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How to Appreciate Art When You're Not an Artist

Updated on February 28, 2014

"Okay... I Have NO Idea What I'm Looking At."

I went through all the art classes in school and in college because it seemed like the "proper" set path for me (people figured since I was always scribbling on stuff I'd be the next Picasso). However, the more I was around it, the more I grew to dislike the whole art scene. I don't like the structure given to appreciating art or the way that structure can make others feel alienated or not good enough.

Freedom is the word I use to describe art. As someone that others would call “an artist”, I wanted everyone, everywhere, from every background, to know that art accepts all people. Art is supposed to be liberating and, in my opinion, without structure. I know that anyone can appreciate art without courses or being told how to do something. There is absolutely no “wrong” way to look at a picture or a sculpture. Art is for everyone and it's everywhere you look.

Hopefully, my tips "from the inside" will help make art a bit more accessible for those who may feel art appreciation is daunting and complicated. I'm going to dissect some famous pieces of art in my own way and you will have your own way. Both of us will be absolutely correct.

This is the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. It's really okay if you don't know who the painter is or have never seen this picture before. I mean, at first, it seems like a picture of some lady with some stuff behind her and stuff looks brown. That is a perfectly fine assessment. There isn't a reason to feel bad if that's all you see here because that is what you're actually seeing with your eyes.

Now, let's put on our artist glasses! We all have them. They vary in color, size, shape, shade, and interpretation. All artist glasses have perfect vision.

You've already made a great assessment. There's a lady in the middle of the picture. The fact that you're able to tell someone's gender from a painted picture from over 500 years ago is amazing. Let's keep it up!

Focusing on the woman in the middle of the painting, what do you notice about her clothes, accessories, makeup, and hair? She's not very glitzy, is she? Maybe she's lower-class or maybe she just likes dark colors. Perhaps she's in mourning or she may just be your average, 8-5 working woman. Even still, she's not exactly hard to look at. Just this observation is huge and tells you so much about the woman in the painting, our own concepts of beauty, and maybe a little bit about ourselves.

There are a million things to say about this one painting, but I shall leave the rest to you. The skills you have acquired by freeing your mind through interpreting this painting will help you get the most out of other works of art.

This is The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. It's a collection of different colors of blobs, swirls, and a big, pointy black thing. There seems to be a lot going on in this picture, especially compared to the rather plain, brown-toned painting of The Mona Lisa. Put on your artist glasses... what do you notice first? Is it the huge, yellow circle in the upper right-hand corner? Or did you notice the big, black pointy thing on the left-hand side of the painting? Was it another thing altogether? Just noticing what stands out to you first in a work of art says tons about the piece itself and about you. What do you think the artist wanted you to notice first?

Looking at the entire painting, what do you notice about the style used? It's not very realistic, yet you can still basically tell what things are. The houses at the bottom are really just several simplistic lines hatched together in order give the appearance of a house. Zooming in and zooming out of specific details gives you tons of information about a work of art. Try it out on various works!

This piece is The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai created almost 200 years ago. It's really just a big ol' wave tossing around boats and stuff. Upon putting on our artist glasses, let's take a tip from the previous piece we interpreted. What's the first thing that you notice? For me, it's that huge wave in the left-hand side of the work. It doesn't look very nice, does it? Also, comparing art style with The Mona Lisa and The Starry Night, is it more or less realistic? Is it somewhere in between?

Looking at this piece, in my opinion, it's rather terrifying. There are several boats being thrown about at the ocean's mercy, its rowers seemingly clinging for dear life. Gravity can be quite rude, and this piece captures the very moment before the menacing wave will come crashing down on those poor sailors. When you look at a piece, think of what emotion the work gives to you. Don't let yourself be concerned with what you believe you're supposed to feel.

Perhaps looking at this painting gives you a feeling of respect, or perhaps majesty. Maybe the people on the boat give you a feeling of pride, or bravery, as opposed to my observation of fear. This painting could be interpreted as an example of determination. These, and any other you may believe, are all correct and very creative!

This work is Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red by Piet Mondrian. At first glance, yeah, it's a bunch of lines and there's a box of color here and there. It's really rather... straightforward. Or, is it? Artist Glasses time! Compare this piece to the other works. Those ones were based on things you can see in your day-to-day life, weren't they? This one isn't very warm or squishy. That observation is simple but tells you so much about this piece.

You may ask yourself while looking at this painting, "What is this even supposed to BE?" I know I did. Well, the beautiful thing about art is that it can be anything you want it to be. When you run into something that isn't so clear-cut or defined, creativity is free to draw out those thoughts or feelings you have inside. When I look at this painting, sometimes I try to compare it to realistic things such as a city from the sky or a jail cell. At other times, I think of it as a simplified and visible form given to a person's inner feelings, the red being the heart and the black lines being thick, oppressing barriers.

What do you see?

The Scream is a painting by Edvard Munch. It's, well, a person screaming on a bridge. Through our artist glasses, what do you notice about the style? It's definitely less abstract than our previous piece, isn't it?

What do you notice first in this picture? Is it the person in front with his/her hands on his/her face? Is it the bright orange background? Did your eyes first zoom in on the two people in the background? Did you notice they were there at first? How does this picture make you feel inside?

Notice the colors used in this picture. They contrast each other very well, don't they? Orange and blue are contrasting colors, meaning that when they're side by side, each is made to look brighter and more noticeable. When you look at pieces of art, take notice of the colors that are used and how they relate to one another or the overall piece. An artist will control colors in a certain way to make something stand out, recede, or compliment other colors. In this piece of art, I believe the artist wanted to give the viewer an anxious, piercing feeling inside. If the colors used were more bland and subdued, would this picture have the same effect on you?

Nighthawks is a painting created in 1942 by Edward Hopper. At a glance, this painting is a group of people sitting together in a diner. Upon further inspection, you may notice a few things you didn't before.

When looking at artistic works, notice the number of people or objects in the picture. Is it one person? Are there more? Are they together or is anyone isolated? Proximity of people or objects to one another can say a lot without actually speaking, such as their feelings toward each another, or lack thereof.

These four people are all sitting there together under a fluorescent light in a diner. There aren't really any cars or anything outside, so I focused on the lit building with the people in it. This can be seen as a very warm painting. Maybe the four are familiar with each other and come to eat here all the time. Perhaps the man that is alone only sat on the other side so he could properly face his friends and is looking down to take a bite of something.

This could also be interpreted as a very cold painting. The building itself is isolated from the outside, while there is also isolation within the building. The man sitting alone looks alone, even though other people are there. Maybe the woman in the red dress and the man seated next to her just met and he's getting on her nerves. She could possibly be arguing with the man behind the bar and he could be frustrated or apologetic.

How does this painting make you feel inside? Does it give you a lonely feeling or a warm feeling?

Giorgio de Chirico's Mystery and Melancholy of a Street is a painting of a girl playing with something out in the street. Up a ways, into the picture, there is a shadow. But, wait. Aren't paintings usually done on a flat canvas?

When looking at art, take note of any depth created by use of lines, placement, and colors. I think it's amazing that an artist can take something two-dimensional and give it the illusion of having depth. The windows and doors of the building on the left gradually get smaller, indicating that it is moving farther away from your view. Things that are "closer" to the viewer are made bigger, sharper and up front, while things that are "farther" are smaller, blurrier and placed in the background.

Do you have any paintings or drawings in your house? Don your artist glasses and see if your pictures have atmosphere!

The Thinker is a sculpture created by Auguste Rodin in 1902 (making it over 100 years old). Sculptures are everywhere these days, from parks to government buildings to the middle of your city and even your own home. These works of art have a certain type of beauty unique to three-dimensional art.

When admiring a sculpture, take full advantage of the three dimensions! Walk around it, peek at it from the side, from different angles, from the top, the bottom, everywhere! Admire its deeply chiseled depths and highlighted, raised ridges.

When looking at The Thinker, I see a man very deep in thought. His brows seem tightly knit, as if he's thinking of how to save the world from the apocalypse. To me, this doesn't seem like a man who is thinking about his grocery list.

His stooped position and the fact that he's resting his hand on his knuckles as opposed to his palm makes me believe that he has been thinking about this for a very long time and his back and wrist got tired. He seems a bit frustrated.

What is it that you see? Do you see a confident man? A humorous man?

Lunch atop a Skyscraper is a photograph taken in 1932. At a glance, it's a bunch of guys sitting on a beam together.

Once again, let us put on our artist glasses!

The atmosphere in this picture is absolutely amazing. The buildings and the drop below their feet is breathtaking and gives me the jitters just looking at it. When I looked more at the picture, I noticed the city fading into the vanishing horizon, making this picture deep and very three-dimensional even though it's a flat photograph.

When assessing art, take notice of different shapes. People are biological shapes because they're living creatures. We have soft edges and dulled corners. Our hair flows and we bend. Buildings are usually geometric in shape, mimicking basic shapes such as rectangles, squares, and circles.

I love the contrast of the men on the beam sitting at different angles, leaning, smoking, and eating and the hard, sure edges of industry around them.

What kind of relationship do you think they have overall? Do you see any close relationships between two or more of them? Is there anyone who is isolated?

This is a picture I took in Savannah, Georgia. I love the beautiful, natural sky being a backdrop to the man-made bridge. While the sky is blue and flows endlessly, the bridge is a grey, definite structure with converging, obvious lines. The bridge fades into the background, showing depth and dimension.

I'm sure there are many, many things you can think of to say about this picture alone.

Art can be in a flurry of birds bursting from the treetops or the lines on your face that your hair makes as it blows in the wind. The wrinkles around someone's eyes are a masterpiece, just as the arrangement of the colorful plants in your garden is a work of art. Art is everywhere and everyone is able to witness its beauty.


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  • NornsMercy profile image

    Chace 3 years ago from Charlotte, NC

    @Vaska -- I'm sorry you feel stupid if you don't get something an artist wanted to get across. You shouldn't! I bet 98% of people who see that picture don't know that. :p

    Thanks for reading and I appreciate your comment!

  • profile image

    Vaska 3 years ago

    Excellent article! Thanks a lot! I have a doubt though. The artist must have had something in his mind when he paints a piece, doesn't he? something specific that he wants to convey to the viewers. I feel stupid if I don't get that. In 'The Scream' for example, the artist had used orange sky to make the viewers feel the seriousness of the situation. But I missed that. I thought it was just the sunset time when the sky looks orange in color.

  • NornsMercy profile image

    Chace 3 years ago from Charlotte, NC

    @new2art -- great! That makes me happy. I hope you enjoy yourself at the exhibit! :)

  • profile image

    new2art 3 years ago

    I loved this! I'm planning to catch the Guggenheim exhibit at the AGO in Toronto. Your article has given me some great things to consider when I'm there. I know I'll be enjoying the exhibit even more now, thanks to you. :)

  • NornsMercy profile image

    Chace 4 years ago from Charlotte, NC

    @vibesites -- thank you for reading and voting! I hate going to art museums with others because I feel the same way as you. :) it's that feeling that made me write the article in the first place! I hope it has helped others realize that "art" is in the eye of the beholder.

  • vibesites profile image

    vibesites 4 years ago from United States

    Mona Lisa has no eyebrows, that's the first thing I noticed. Hehehehe.

    I like your interpretations. I feel so dumb whenever I'm at a museum, tagging along with my friends, can't say anything much whenever I look at paintings hehheehe. I'll take your interpreting style as an inspiration, thanks very much :)

    Up and useful. :)

  • NornsMercy profile image

    Chace 4 years ago from Charlotte, NC

    @epbooks -- thanks for reading! It's sad that people think they have to feel something that everyone else does. Art is whatever people think it is :)

  • epbooks profile image

    Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

    Interesting hub! I can't draw at all and appreciated your explanations because, like you said, sometimes I'll look at a painting and either wonder what is so great about it...or what am I supposed to feel? But you're right, it's up to the viewer to feel however they want. Voted up.

  • NornsMercy profile image

    Chace 4 years ago from Charlotte, NC

    Thanks, Mark Ewbie; I appreciate that! Hopefully these tips will come to mind next time you're at an art museum. ;)

  • Mark Ewbie profile image

    Mark Ewbie 4 years ago from Euroland

    Wow. I really like your explanation, interest and style. Oh, and the pictures. I have little or no art appreciation but am learning all the time. This is an excellent series of pictures to get a feel for art. I especially like the Diner, but they are all good.