ArtStory: Tips for Looking at Works of Art

Do you ever feel unsure or overwhelmed when asked to discuss a work of art with others? Engaging with art is a lasting experience, but many people feel uncomfortable to discuss meanings they find in paintings, sculptures, photographs, and drawings. Museum educators at the Albany Institute utilize many techniques to guide visitors of all ages, from pre-school children to older adults, in discussions about works in our galleries.

The strategies our educators use focus on the viewer and the artwork, allowing visitors the time to make their own discoveries and a personal connection with it regardless of age or abilities. Interpreting art is not about experts telling you how you should look at art but providing you with the tools and strategies to “read” the painting. Here is a quick description of the steps educators at the Albany Institute use.  

STEP 1: LOOK 

This step seems obvious since art is, for the most part, meant to be looked at. However, studies have shown that when people visit a museum or gallery, they tend to spend under 30 seconds looking at any one work. Slow down and spend time looking at the image. How long you look at the piece is up to you, but you will be surprised what you will get out of even a couple minutes looking at a work of art. Start with the basics: the medium or material, size, shape, and overall appearance. The artist will have made deliberate decisions about these features that will provide clues about the overall feel or meaning of the work.

Suggested Questions:

What do you notice about the materials used?

What do you notice about the size, colors, texture, etc?

How does the work change as you look at it from different angles or distances?

Governor Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), Ezra Ames (1768-1836), c. 1828, oil on canvas, 52 3/4 H x 41 W, Permanent Deposit by the City of Albany, 1971.12.31

STEP 2: SEE

Ask yourself, “what do I see in this piece?” and start making a list of all the details you can find. This step is about identifying what is literally right in front of you and applying meaning to it. Let your eyes wander and try to make connections between elements found in the work. The connections you make may be things the artist intended for you to see, but they may not. Either way, it doesn’t matter, both kinds of interpretations are valid. The beauty of art is everyone sees it from their own perspectives.

Suggested Questions:

What do you see?

What is going on in this scene? What suggests that?

What interests you about this work?

An Old Man’s Reminiscences, Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), 1845, oil on canvas, 39 5/8 H x 58 1/4 W, Gift of the Albany Gallery of Fine Arts, 1900.5.3

Step 3: Discuss

Once you’ve spent time looking think deeply about your thoughts or discuss them with others around you. How do you feel about the artwork now that you’ve looked at it in detail? Does it make you feel any emotions? Does is connect with any personal memories for you? Whether thinking about it by yourself or discussing with others, consider what features of the artwork trigger these feelings or memories. This step is not about finding the “right answers”, but about thinking creatively to determine the meaning of a work.

Suggested Questions:

Do you like the work? Why or why not?

How does the work make you feel?

What messages do you think the artist was trying to convey? Why?

Holding Back the Dark, Willie Marlowe, 1985, Acrylic and mixed media on paper, 22 H 30 W, Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase via the Contemporary Art Collections Fund, 1992.38.2

Bonus Step: Look Again

If you can, go back to the work after a short break or on a different day. Are there any new details you notice? Are your thoughts and feelings about the work still the same? A second viewing of an artwork may give you different insights that you didn’t consider the first time around.

Note: While the museum is currently closed, you can still view many of the artwork in our collection online. Visit https://www.albanyinstitute.org/collections-database.html to view digitized images from works at the museum and try out these tips!

ArtStory Series Available

Our ArtStory series is like story time, but with art instead of a book. Click the links below to "read" some art with us!