Friday, June 8, 2018

How To: Look at Pictures.

Flesh Art, Joan Snyder, 1974.

Dear Nancy Drew,

I thought for today we'd talk about how to look at pictures.  How to look at art really, and specifically, how to look at the flat, illusion-of-space of paintings.  Approach the painting with the thoroughness of a detective.

Begin by noting how you feel- in many ways, looking is an awareness thing:  Like a guided meditation on seeing pictures.

So, how do you feel?  Itchy?  Confused?  Comfortable?  Are you anxious, sad, or elated?  Do you feel something subtly or Big Time?  Are you hugely impressed?  Why?  Be as specific as possible- does looking at this painting feel like a slice of cake?  Like a bad news phone call?  Like another election?  Like finding a lost earring?

Okay, now, what else is here- where are your eyes sent?  Observe where your eye is resting, moving, and returning to.  Where are the edges?  Where are the directional lines?  Where are the brightest bits?  What is, or isn't, in the center?  What are the darkest places?

What is the rhythm, the sound of it?  Are the colors a clue to the emotions the painting might be trying to evoke?  Are there feisty colors?  Angry or sad colors?  Is it somber or punchy?  Quiet or loud?

Lastly, and really do try to do this step last, what specifically is here?  Is it purple, is it insects, is it sky, is it skin?  What is it that we could name?  What, now, then, do these things suggest?  What is the story of this painting?

What tale could this be telling?  Who are these characters, and what are they doing, what is their purpose in the world of the painting?  This step isn't just a list of what is in the painting, for example, a barn, two trees, a rock, and a cow.  Your questions should be along this line:  Why is that cow heading away from the barn at this hour?  Has the tree grown up around the barn, or was the tree there long before the barn?  How is the weather?  Is a storm coming?  Is that rock there to prevent my eye from leaving the canvas, or is it a symbol of some kind?  An immovable chunk of prehistory that will remain long after the cow, barn, and tree have been blown away by the passage of time?

My Life, Joan Snyder, 1996.