How to Look at Art

Ever been to a museum or gallery and seen a work of art that just had you flabbergasted? What was it even doing there? How is this thing even art?

Sometimes it seems like you need to have an advanced degree like a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) to even look at art. Maybe something is loaded with Renaissance symbolism or obtuse postmodern pastiche.

How do you really look at it and really understand it without being a pretentious snob or looking like a bumpkin who doesn’t know anything?

I have been doing this for so long that it’s difficult for me to articulate it, so I reached out to my new friend Matt Appling, who just so happens to be an art teacher. (You may remember where I interviewed Matt about his new book Life After Art.) He was nice enough to shoot me an email to remind me of some ways to get started looking at art.

The two main things you need to understand about art are FORM and CONTENT. Let’s dig in.


In a nutshell, form is how a piece of art looks. Things like color, line, shape, value, texture, contrast. When you’re looking at the form of a piece of art, you’re looking at how all these things interact with each other. It’s in both abstract and realist styles of art, and if you look carefully, you can find it in both.

Here are a few of the elements and principles of design (or composition):

  1. Line
  2. Color
  3. Shape
  4. Space
  5. Form
  6. Unity
  7. Balance
  8. Hierarchy
  9. Scale
  10. Dominance
  11. Contrast
There’s more, and art students spend at least a semester studying all these things, but having a basic grasp should help. Just having the vocabulary to talk about it makes a huge difference, and it becomes so much more than a gut “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” (You can check Wikipedia to learn more about the fundamental ideas about the practice of good visual design.)

As in music, the word “composition” refers to the way the art is put together. Yes, this is where visual art and music overlap in a big way.


Content is what a piece of art says. In some art works this will take the form of symbolism, where something stands for something else, usually a concept. For exempt, in Renaissance art, a skull symbolizes death, or a dog symbolizes fidelity or faithfulness. With almost any visual art that descends in any way from the Romantic era, symbolism is very common. Even today’s emo artists (both visual and musical) employ symbolism. (Unfortunately they don’t have the same breadth as their 18th-Century forebears.)

So, symbolism does a lot to convey a message, or content.

On the other hand, content shows up in the way a particular subject might be glorified, ridiculed, or vilified. Pairing things makes a statement as well.

Never forget that art is almost never neutral, even when it says it is. A position of neutrality is a pretty strong position, after all. And I’ve found that a “neutral” position very quickly becomes negative.

Artists will often use these tools to make a statement. If the artist has done his or her job well, that statement will be fairly clear. Sometimes it is intentionally cryptic, like a riddle. The more postmodern it is, the less clear the message is. Sometimes there is no “message.”

At other times, art is just an exploration of form.

What’s next?

Next up, we’ll have a look at evaluate a piece of art, and then form an opinion about it.

Photo Credit: Susan NYC via Compfight cc