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How to look at art in a museum

Olya Losina
June 10, 2022

No matter the art you do - contemporary, abstract, mixed media, realism, surrealism, or even if you are just beginning, first - go and see the Old Masters.

Start with the Old Masters

As you walk into a museum, look at a painting from two or three feet away. To see large-size canvases, step nine to ten feet back. Look at the subject, read the title and the story if it's available, and become familiar with its historical context. It is useful to learn about the intention, the message, the symbolic meaning, and the metaphors that the Master used to tell that story visually; the museum will provide this information through their audio-tours, catalogs, and tour guides. Having learnt about who, what, where, and why, a non-artist now moves on to the next painting, while YOU can have an opportunity to learn from the Masters themselves.

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Artist's Kitchen

Now you can look at “how-it’s-done” by switching to “artistic looking”. The goal now is to get away from looking at the subject-matter and see the “artist’s kitchen”. Almost every painting by the Old Masters are rich in details: try to ignore them and see the “big picture” - the composition, to see how the artist achieved balance. Notice how everything on the canvas is perfectly “staged”, nothing on the canvas is accidental and almost nothing is cropped. Ignoring the details is not easy - it requires intentional focus.


Professional artists squint when they look at great art. Squinting helps you distinguish the tonal differences - the areas of light and dark. Squint at the composition: you will notice how the areas of dark colors seem to merge together, and the areas of light colors also seem to create an elaborate unity. This is called “interaction of silhouettes”. Composition is made of these silhouettes, or “shapes”. The Old Masters were aware of that concept  - that “everything is shapes”, and that balance in a painting is built by composing these tonal shapes.

The word “shapes” may sound like it shouldn’t apply to old art. It is important to recognize how similar the tools of the Old Masters and the tools of the Abstractionists are. The most notable Abstractionists learned from the Old Masters.


Notice the black areas everywhere on the painting. Black color provides strength and structure; the silhouettes of black help “anchor” the subject. Remove the black areas - and the painting loses its force.

If a painting was done colorfully, black is often the color used to create rhythm. This is not a “rule”, it is simply how black color appears to our perception - as powerful punches that create emphasis. The Great Masters were aware of it and used black to “construct” their compositions.

Now look at all the white areas - white creates focus and light. White is always meaningful. Every “rule” has exceptions; in art, exceptions are almost the rule! Before we talked about black creating rhythm, however if a painting is dark overall, it is the white that creates rhythm.

Red usually conveys “precious”, it draws our eye, so the Masters used red strategically with full awareness of its power.


Look where the artist placed the light source - usually outside the frame. Notice how consistent the shaded areas are with that direction of the light, and how perfectly every shadow is “sculpting” the form. Light is the main “sculpting tool” of the Masters. Observe how the lit areas on every subject are painted - look to see if it was painted with white paint, or without white.

Negative Shapes

Look at the negative spaces - the spaces between things. In the art of the Great Masters, negative spaces are usually not just a background (unless the background is simplified and made neutral). Negative spaces are often like independent “small paintings” in “unusually shaped frames”.

Closer Look

Now stand as close as the museum will allow and study the canvas from such proximity as if YOU are the artist. Look if the artist used charcoal or crayon to sketch the painting; if he allowed the lines of the sketch to be visible or tried to cover them (typically, you can’t see any sketch, even if there was one). Look at the edges of every figure - were they outlined in paint, or were they left slightly “raw”, the edges being soft and not very crisp?


From the distance, paintings of the Old Masters appear very realistic and highly defined. When you take a closer look, you’ll see the differences in artistic temperament. You'll be able to see that some paintings were done with a large brush, while other pieces were painted with tiny touches of detail.

There is much more to see when you look closer; observe how the artist painted the details. Looking at them from the arm-length distance may reveal surprising observations. You'll be able to see how “sketchy” the details are, how “simple” the colors appear from a close-up, or how "careless” the artist allowed himself to be. Would you have left them that "raw" or would you be tempted to "fix" them?

There is an enormous amount of “information” that you can find in each piece, if you know what to look for. If a painting is inspiring to you, then looking at it is like unwrapping a gift you've always wanted.

You may be wondering, “Can’t I just take a virtual tour of the museum online?” Yes! Some sites even allow you to zoom in onto a piece and see its finest details. However, the convenience of your home has a major drawback: you can’t experience the inexpiable powerful energy that all great paintings emanate. Whereas when you are in front of a painting, it speaks to you. As an artist, you want to be there in person for the Masters to teach you.  

We recommend bringing something to the museum to write down or record the observations you’ll want to remember - they will help you in your own artmaking. If you will have questions, write them down and email to us, so we can discuss them live.