Too Lazy To….Decipher the Art of Really Looking at a Painting

Art Galleries used to scare me.  There’s something rather other-worldly about stepping into vast silent space, surrounded by somber paintings.  Others seem to hold a secret knowledge and speak a secret language that I don’t understand – they mutter something about why the big toe at the bottom left hand corner of the painting was painted inversely on purpose (and which I completely overlooked!).  If there was ever a time I felt amateurish and inadequate, it would be smack bang in the middle of an art gallery.

However, if you distill everything, looking at paintings is really much easier than we make out.  I love this quote: “…..passion for a particular painting doesn’t always have to be underwritten by a reason.  The painting we would rush to save first from a fire isn’t always the most ‘important’ one.  Like all objects, paintings can carry memories and stories for their owners that no one else could guess at.  Perhaps there’s a painting on your wall that marks a moment, or reminds you of a place, or was given to you by someone who matters.  Perhaps what you love in it is a thread of humour or poetry that would snap.  Either way, when someone asks, ‘Why do you like it?’ every once in a while it seems fair to exercise the fan’s prerogative: ‘I like it just because.’ ” (Paton).

Sometimes we make life too difficult.  We are more concerned about capturing the sunset with our cameras than enjoying the magical twilight between day and night.  We are so concerned with finding the secret meanings behind the painting, rather than how it makes us feel.  Sometimes the answer “just because” is enough.  However, if you want some guidance to enhance your experience of appreciating paintings, here’s a very rough guideline (for the average lazy person):

1. Take your own sweet time- no one’s rushing you.

2.  If something seems a little strange in a painting (proportions, colouring, subject matter etc) – ask yourself why the painter has created it like so!  Is there something they are inviting you to see?

3.  Try and understand the context in which the painting was created – put yourself in the painter’s shoes.  Read the guides if necessary (there’s no shame!).

4.  Imagine who the painting was painted for.

5.  Trust your observations- expand on what you see rather than obsessing over hidden meanings.

If you are interested in learning more, there is no better book on this subject than ‘How to look at a painting’ by Justin Paton (Winner of Montana Book Award for Contemporary Culture).  I love the way it reaches out to the average non-art expert, making the world of Art Galleries accessible to everyone.

Despite being lazy, I am never too lazy to visit an Art Gallery 🙂



  1. Loved the post, and thanks for the like. I love art galleries, I tend to just go by my instinct when it comes to art appreciation 🙂

  2. Pingback: The Lazy Person’s Guide to Trying Something New (Fitness Classes – Cycling)) « busandstops

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