Looking at Art Objects

There are different ways of, and approaches to, looking at artwork; the following '4R' approach is a useful one:

REACT - this is your first reaction to the artwork (how do you feel about it? What does it remind you of? How do you 'relate' to it?). You might well see a piece of art in a modern gallery and say 'my dog could do better than that!' which is a perfectly reasonable initial response, but you need to go further and ask yourself why the art object is in a gallery in the first place - are other people seeing something that you're missing? Note down your first feelings and ideas about it.

RESEARCH - This is an important second step, involving a systematic examination of the artwork in two stages - firstly of the artwork itself and then the circumstances surrounding its production.

The first stage of the research involves looking carefully at the artwork, either as a reproduction or (much more preferable) in real life. Examine the visual and tactile elements, (colour, pattern, texture, composition, shape, form, line, space, tone) and their relationship to each other. You should look at the artwork's content - what is it about? Look carefully at what it is made of - what kind of paint seems to be used? Is it a collage or montage? Is it a painting or a sculpture? How is it put together? Is it made of metal? If so what kind and why? Make a list of all the things which you can see, dividing the list into different categories, such as ‘subject matter’ ‘colour’ and ‘composition’.

The second stage of the Research part of this approach involves inquiry without the artwork. This is where really involved research comes in, and can get quite complex, but you can discover a great deal of interesting stuff. You could investigate the artist's intention, perhaps looking up things the artist has written (see for example Van Gogh’s letters). You should look at the relationships between the content and process, and the various contexts (see the section on ‘drawing upon the work of others’) in which the artwork was produced. If you are feeling brave and intelligent (!) you might want to consider the theoretical and philosophical issues which may have influenced it.

RESPOND - This third step is concerned with making a considered response, based on what you have discovered through systematic inquiry (having found out about the artist and her/his circumstances, how do you now feel about the artwork?). This is an opportunity for you to talk or write in an informed way about the artwork, and to use an appropriate art specialist vocabulary, using some of the words found below.

REFLECT - An opportunity to think over and contemplate the meaning and nature of the artwork in the light of the above (what does it mean to you? How does it relate to issues which concern you?). It is important to let things sink in, to give yourself time to build upon what you have learned and to think about the artwork you have looked into. Art objects, after all, are often made to have and significant, deep and moving effect upon those who look at them. Art has been, and still is, considered to be very important for all cultures, since the beginning of time - have you ever thought why?

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