If you're planning on going to an art gallery or museum (in person or virtually) with your child, we've put together a few handy hints for your trip! These few pointers on ‘how to look at art’ are to help guide your child (and yourself!) into a more responsive and analytical way of viewing; something particularly important for GCSE and A-Level. Feel free to pick and choose which hints help you best, and keep notes to refer back to whenever you need.
Firstly a bit of context. You can get this from the guided tour; a handheld audio guide, or even a quick Google before you go! The gallery staff are also there to help answer questions, and they may even have leaflets you can take away with you. Context might include: the birthdate of the artist; countries they worked in; where they were educated and who by. Perhaps another artist has written about them, or even the artist about themselves! This can help you understand why the painting was created, when, and how. Who are the other artists that came before them and potentially inspired them? Who were their contemporaries? Context assists in building an image of what the atmosphere was like when this piece was created.
Then just have a look at what it is. A landscape? A portrait? A scene from a narrative? A still life? A self portrait? A splash or blocks of colour? Write down what you see!
Look at the materials: is it an oil painting? Collage? A bronze statue? An installation of stacked old magazines?
Most importantly: how does it make you feel? Any emotion, write it down! Your first initial reaction, and then also when you have found out the context behind it. How does that change how you see it? Write down absolutely anything that comes to mind. This may feel silly, but can really help to see what the artist's aim was, or the message they wanted to convey.
Have a look at how it's made. How has the sculpture been put together? How has the paint been placed on the canvas? Roughly scraped on by a palette knife? Or gently brushed on in tiny, delicate strokes? This can give an idea as to the emotion of the painter; the speed in which it was created, and its overall style. Looking at how a piece was actually created is a great way of learning more about art history, as well as inspiring students with a wide range of techniques and styles.
If you can, and want to, I would recommend doing a little sketch. Sketching from life is always much better than from a photo. It doesn't have to be an incredible copy, but just a quick sketch can capture a piece of work: how you feel; how you see it at that point of time, and your way of viewing the image. A lot can be captured in this quick 10-15 minute sketch. It doesn't have to be the entire piece, but perhaps just a particular element or detail that captures you. This helps create a dialogue between the artist and yourself, and helps with analysing the composition of a piece. It's about putting the student in the artists shoes, rather than just taking a photo (plus many places don't allow this!).
Photo from Tate Modern
If you can't go to a physical exhibition, you can always use the virtual tour option on galleries' websites. These have had a big budget behind them recently, making them even more like the real thing. The wonderful part is you're not restricted by times, tickets, or even having to wait for a big crowd of people to clear in order to catch a glimpse of a famous painting! You can take your time and focus on the pieces that really interest you.
Anselm Keifer at the White Cube - Patrick Hero for Absolute London
Encourage students to not only look at the classic famous artists of history, but to start expanding their field to contemporary artists as well. This can really help to give their education a unique insight. Schools tend to stick to famous, very well-known artists, whereas students can gain a lot of knowledge through independent study at contemporary galleries such as: Camden Arts Centre, Victoria Miro, White Cube Gallery, ICA and South London Gallery (in the London area), to name just a few. There are many more contemporary galleries all over the country; it may require a quick Google search to find those local to you - but it'll be well worth it! These galleries have artists who are working and producing artworks now, and displaying types of materials that you may not see in the bigger, more traditional galleries, such as: contemporary sculpture, video or sound exhibitions, and interactive work.
As a side note, and something to look out for, when we talk about artists who are alive and creating now, these are known as contemporary artists. Whereas modern artists actually refer to those who were creating roughly from the 1860’s to the 1970’s. Postmodern then came in between these two. It can get very confusing as we think of modern as meaning: now, innovative and the ‘most up to date’ - but in the art world this isn't so. When talking about an artists 'contemporaries' we are talking about other artists who were alive in that artist's time, for example Picasso was a contemporary of Marc Chagall.
For more help on how to distinguish between different techniques whilst viewing a piece of work, keep an eye out for our post ‘What to Look For in Your Trip to the Art Gallery’.