How to look at a painting

Saturday 22 October, 13.10 - 13.50 , Frobisher 4-6 Festival Attractions

In Association With:

Crowded galleries demonstrate people’s interest in art. But most people spend little time looking closely at the individual works on display. Paintings on gallery walls surely deserve more than a cursory glance and a quick ‘like or dislike’ response. So how does one understand and appreciate the content and quality of a particular work? Reading the label may tell you very little, adding nothing to your appreciation, or too much, taking time away from actually looking closely at it. But a painting from the fifteenth or sixteenth century may have layers of mythological or religious meanings that are hard to penetrate if you don’t know about those stories and symbolism. No less, a modernist painting may seem obscure because of references to previous artworks you have never seen, or because you have no idea what idea the artist is trying to express.

If you like art, how do you develop your capacity to look at it critically? How does one judge for oneself how good a painting is? Might a knowledge of artistic conventions such as technique, composition, form, shape, colour, texture and pattern help? What is the relative importance of content and style? Of the artist’s intention, the historical context and the meaning of symbols he or she uses? Are there particular techniques a viewer can use to ‘get into’ an artwork? Do we need to take a different approach to understanding and appreciating paintings from different historical periods and contemporary art? Or is a knowledge of art and history not in fact necessary to the enjoyment of works of art in a gallery? Is it possible to appreciate these works without such knowledge?

Dido Powell, artist and lecturer in art history, will take two paintings connected by a single theme from two different periods in history and discuss what it means to really look at them and compare them, and what we can gain from close examination.