How long should we look at art? It’s a question I come back to every now and again. I recently read a great article on artsy about it and it got me thinking again. When was the last time I made an effort to look at art for longer, not to hurry through a museum passing an extra cursory glance to the artists I recognise or I find appealing before shuffling through to the gift shop.
There have been several studies which have tried to analyse how long we spend looking at works in galleries, all of which have come up with slightly different answers. One study concluded that we look at paintings and photographs for an average of 17 seconds, another decided on 10 seconds, which broke down to 2 seconds looking at the piece, 8 reading the wall text, and then a final cursory glance. Those figures aren’t low because of the quality of the art, apparently, people spend just 15 seconds looking at the Mona Lisa. The most optimistic survey comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the visitors look at each work for 32.5 seconds.
Surely part of the reason for the speed of our viewings is that we’ve been trained not to spend too long looking at anything. When it comes to moving images, TV cameras cut on average every seven seconds, to hold out attention and tell us where to look. We don’t even have the patience for video clips anymore. We’ve become pros at scrolling through news feeds, flicking through channels and Snapchatting. All of which have combined to create an ability, that is both a blessing and a curse, as whilst we can take in visual stimuli at record speeds, we also often struggle to slow down.
But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We need to retrain ourselves to spend time looking, and I mean really looking.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do recently. I’m lucky to work near some of London’s best art galleries, so when I can I take a trip out on a lunch time and just sit with one painting for as long as I can. There are 2 main things I’ve learnt from that experience. The first is that just sitting and looking and feeling is magical, it’s somewhere between meditating and being engrossed in a book. The second is that it’s really hard to sit and look at an image if you have no idea of things to look for. It’s boring just to stare blankly at a picture, and you don’t get much out of it.
So, I thought I would share some of the things I’ve been doing when I’m looking at paintings in the hopes that it might help you see things a little differently:
- Work out what’s going on before reading the information
- If it’s a portrait, or includes people, I try and work out what they’re thinking
- Then I like to follow their eyes and see what they’re looking at
- I squint my eyes a little and try and see the shapes that make up the composition – I like to see the lines that hold a piece together
- I divide the image up into thirds, or quarters, and look at each section on its own
- I work out their relationships and their relationships to the surroundings
- I try and work out why any objects have been placed with them and what they mean
- I try and find the smallest detail
- I look at the quality of the brush strokes
- I find everywhere the same colour appears
- Then I try and work out the colour spectrum
- I look from the edges of the picture into the middle or vice versa
- I like to read the information card after I’ve looked at it for a while and see what that adds to my understanding of the piece
- I trace where the light is coming from in the image
- I like to imagine how the image came together by looking for any bits that have been erased or looking for layers and textures
- I look for dogs (that should be at the top of the list, but I wanted to seem serious)
If you’re interested in learning more about experiencing art a little more slowly, or you’d like a bit of company on your next trip around a museum, it’s Slow Art Day on the 8th April. Slow Art Day is a global event where people all over the world visit local museums and galleries to look at art slowly. Participants look at five works of art for 10 minutes each and then meet together over lunch to talk about their experience. That’s it. Simple by design, the goal is to focus on the art and the art of seeing.