Learning to look at art
Strategies for helping students develop visual literacy in looking at paintings and other forms of visual art.
"We all look at the same things, yet see different things."
— Claude Monet
Everyone has different ideas about art. Some of our ideas are influenced by our own perspectives and experience with artistic creation, while others are shaped by our teachers and parents or our visits to museums. But how much have we thought about those ideas? Have we considered them carefully, or are they mostly unconscious?
Whether they see art at school, in books, on television, in galleries, in public places, or in museums, students need guidance to do more than glance at a work and make quick judgments about it. Learning to look requires the skills and vocabulary to make observations, build understanding, and respond effectively to art.
Appealing to students
No matter your taste, there is something for everyone at the art museum. Many people are intrigued by the colors and perspectives of Claude Monet, Mary Cassat, Edgar Degas, and other Impressionists. Monet’s painting entitled Impression Sunrise began the Impressionist movement, taking advantage of the popularization of photography to free artists from reproducing reality in their painting. With the camera now doing a job that had previously fallen to painters, Impressionists were able to use light, color and innovative techniques to produce a view of the natural world unique to their own eyes. Their view was not appreciated during their time, but today, visitors flock to see Impressionist exhibits in museums.
If Impressionist paintings don’t appeal to them, students may be attracted to the natural grandeur of Ansel Adams or the sense of place evoked in the work of Berenice Abbott. Both photographers used the contrasts in black and white photography to express their vision. Students may also enjoy the humor of Marcel Duchamp, whose unique way of viewing the ordinary, shown in his readymades, provides challenging questions for even the most observant. Unless they have the opportunity to explore, students will have no idea what the range of choices are and what they might find intriguing.
Activities and lessons for learning to look
Before viewing works of art, students need help to focus their observations and prepare to respond thoughtfully. Assigning a formal, written critique of a single work of art will help students to prepare to be thoughtful observers. The formal critique gives students a clear framework for recording their observations. Of course, this kind of critique is not limited to the visual arts; serious examination and judgment are required in the study of literature and in response to performances in Theater Arts.
Assigning a critique provides an opportunity for students to begin to consider their own reactions to a work; to learn what style, medium, and subject they most enjoy, and to build their own understanding of visual art as a whole. In-depth written description of a work of art quickly makes clear the amount of information we process with our eyes, and it helps students to see all aspects of a work, as well as leading to the analysis, interpretation, and judgment required to fully appreciate the work.
For more information about critiquing art, see "Teaching Students to Critique" by Joyce Payne. This article provides questions from the four major areas of art criticism: description, analysis, interpretation, and judgment.
For elementary students, you may focus their experience by using a theme and by emphasizing the five senses by doing an “Art Walk.” In this activity, students are encouraged to imagine themselves "walking through" the place depicted in a painting, photograph, or sculpture. As the students imagine themselves as integral parts of a work of art, the work is made more relevant to them and they respond more thoughtfully. This approach is similar to the picture walk, a pre-reading technique used to assess prior knowledge and build student interest in the story through observation and prediction. (For an explanation of the picture walk and other visual literacy techniques for reading picture books, see our article on "Reading Picture Books.")
You need not be an art teacher to include the visual arts in your instruction. Multidisciplinary lesson plans that integrate visual arts effectively, such as this wonderful science plan, "Explorations in American Environmental History," from the Library of Congress American Memory Learning Pages, are easy to locate: simply use the "advanced search" page in any lesson plan collection to search for Art and Science or Art and Social Studies. Teachers not experienced in teaching art may also find guidance in exhibit or media-specific educators’ guides, such as the Center for Creative Photography’s Intimate Nature: Ansel Adams and the Close View, which includes activities like "Suggestions for Discussing and Interpreting the Photographs" and "Learning to Look."
If you’re building students’ powers of observation and analysis, art museums provide the variety of images and designs you need to reach every student. Ideally, you can take your class to visit an art museum on a field trip. Locate a museum in your area using Discover NC , LEARN’s growing collection of educational destinations across North Carolina. If a field trip is out of the question, perhaps online web exhibits and museum outreach resources can bring the resources to your students and will accomplish the same goals. Don’t forget to include a pre- and post-visit lesson for your students to acquire as much as possible out of their trip.
Students will enjoy learning about art through technology and interactive programs. A good interactive online resource for using art with upper elementary and middle school children to build visual skills is smART Kids, published by the University of Chicago’s David & Alfred Smart Museum of Art. (The free Macromedia Flash plugin is required). Guided by four animated young people, students will learn the language of art, experience art in new ways, and unravel clues about the history of select pieces of art. The "Look and Share" section allows us to see art in new ways. Consider texture, scale, shape, line, color and other design elements as you explore a painting, photograph, sculpture or object. Images are high-quality, and in most cases, you can select viewing options such as zoom, rotate, and even crop. Pay particular attention to the photograph section; students are encouraged to consider the decisions made by the photographer including focus, focal point and composition.
For middle and high school, start locating art images to enhance your presentation with the National Gallery of Art Classroom, which provides in-depth looks at specific pieces as well as thematic tours of the National Gallery. Browse the collection of lessons by curriculum area, topic, or artist; or use the search function. The resources are more than simple lesson plans; they are visually rich activities, complete with questions and even interactive elements. For example, since "artists are often particularly keen observers and precise recorders of the physical conditions of the natural world," you can observe places over time and differences in climate using the Art and Ecology unit. Or, consider the composition and symbolic elements of just one work, a painting that captures a moment in time, like Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance.
For more activities and resources, see our webliography of art-related sites and activities.