- Early Childhood
- Lower School
- Middle School
I love art. I love the smell of studios, new art supplies, and that feeling of “I don’t know what I’m doing”. However, while I love making and creating, I also love looking at art. Yes, self-doubt comes with creating, and more questions than answers typically come with looking at art. But, the questions, the discovery, and the new perspectives gained are why you should be looking at art too!
Where to Begin: What Do You See?
Walking into a museum or saying a new artist’s name can be daunting. This is why kids are the best at looking at art! They have no expectation to know everything and are willing to talk about what they see. The first question for anyone when looking at art is, “What do you see?” There are many philosophies on looking at art, from Visual Thinking Strategies to the Inquiry Method. However, you only need to begin with, “What do you see?” This question alone will lead you through the artwork and is technically all you need to experience the work. It’s a thinking and evaluating process. If your interest is piqued, you can then go to the label to find more information. Once you know the artist and date it was made, you can begin to think about context and what was happening during that time period in our world.
Example 1: Caves of Lascaux
This year I shared three pieces of art with my 5th-8th graders to start the conversation. The first piece was Caves of Lascaux, dated c.17,000 – c.15,000. We started with the question, “What do you see?” Animals, chalk drawings, and warm colors were all identified. I followed these answers with the date and the question, “Why were these works made?” “To tell a story, to remember and to honor the animals,” were some of the answers. The next question was, “What materials were used?” Charcoal was guessed, and I let them know that some of the black color actually came from 150 miles away! That means this prehistoric civilization wanted to tell a story and were sophisticated enough to do it with their artisans and select materials from miles away. So much for the caveman stereotype from Geico Insurance. Students were in awe because they are doing the exact same thing - telling a story, but with more materials at their fingertips.
Another fun aspect of art is to think about inventions and their impact on art. For example, when was oil paint invented or the collapsible paint tube, the printing press, the camera, the iPhone? These inventions changed the way artists created and made work. The impact of an invention changes the course of art.
Example 2: The Arnolfini Portrait
The second example I shared with students was Jean Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. When asked the question, “What do you see?” the students discussed and identified everything in the painting. They surmised it was an “important event” and “the people were rich”. Upon looking further into this painting and looking at the time period, more symbolism was discovered in the painting. It is claimed that the Van Eyck brothers discovered oil paint. One can see how the discovery of a material can change the course of the art world similar to something like the iPhone!
Consider the Date in Relationship to the World
The date of artwork is important. Artists typically reflect society. You can learn about a culture or movement through the date. Think about the Industrial Revolution, or the Great Depression … what art was made during that time period and why?
Example 3: Wedding Portrait
The final artist I showed in my introduction to looking at art was Njedeka Akunyili Crosby, Wedding Portrait, 2012. The work has a different feel, idea, and message. I play with dates to help students relate to the work. It is easy to walk past work you have no relationship with or reference. This artist is a Nigerian-born artist who graduated from Yale and her work is a beautiful mix of photo transfer, collage, and paint. We begin with the same question, “What do you see?” Often the answers lead to more questions which in turn leads to more research. Training our minds to think and evaluate is one of the many gifts art provides. Students are typically blown away by the artist herself and the layered work. Njedeka Akunyili Crosby is an amazing artist who reflects times that have changed, new materials used, and a world still full of stories and questions.
Why is Learning to Look at Art Important?
In looking at art, you gain a new perspective, a commonality, a thread of existence, and a piece of humanity. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the beauty of our stories all exist in the art world. A shared experience and a sense of place exist in every work of art. Students learn about their own emotions, engage new thought processes, and always know the value of their place in this world.
Can Art Really Provide All of This?
Absolutely! Visit your local museum and try it. Ask your family, “What do you see?” and be detectives together. Visit museums regularly, either online or in person. Have fun exploring other countries and learning about different cultures. Little ones can find colors or textures, older ones can learn there isn’t always an answer, and as an adult, you can remember the bigger picture of the world. You deserve the opportunity to reflect, enjoy, and engage in your world – go find a piece of art to enjoy!
Great Places to Find Art Locally
About the Author
4th-8th Grade Art Teacher
- visual arts