A guide to looking at art

I sometimes hear people say they don’t know how to look at art. This is particularly the case with contemporary (and sometimes modern) art. It’s almost like there’s a reluctance to engage with art because there’s a fear of not knowing how to do it ‘right’. Or sometimes people think they just won’t ‘get it’. What’s the point, they ask? It’s all too obscure, eccentric, or downright weird.

You might be surprised to know there is no magic formula to this.

There’s no secret way of looking at art that everyone else knows how to do except you.

That’s because we all bring something different to the looking. And then to the understanding. What one person takes away as interesting and meaningful might be boring or irrelevant for someone else.

One person’s seeing might be strongly informed by a lifetime of living in a particular culture, or be influenced by the kind of art they saw (or didn’t see) as a child. A way of looking at something might be different for a man or a woman because of the different ways we’re socialised. If you’re an indigenous Australian you might bring something different to seeing, something that a non-indigenous Australian might not think about much or could even find a little baffling.

Caveat: If you’re an art expert or connoisseur this post is most probably not for you. However, if you feel like a bit of a beginner in how to go about understanding art then hopefully the information here will provide one way for you to get started.

One guide to looking at art, is a strategy called See, Think, Wonder, developed by Harvard Project Zero as part of their Visible Thinking strategy. They developed this idea to help students look at art and museum objects. But I think it’s a simple idea that works well for anyone.

See | Think | Wonder

Look at the artwork or object for a moment.

What do you see?

Think quite literally. Is it a painting? A sculpture? A photograph? An installation? A digital work? Something else?

Is it large, small or somewhere in between? How does it occupy the space it’s in?

Look at the work and focus on the subject matter. What do you see? It doesn’t matter that you might not understand the work at this stage. Focus on what’s right in front of you. Keep it fairly descriptive at this point.

If there’s a label for the work, read it. Notice who the artist or artists are. Take note of when it was made and any information provided about the materials it was made from.

What do you think about that?

Does the work make you respond in any way? Take note of that. Does it make you laugh? Repulse you? Intrigue? Irritate? Or another type of response? Think about that a little more.

What does the work bring to mind? Does it make you think about something else for some reason? A person, place, or some other kind of art work you know or have seen?

Does it make you curious? If so, why? What do you think is going on? What do you think the artist is trying to say?

What do you think about the work?

What does it make you wonder?

Does the art work create a sense of wonder for you? Do you feel a sense of awe or amazement? Why do you think this might be? Does it make you want to know more about the artists and where they come from? Does it make you interested to know about their other work?

Are you curious to know more about this work? Do you wonder about how it was made and why? Do you wonder where it has been exhibited before and why the place you’re standing in is showing it now?

What is wondrous about the work to you?

Note: Sometimes people confuse the meaning of think and wonder. Keep it clear in your mind – to wonder is to view something with amazement or awe. It might encourage you to marvel. While to think is to consider or ponder something like an idea or a physical object. In doing so you might turn it over in your mind.


People Holding Flowers, 2007. Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing (image via ShanghART Gallery)

Try the See, Think, Wonder approach with the work of art pictured above – People Holding Flowers, by Chinese artists, Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing.

What do you see?

What do you think about that?

What does it make you wonder?

Use the prompts from each of the sections to guide you through the looking. When you’re done, pause for a moment. Then consider, do you feel like you’ve made any headway into knowing more about the work? Have you gained any insight about the subject matter, the artist’s intent, or the context they were working from? Hopefully yes. If like me, you want to know more then consider reading about People Holding Flowers. Or perhaps watch this interview with the artists.

Try this strategy again next time you’re standing in front of art. See what happens.