The Zen of Art
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
There are different ways to enjoy art. Some delve into the history, style, or iconography of the image, or biography of the artist. Some just like to browse. In this section I intend to provide viewers with some methods to enrich their experience. Two approaches will be covered, offered as suggestions, not hard fast rules, and are applicable to visual arts from any era.
One method is simply through close observation, sometimes called slow art. The other is looking for some visual clues to understand how artists put pictorial elements together. I find that using these together – observing and understanding some pictorial elements – can enhance the enjoyment of art.
Most viewers spend seconds in front of art in museums, glancing at the work, then reading the accompanying title and artist information. Then on to the next one. The Slow Art Movement encourages the opposite. Slow art proposes that we enjoy art slowly and deliberately, taking a less is more attitude.
By looking at art, I propose contemplating and observing, rather than who made it and what does it mean. It’s tempting, but important to curb the immediacy of assigning good or bad, and put aside what you like or don’t like, what you think the image means, and the context. The purpose here is to develop a practice of observation, looking with the intent of just looking, without judging. Observation is the building block.
Online, or in a museum, start with something you are attracted to and give yourself some time. What draws you to the picture? Move closer, then farther away. What are you seeing? Which colors, lines, shapes, forms, or textures do you detect? Mentally describe what you are seeing. Is there a feeling or tone?
The Tate Modern in London (pre pandemic) recognized the need to slow down and be with art in a different way. They offered Slow Art sessions for quiet introspection. What a great concept. They also publish a guide to slow looking. Five or ten minutes devoted to observation (sans tablets, phones, or selfies) can awaken the senses and really draw you into the picture. It’s the Zen of art. Being present in the moment.
The next time you are in a museum spend more time observing fewer artworks but in greater detail, instead of breezing through a museum like wheeling your cart down the supermarket aisles. Resist looking at the label.
April 2, 2022 is dedicated to Slow Art Day in museums across many countries. It has become an annual event, although slower to catch on in the US. The main purpose is to experience and be joyful with art.
Some Elements of Art
The idea of slowly looking allows viewers to really see where the artist takes you and how. Artists provide multiple visual cues to give their art focal point(s), guide our eye through a scene, signal a tone, emotion, or reaction from. Great artists do this with subtlety and mastery of the elements of art. You can learn to look for these cues and how to read an image along with developing a deeper sense of observation.
Think of the elements of art as the language artists use to form a picture. Speakers and writers use the elements of language to convey thoughts, meaning, tone, and mood by using nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc., form cohesive sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and so on. If the words are jumbled up, the sentence won’t hold together.
The language painters use is one of color, space, texture, line, depth, light/shadow, and shape. Artists arrange these elements to form a composition, positioning the elements to achieve the desired visual outcome. The elements and composition are the visual cues that lead the viewer into the painting and also give a glimpse into the artist’s creative approach.
Line – Line is the easiest most straightforward element to understand. Line can be contoured to outline an object or figure to demarcate it against the background or other figures. Lines can be continuous, subtle, or implied. Leonardo da Vinci or Caravaggio used implied lines to define figures against sfumato or dark backgrounds. In drawings lines can be cross hatched, sharp, smooth or blurry. Lines can create depth and texture.
Light and Color – Color is complicated. Renaissance concepts of color theory, how the eye perceives color, and meaning is very different than how we think of color today. We may perceive blue as a cool color or red as hot and sensual whereas other meanings were associated with these colors historically. Some paintings are evenly lit, have deep shadows, or just a hint of the source of light. Light and shadow give depth to objects and figures and sometimes drama.
Space – The sensation of space can be created through perspective, modeling, placing objects or figures in the foreground larger and those farther away smaller, or surfaces can be flat without depth.
Composition and Design
Pictorial Balance and Symmetry – When figures and objects are arranged in an even symmetrical manner the viewer perceives stability and order. Symmetry can be radial, bilateral, or asymmetrical. Pictorial balance refers to the visual weight of the elements to signify importance, focal point, or capture the viewer’s attention.
Movement – How is the eye directed through the picture? Pattern, repetition, diagonals, rhythm and other elements draw us into the picture. Movement can also be implied through line.
Try it Out
Without thinking about or being aware of the historical context or the artist’s biographical background, take a deep look at the following paintings. I offer some thinking questions as well as my commentary on what I observed.
Some prompts and observations:
How has the artist used line? What shapes does the artist use in the figure and background? What do you think is the visual focal point? What visual cues lead you to the focal point? Does the artist define space and depth? Does the artist elicit a feeling or emotion?
Two dominating elements of this oil painting are geometric shapes and color. Red is used in the tie, lips, and hair, which form a vertical ascent. Likewise, the eye color is reflected in the suit jacket and shirt, with blue highlights in hair and facial features. Color is a unifying compositional element. Lines are sharply defined in the facial features, but softened in the clothing. The background is broken up into geometrical shapes. One vertical line extends unbroken from her left shoulder up to the top of the painting. Horizontal lines extend from each side of her ear, mimicking the tilt of her head. The focal point? For me, it’s the eyes, rubbed out in a dark blue grey. The right eye has a slight indication of a pupil. The color contrasts, angularity, and expressionless face are disquieting and jarring.
Assumption of the Virgin
This multi-figured altarpiece is meant to be seen from afar through an interior arch, and is twenty-three feet tall. What do you see happening in this painting? What pictorial elements make this painting visible from a distance yet provide unity to the scene? Do you sense an overall tone or feel and how does the artist communicate that to you? How do you see that color and light are used?
The artist has skillfully painted a multitude of figures. The Virgin Mary is being assumed into heaven and Titian created three zones of figures: God, the Virgin accompanied by cherubs pushing her up on clouds, and the rest on earth. He forgoes painting a sense of depth and perspective in favor of a golden divine background. There is much implied motion through gesture, her billowing garments and expressions. Lines are implied as there are far too many figures to provide distinct outlining for each.
Three geometric compositional areas unite as well as separate the figures. God the father and the Virgin are painting within a circle, while the Virgin forms a triangle within the circle. The humans below are painted in a rectangular. The color red in the Virgin and two figures below forms another triangular shape with aids the eye upwards. The painting is darker at the bottom with the group of apostles and is lighter at the top. The golden light creates a focal point on the Virgin, as well as her pose, color of garments, and her figure has the most space around her.
The Street Pavers
What captures your attention? Where does your eye go? What role do shapes and color play in the painting? Is there a tone or mood created by the artist? Look at the accompanying sketch Boccioni made – how does it influence your observation of the painting?
My first reaction to this painting was that it seemed like a jumble of shapes and colors. I recognized the hat, a few arms, and axe picks of some workers. The title helped me understand what was represented. The circular hat shape is the focal point in an asymmetrical composition. My eye moves around the painting without resting on one spot. Rhythm is created through repeated geometric patterns and short blue brush strokes. The colors are bold and intense. It is difficult to determine how many figures are represented, but they are not painted as individuals. No facial features or distinguishing characteristics are painted. The repetition of shapes and colors (like the rhythm of paving a street by hand) drew me into this work. I find there is a lot of suggested movement in the work, especially through his brushstrokes. The artist places the subjects close in the foreground, without creating depth. Although I have seen it many times, I found this painting holds my interest.
Enjoy some time with these artworks.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books, 1990.
Day, Jesse. Line, Color, Form: The Language of Art and Design. Allworth Press, 2013.
DeWitte, Debra, Ralph Larmann, Kathryn M. Shields. Gateways to Art. 3rd ed. Thames and Hudson College, 2018.
Fichner-Rathus, Louis. Understanding Art. 11th ed. 2016. Cengage Learning.
Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. Sage, 2016.
Smarthistory An introductory art history site with videos and guides to learning about art and artists.