Active Looking

Active Looking

The most important skill for every art lover to cultivate is active looking - the ability to look at things closely, pay attention to details, and think critically about what you see. Most of what we do every day is passive looking; we observe just enough to go about our lives, but not much more. When walking down the street, we notice the people around us so we don’t bump into them, but we generally don’t notice details of their appearances unless they're really unusual. As art viewers, we need to go further.

Have a meaningful encounter with a work of art requires you to give it the time it deserves, not just glance at it and move on. After all, you won't get much out of a visual experience unless you put in some effort. Active looking is also a valuable life skill that can help you be better at your job, keep you safer, and get more enjoyment out of life.

How to Look

Active looking takes time, but simply staring at something for a long time won't necessarily do the trick. The key to active looking is opening your mind to the image in question and whatever experience you’re going to have with it. Don’t assume that your first impression captures everything. The biggest mistake people make is thinking that whatever they notice at first glance – "it’s a statue", "it’s old", "it shows a naked person", "it's by Michelangelo", etc. – is all the artwork has to offer. They stop looking and move on, not realizing that there’s so much more to experience. In many cases, these initial assumptions aren't even correct. Instead, consider everything as worthy of your attention and get curious about it. You'll be surprised at what you notice that way.

There's no special technique for optimal art viewing, but here are some possible ways to approach it:

  • Start with a wide view to get an overall impression and then focus in on the details.
  • Scan the whole image to make sure you don't miss anything.
  • Spend time with whatever catches you eye, but be sure to eventually move beyond it.
  • If you're viewing in person, observe the artwork from different distances and vantage points. Start from a fixed position, but then look at it from as many sides as you can. If you're viewing from a digital photograph, take advantage of the ability to zoom in and out.
  • Pay attention to physical details of the artwork, like its size and texture.

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