareness of the way color and composition can evoke emotion in my own paintings.

Earlier this year, I learned about color vibration and movement when I stared at Van Gogh’s paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. That same day, I felt enveloped in motionless and transitioning color when standing in front of Mark Rothko’s No. 14. I returned to my studio after that museum visit and painted in saturated colors.

Most recently, I learned from Claude Monet that the essence of mood, light and color in a painting is more important than accuracy of form. These are really simple art history lessons, but viewing art in person enables me to connect these ideas to my own work. If we are open to learning, museums allow us to be tutored by masters.

Here are some of my favorite ways to learn while looking at art:

  1. Create a tiny Notan drawing of the painting to learn why its composition works.

  2. Look closely at how colors and glazes are applied. Get close enough to study brushstrokes.

  3. Take the time to discover how a piece of art evokes emotion.

  4. Look for the one color that really stands out in a painting and consider why it is powerful.

  5. Choose one thing to study in multiple works (backgrounds, light, perspective, etc.)

  6. Examine the size and construction of a painting.

  7. Find the negative space. Sketch only the negative space.

  8. Make a blind contour sketch of the main shapes in a piece of art.

  9. Bring home a paper postcard of a favorite painting. Look at it over time and consider why it is attractive and how this affects your aesthetic. Trace its basic composition with a vellum overlay.

  10. Make a note of where the eye first lands upon viewing art and how it moves through the work.

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