How to Look at Art

Hmmm…the post title is a little too close to a command when really this post is about  just one of many ways in which a viewer can look at art and form a more well rounded observation.   

There are several models of art criticism that have been developed over the years and they seem to fall in and out of favor as time rolls on.  One method that I turn to again and again for it’s simplicity and effectiveness is the Feldman Model.   

It’s organized around the categories of: Describe, Analyze, Interpret, Judge   

What I like about this model is that it can be successfully used for nearly any work of art from neolithic to postmodern to promote discussion and provide an informed interpretation of the piece.   

Feldman Model: Fail


Here’s a matrix to help you do it:  


Description: Searching for Internal Clues   

  • What do you see? What subject matter? What is happening in the picture? Look closely.
  • What art elements do you see? What lines dominate the art work? (straight, curvy, other)
  • What shapes dominate the artwork? (geometric, organic)
  • What colors dominate the picture? Name them.
  • Name the patterns/texture that you find.



  • How has the picture (art elements) been arranged? (Artists repeat lines, shapes, colors, and patterns in exciting ways to make an artwork more interesting.)
  • How are the shapes arranged? (symmetrical, triangle, vertical, circular, grid) Use tracing paper to find the major directional flow.
  • How are the colors arranged? Are the colors predominantly light or dark? Are they bright or dull?
  • How is the space arranged? (flat, overlapping, or deep dimensional)


  • How did the artist make this picture? (draw, paint, collage, model or carve, other)
  • What materials did he use? (clay, wood, oil, acrylic, charcoal, other)
  • Interpretation: What does this painting mean to you?
  • How do the colors make you feel? (mood)
  • How does it feel? (touch) Like_________________________
  • How does it sound? Like_____________________________
  • How does it taste? Like______________________________
  • How does it smell? Like______________________________ 
  • Give this work a title ________________________________ (Include the subject, what they are doing, and adjectives/adverbs that you wrote down for feel, sound, taste, etc.)
  • What symbols do you see?
  • What do the colors symbolize (for example, blue can mean

Interpret: Using what you have discovered so far, put the clues together to describe what you might think the work of art is “about.” 

Judgment: It is not important that we like or dislike an artwork, but that we try to understand it.  Judgement is a bit tricky because it asks the viewer to rank the piece relative to other works in terms of how “successful” it may be.  Since this is a rather tricky endeavor, I usually just drop it because it does take a healthy knowledge of art history to help facilitate this process…but feel free to give it a shot.  

Link to a different, pared down version:


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  • Lynn Bridge  On May 5, 2010 at 11:52

    Funny- I was just thinking I should write a blog series on looking at art. I guess I get really tired of judgment getting in the way of LOOKING and SEEING, so I like to help people open up their minds to new possibilities. You have a good post here. I’m sure I will link to your post in the near future so that people can see what you have to say.

    • Stirling  On May 5, 2010 at 15:56

      I agree. I find myself sometimes letting my initial gut reaction cloud subsequent judgement if I’m not careful. A pretty good book that covers some ways to look at art is Teaching Visual Culture, by Kerry Freedman. It’s geared towards educators but it has some good stuff for anyone who wants to learn to appreciate art. The price tag is kind of hefty though since it is a textbook for many classrooms. Thanks for the comment!

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