LOOKING AT PICTURES
Artists & Illustrators|November 2020
Thinking about how and why people interpret paintings in the way that they do can help you to become a more impactful artist, as TERENCE CLARKE explains
TERENCE CLARKE

After a long day spent in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year, I turned my attentions from the paintings to my fellow visitors. I sat down in The Annenberg Collection, one of the rooms devoted to the Impressionists, and just did some people watching instead. It struck me that most people only looked at the paintings for a very short time, perhaps 30 to 45 seconds. I soon realised that this was pretty much how long I spent looking at most pictures myself.

This revelation suggested to me something about the way we all enjoy paintings. In fact, they don’t take very long to enjoy – and for the most part they don’t take very long to understand either. Unlike literature and music, a painting has no necessary timeline. We enjoy paintings in silence too and, very importantly, there are no words.

This for me is one of the principle attributes of looking at paintings: they provide a rest from words. Today, with more demands on our time than ever before, it is important to empty our thoughts of words and just rest in something visual. Of course, there is a great deal we can learn about a picture’s historical context and its place within the context of an artist’s career, but I’m just talking here about the direct visual experience of seeing an artwork in a museum – the act of looking at pictures.

So, what is going on when we look at a painting? And why is it that we can enjoy them with such temporal brevity? Most paintings are pretty much understood in one go: what you see is what you get. The artist has prepared what you are seeing, with care and intelligence, so that the subject is easily recognisable and understood. If it wasn’t like this, the artist might be said to have “failed” in the traditional sense.

Think about an Impressionist landscape, for example. All the marks, tones and colours guide your perception towards reading the paint as an image: a suggestion of a field, a river, the sky. It may take a few seconds, but once that happens… Bang! You have understood the artist’s “code” and solved the visual puzzle. This becomes an act of closure. What the marks and colours stand for has been interpreted in your mind.

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