Looking Strategies to Impact Art-going

by Shantay Robinson

As a Docent at the High Museum of Art, I learned techniques for looking at art that helped to better engage museum visitors with the artworks on the tours I conducted. While approaching an artwork with knowledge of the artist, the subject matter, and formal qualities, will help the viewer to deconstruct the artwork, it’s best to first look at the artwork without judgement. Simply stand back and look. What do you see? Identify parts of the artwork piece by piece. And once you have done that, then start to piece the artwork back together with newfound information. Once the viewer begins to piece the artwork back together, they will start to make connections to time, place, space, and movements. 

Looking at art can also be a complex endeavor. Some of those things that make up the artwork like composition, content, color, space, form, and subject matter work together to give meaning to it. The composition of an artwork is its organization. The horizontal and vertical lines lead the eye where the artist intends for it to move. The content of an artwork can be comprised of shapes and forms, and these too determine how an artwork is experienced, whether they are abstract or human forms. Color can also structure and organize. When like or dissimilar colors work together they direct the eye. Space aids in the looking experience by giving a painting the feeling of three-dimensionality on a flat surface or giving the viewer a feeling that they can enter into a painting. Form is either free-form or geometric, and it provides the feeling of volume. Because visual images are formed of the world, you might need to have some knowledge of the artist and historical or cultural context.

While artworks can be enjoyed simply for the aesthetic qualities, engaging in art provides for a greater experience. Gillian Rose in Visual Methodologies invents the term “compositional interpretation” as “a way of looking at paintings that is not methodologically explicit but which nevertheless produces a specific way of describing paintings.” She links this notion to cultivating the “good eye” which is developed by having knowledge of the artist, their paintings, and what inspired them. Compositional interpretation is dependent on the good eye and was developed through art history. Conducting research about an artist and their work, is a great way to gain insight to the work before viewing, as artists tend to work in particular veins, within certain contexts, and with specific subjects. 

Let’s look at three masterworks by legacy artists Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, and Jacob Lawrence.

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Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction (1934) by Aaron Douglas

When we simply look at this image, we see dancers, drummers, and onlookers.  They appear to be in the forest, as foliage is around the edges of the painting. The dancers are central to the painting, and the drummers and onlookers are on the periphery. They hold spears in their hands like that of African warriors. The circle of light painted through varied shades of purple mirror the circle created by the human forms. They are a group of people engaging in a ceremony. But identifying these formal qualities doesn’t tell us why Douglas titled the painting Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction. Douglas seems to be making connections between Africans and African Americans, and expressing those things we have in common. The female dancer doesn’t wear a traditionally African hairstyle, but all the other elements in the painting portray inherently African items. African American history tells us that enslaved people maintained as much of their African heritage as they could. Perhaps Douglas was making the claim that from slavery through reconstruction, African Americans have not lost sight of their rich heritage.

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Amistad Murals (1938) by Hale Woodruff

The aspect of this painting that might seem most notable upon viewing it, is the intense color. When we look a little closer, the color doesn’t depict a happy scene but one of horror. Captives of the slave trade have revolted against their captors. They yield swords and the way they have been depicted, shows the fierce movement in their bodies. The central image is that of a man who has his captor squarely on his back with a sword above his head ready to make the wound. This is Hale Woodruff’s interpretation of the Amistad revolt that occurred in 1839. The lines in this painting are as chaotic as the scene must have been. From the center, there isn’t any direct linkages to the rest of the mayhem. The eye is free to roam the painting. While the colors of the painting don’t reflect the fate of the captors, they do suggest the victory of the captive.