Why look at art? It can make you feel good. A University of London study demonstrated that looking at beautiful (to the beholder) art can create an instant dopamine release, creating feelings of happiness and gratitude akin to looking at someone you love.
Studies have also shown that looking at art can lower stress, particularly when looking at landscapes and seascapes.
But looking at art, really looking at it, is hard. And instead of delight, we may find ourselves instead feeling curious, annoyed, bored, confused, perhaps even disgusted.
And that’s ok, says London-based art historian Susie Hodge. Author of dozens of books about art, including How Art Can Change Your Life, Hodge encourages people to let art be a conduit for their emotions – whatever they may be.
Even if you don’t know a lot about art or how to look at it, you can benefit from engaging with it. Here are some of Hodge’s suggestions for how to look at art and have a meaningful connection with it:
Keep an open mind
When you open a book about art or, better yet, walk into an art museum, try not to be intimidated by the idea of “looking at art” or have preconceived ideas about how you should interpret it. Some artworks may be surprising, and others boring – that’s ok.
Hodge says she hears from many people that viewing the Mona Lisa in person, for example, is a huge letdown – it’s tiny, behind bulletproof glass, and can be uninspiring.
The UW Arts and Creativity Initiative aims to bring together students, artists, scholars and audiences in state-of-the-art facilities to catalyze creative discovery.
When you look at something, take inventory of your emotional landscape – what are your personal connections to it, and what is going on in your life that might affect how you feel? You may not respond in the way you think you should, but that doesn’t invalidate your response.
Keep your museum visit short and focused
Art museums can be overwhelming: the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for example, has over 130,000 paintings, sculptures and artworks (put it on your bucket list).
If you spent 15 minutes looking at all 78,000 artworks in the Tate Modern collection, it would take you 12 hours a day for more than four years to look at everything.
And the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York has almost 200,000 works. Let’s not even talk about the British Museum or the Louvre in Paris.
Ready to give it a try? Check out Day after day on this beautiful stage by visual and installation artist Sarah Cain at the Henry Art Gallery through August 27.
Once you’ve selected the place you want to visit, be realistic about how long you want to spend and how much you’ll see: you don’t need more than a couple hours. After that, looking at art can become information overload and it’s hard to stay focused and retain what you’ve seen.
Really look at the art
Once you’re in front of an artwork you like, what should you do?
Get up close and personal. If you have the luxury of seeing the real thing at a museum, take your time to observe qualities about the work that may not come through on a computer screen:
- Texture: the look and feel of its surface
- Brushstrokes: the marks made by the brush across the surface
- Movement: the path your eyes take when viewing the work
Then, stand back: Look again at the piece from a distance, observing what’s happening in the big picture. What’s going on in the piece? What are the figures (if any) doing? How are they related? What is the action?
Lastly, look at it from an angle. Try looking at an artwork from its sides, because you might catch something you might not have seen straight on.
Any artwork can reward a longer, closer, more thoughtful look. Want more suggestions for how to look? Check out A guide to slow looking from British museum Tate Modern.
What about immersive experiences?
You’ve probably seen ads for the immersive Vincent Van Gogh exhibits (yes, there were two at the same time) in Seattle, and perhaps you visited one. These animated, digital representations of famous artworks are visually pleasing, to be sure. People who might never have visited a museum before are checking out these immersive experiences, learning new things and enjoying themselves.
But UW associate professor of art history Marek Wieczorek, a specialist in modern artists like Van Gogh, cautions that these immersive exhibits–which he himself enjoys–do not replace the experience of looking at original art in a museum context.
“[The exhibit] is cool. But when you stand in front of a Van Gogh painting, the light doesn’t have to come from that light box, but from the color, the optical mixing of complementary colors,” he said in an interview with PBS News Hour. “What you lose in this exhibition, in a way, what is taken away from you by being presented an image of van Gogh that is not van Gogh is the essence of your participation. In a way, you’re robbed.”
Pick a museum that feels relevant to your interests
If you’re on the UW Seattle campus, you don’t have to travel far to see amazing art and artifacts. Choose one that interests you!
- Burke Museum of Natural History: The Burke is the state’s oldest public museum and houses some 18 million items. Admission is free for UW employees and students!
- Henry Art Gallery: On the UW Seattle campus, the Henry is the only museum in our region dedicated to contemporary art and ideas. Free for Henry members, UW community, educators, military personnel, students, and children; free to all on first Thursdays.
- Jacob Lawrence Gallery: Named after one of the School of Art + Art History + Design’s most renowned faculty members, the gallery is a space for exhibitions; a vital center for social interaction and dialog; and a critical para-educational resource for students and faculty.
- Ceramic and Metal Arts Building (CMA) houses the 3D4M: ceramics + glass + sculpture Studio, where there are extensive facilities for ceramics, glass, wood and metal fabrication. The CMA also houses a foundry, digital imaging center, and two galleries.
In our region, we have SO MANY great museums to explore. Some suggestions for what to check out: Seattle Art Museum, Northwest African American Museum, Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), MOPOP—The Museum of Pop Culture, Holocaust Center for Humanity, Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a/Latino/a Culture, Tacoma Art Museum or the Hibulb Cultural Center.
In addition to visiting, you can support the mission of these museums and cultural centers through the UWCFD.
Beyond paintings on the walls: Want to spend some time with something other than a painting? Find all kinds of art at Seattle Pinball Museum, Living Computers: Museum + Labs, Pacific Science Center, LEMAY—America’s Car Museum, The Center for Wooden Boats, Museum of Flight, Seattle Children’s Museum, Log House Museum, Klondike Gold Rush Museum, Northwest Railway Museum…