How To Look At An Artwork in Museum or Gallery?



When working in the gallery one of the questions I got most is how to look at a piece of artwork. Today I would like to share my experience. As you know visual art as one of the seven art forms brings us happiness in life. I call it a mental exercise. We do not just feel happy when look at beautiful art, it is scientifically proved.

When we feel relaxed and enjoy, our body releases 4 chemicals that will activate our happiness feeling. And when we happy we tend to be more productive and creative.

You may also share the same joy experience through Architecture, Sculpture, Literature, Music, Performing, and photography. 

There are my 5 Steps to look at an artwork

Step 1 Go with your gut feeling

In this stage, we look at the overall first impression feeling based on your instinct without look at label.It is a valuable experience to trust your instinct and listen to your heart. This is a very personal and subjective stage. How did you feel when you look at this painting? Happy, worry, sad, very unique? Or just so so…

This stage I normally decide if I would like to discover more about this artwork.


Step 2 What kind of material

This leads to the second common question I've received quite often. What kind of art it is? Which media did it use? Oil painting, acrylic, watercolor or something else? So I will walk to the side, either left or right side of the art and look again.

Most museum or gallery has professional lighting system installed. By viewing the art from the side you can roughly tell it is a water-based art, oil-based art or mix media. Most oil paintings have a nice shine, a nice reflection of the texture of paint while water-based art is flat. That's the beauty of oil painting. Some acrylic art painted heavily to create an oil painting look but the shine is different.

 Step 3 Look at details

I will go further closer to look at details, such as the brush strokes, the type of paper texture, the eyes of the face, the details of the center objects. This is one of the most enjoyable moments. In this stage, you will find surprises, some unique tech the artist uses. It is a fun discovery stage.

 Step 4 Look from the distance

Now I will walk a bit far away from the art around 6-8 feet maybe to look the artwork from the distance. A good art with good contract will give an unusual feeling, sometimes it is different from when you look at it closely. For an example the famous painting Monalisa, when look at different angel you feel, it always feel like she is looking at you. It is like a camera with auto-focus feature. It is stage I really appreciate this art.

Also If I am still interested by now I will be curious about the background of the art and artist. I might  look at the style the theme to guess when the painting was created. Especially for historic museum art, it is a great time to learn and appreciate art history.

Step 5 Look at the label

Now it is a fun game. I would like to look at label read art background and author info to see if it is something matched my guess.  By now you finished the process.

The average time spent on an artwork is around half minute based on research from School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  And another report showed although modern lifestyle getting busier however the time people spend on looking at each piece still stays the same.

In summary, art played an important role in our life. During this pandemic, we probably need it more.

Let’s enjoy and cherish it!

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