On Viewing Artwork

Posted on by Wess Foreman

It never fails to irk me to hear someone say upon viewing one of my paintings, "oh, I could never do anything like that - I'm not creative." It bothers me because I believe that a creative spark is in all of us: it's just a matter of digging it out and bringing it to the top. For some it may be a matter of several art classes taught by just the right teacher, for others maybe a simple word of encouragement is all that is needed. This self-deprecating, defeatist attitude - spoken in jest or otherwise - may be part of the reason many people can't appreciate art or don't know how to view art: they have already decided that art is something foreign to themselves, something unknown and therefore too difficult.

It could be that it is the artist in me that when faced with a piece of artwork that is challenging - a masterpiece, made by some god of creativity, unparalleled perhaps to anything in my own artwork - my first reaction is to study it further. To locate the lesser brush strokes, to see the stuff it is made of, the spark of creativity behind it - if not to see how it was created, at least to prove that it was painted by a mere mortal and thus a possibility. All artwork, seen in this light, is something to study deeper, something to admire on a technical plane and perhaps to spur one's own creativity onward. I'm not saying we should all become artists, just that connecting with our own creativity is an essential component in viewing artwork. So, step one: connect with our own creativity. Got it. What else?

I suppose the next thing to address is how one feels about a painting. Do you like it? Simple question, but not a bad place to start. If the answer is no - you don't get off that easy - you might try to determine why you don't like it, what aspects don't you like. This is an essential skill when viewing artwork: the critical eye. What is it about the painting that is not quite right? What can be improved? Moving a shape here or there, punching up the center of interest, a color change, perhaps? Sometimes a painting requires closer inspection and more time. I call these paintings, "difficult paintings." Sometimes, after closer study, I come to appreciate the creativity behind a difficult painting. Sometimes it just eludes me, and I must admit I still don't like it and don't know what the so-called artist was thinking. That's all right. Move on.

So what if you do like the painting? Same process. What do you like about it? What works? For that matter, what doesn't? The critical eye. Is it the color choice, the subject matter, the simple mood of the painting? Again, studying a painting, one can come to appreciate and connect with a painting all the more. One can also change one's mind about a painting: why not?

Connecting with our own creativity and developing a critical eye are both broad subjects - veritable rabbit holes waiting to be explored - and I encourage you to explore the subject in greater detail [the Internet is a good place to start]. It is interesting to note that these two steps are intimately connected to one another. When being critical of a painting, you are delving into your own creativity and seeing the possibilities in your mind's eye. This also allows you to identify those things that don't quite measure up to the better ideas you may be imagining.