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PLANNING YOUR VISIT
Museums are storehouses of our cultural treasures. Some focus on specific times and cultures. Galleries frequently change the artwork they display, and offer special exhibitions showcasing the work of contemporary and local artists. Artworks in a gallery are often for sale, but works owned by a museum are held in its care long term. Ask your professor what museums and galleries are located in your area. Artworks can also be seen all around you: for example, a sculpture in your local park, or art in government buildings or in the gallery on your school campus.
Often, museums were built by renowned architects, and are therefore works of art in themselves. As museum staff take pride in their collections, and are concerned for the valuable objects in their care, museums often have strict rules. The architecture itself can also be somewhat forbidding. Don’t let such rules, or a building’s imposing facade, make you feel unwelcome, however: the artwork is there for you to appreciate!
Let yourself wander through the museum, stopping to consider works that intrigue you. Everyone’s taste is unique, and it is better for you to focus on a few works than to overwhelm yourself trying to understand the museum’s entire collection in one day. When you come upon an artwork you would like to write about or sketch, stop and consider what it is that drew you to it. Do you love it? Hate it? Do you find it beautiful or ugly? Are you curious about the characters in the scene? Or are you confused by what the artist is trying to say? Use the textbook, class notes, and museum labels to help you understand the artwork. But do not forget to take ample time to look at it in detail.
You can make the most of your visit to a local art museum or gallery if you plan ahead. Based on what your teacher advises, choose a museum to visit. Research the items below online before you go so that you can make the most of your time with the exhibits.
What to take with you: First and foremost, read your assignment carefully before you go, and take it with you. Take a notebook and pencils, too, so you can make sketches of the works (including details that interest you). Some museums do not allow pens, so check first before taking one. Many museums do not allow you to take photographs, but if you have already printed out an image from the museum website, you can use this as a reference, or you may find a postcard of the work in the museum gift shop.
While you are there: Museum and gallery projects often require you to study one work in detail, or to compare and contrast two works. The experience of seeing works in a museum or gallery is the best way to enjoy and learn about art. Take a little time to look at other works, not just the ones you are studying for your assignment. Artworks displayed in the same room may well be by the same artist, or from the same era or culture. You may notice something in these pieces that will inspire extra ideas for your assignment.
Practical considerations: Check the museum website for information about opening hours, transportation, parking, entrance fees, and whether such items as backpacks and cameras are allowed inside the museum (and if not, where you can check them). Some museums do not charge for entry but may charge for a special exhibit: check the website for details. Many museums that charge have free or reduced-price admission on specific days.
Artwork labels: There are usually labels next to each artwork. These labels contain useful information about the work, which can help you write a really great assignment. Do not forget to make notes of the details given in the labels. The museum bookstore and website will help you find more material about the artwork you select.
Museum and gallery dos and don’ts: You may want to get close to a work to study a particular detail, but remember to be courteous to other visitors who may want to see the work at the same time. Never touch a work of art, because doing so can damage it. Do not take photos unless you are sure this is allowed. If in doubt, ask. Some museums permit visitors to take photos if flash is not used. Finally, although food and drink are not allowed in the exhibition spaces of museums and galleries, many have a café or restaurant.
FORMAL/VISUAL ANALYSIS OF WORKS OF ART
A work of art is the product of the dynamic interrelationships between the various art elements and principles as they are utilized by the artist. As you engage with a work of art, ask yourself why the artist made such choices. By looking more closely at artworks and trying to identify the elements and principles of art that have been used to create them, we may further understand the artist’s intended vision and will notice how the artwork often reflects the time and place from which it came.
Elements of Art
Line: Do you see any outlines that define objects, shapes, or forms? Are lines used to emphasize a direction (vertical, horizontal, diagonal)? Describe the important lines: are they straight or curved, short or long, thick or thin? How do you think the artist utilized line to focus attention on certain objects, forms, or people? Are any invisible lines implied? For example, is a hand pointing, is the path of a figure’s gaze creating a psychological line, or is linear perspective used? Do the lines themselves have an expressive quality, as in Van Gogh’s
Light: If the work is a two-dimensional object, is a source of light depicted or implied? Is the light source natural or artificial? Do the shadows created by the light appear true to life, or has the artist distorted them? In what way does he or she depict such shadows—through line, or color? If the object shown is three-dimensional, how does it interact with the light in its setting? How do gradations of shadows and highlights create form or depth, emphasis or order in the composition?
Color: Which colors are predominantly used in this depiction? If the object is black and white, or shades of gray, did the artist choose to do this because of the media he or she was working in, or do such shades create a certain mood or effect? Color can best be described by its hue, tone, and intensity (the hue is its basic shade, for example blue or red). Does the artist’s choice of color create a certain mood? Does he or she make use of complementary colors—red/green, violet/yellow, blue/orange—or analogous ones (those next to each other on the color wheel)? Does the artist utilize colors that are “warm” or “cool”? In which parts of the work? Is atmospheric perspective—in which cool colors recede, creating a blurred background, and warm, clear colors fill the foreground—used? Do you notice any visual effects, such as optical color mixing?
Texture: What is the actual texture on the surface of the object? Is it rough or smooth? What is the implied texture? Are patterns created through the use of texture?
Shape: What shapes do you see? If the work has a flat surface, are the shapes shown on it two-dimensional, or are they made to appear (illusionistically) three-dimensional or volumetric? If the work is a three-dimensional object, how volumetric is its shape? Is it nearly flat, or does it have substantial mass? Is the shape organic (seemingly from nature) or geometric (composed of regular lines and curves)? Can you see any implied shapes? In representations of people, how does shape lend character to a figure? Are these figures proud or timid, strong or weak, beautiful or grotesque?
Form: Did the artist choose geometric or organic form, or a combination of both? Why do you think the artist made these choices?
Volume and mass: Has the artist used volume or mass to express any feelings or communicate any ideas? Is the work a closed or open volume?
Space: How does the form created by shape and line fill the space of the composition? Is there negative, or empty, space without objects in it? If the artwork is three-dimensional, how does it fill our space? Is it our size, or does it dwarf us? If the piece is two-dimensional, is the space flat, or does it visually project into ours? How does the artist create depth in the image (by means of layering figures/objects, linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, isometric perspective, foreshortening of figures)?
Time and motion: Does the artwork in some way communicate the passage of time? For example, it may tell a story or narrate a series of events. Consider whether the work involves motion (implied or actual) in any way. Remember that even a static artwork, such as a painting or a sculpture, can express motion.
Value: Are there any significant value changes (i.e. changes in the degrees of darkness or lightness) in the work? If so, why do you think the artist used value in this way?
Principles of Art
Artists utilize the elements of art to produce these design principles.
Emphasis: The emphasis of a work refers to a focal point in the image or object. What is your eye drawn to? Does the artist create tension or intrigue us by creating more than one area of interest? Or is the work of art afocal—that is, the viewer cannot find a particular place to rest the eye? Is there a psychological focus created through the elements of art?
Scale and proportion: What is the size of all the forms and how do they relate proportionally to one another? Did the artist create objects larger in scale in order to emphasize them? Or was scale used to create depth? Are objects located in the foreground, middle ground, or background? Look at the scale of the artwork itself. Is it larger or smaller than you expected?
Balance: Balance is produced by the visual weight of shapes and forms within a composition. Balance can be symmetrical—in which each side of an artwork is the same—or asymmetrical. Radial balance is when the elements appear to radiate from a central point. How are opposites—light/shadow, straight/curved lines, complementary colors—used?
Rhythm: Rhythm is created by repetition. What repeated elements do you see? Does the repetition create a subtle pattern, a decorative ornamentation? Or does it create an intensity, a tension? Identify the type of rhythm used: is it simple repetitive rhythm, progressive rhythm, or alternating rhythm? Does the rhythm unify the work, or does it, on the contrary, seem a group of disparate parts?
Unity and variety: Is the artwork unified and cohesive, or disordered and chaotic? How does the artist use the elements to achieve this? Consider the work in terms of both its composition and the concepts it explores, which can also unify an artwork. Is there diversity in the use of elements that creates variety? Consider value, texture, color, shape, and other elements of art. How does the artwork combine aspects of unity and variety?
Pattern: Can you identify any repetition of an element (such as shape, value, or color) in the artwork that creates a pattern? A design repeated as a unit is called a motif. Can you see any motifs in the work?
Media and Technique
Is the object two- or three-dimensional? What limitations, if any, might the chosen medium create for the artist?
Drawing: Consider the materials utilized: pencil, silverpoint, chalk, charcoal, crayon, pastel, ink, and wash. Was the artist able to make controlled strokes with this medium? Would the tool create a thick or thin line? One that was defined or blurred? Was the drawing intended to be a work of art in itself, or is it a study for another work, a peek into the artist’s creative process?
Painting: How did the type of paint affect the strokes the artist could make? Was it fresco, oil, tempera, watercolor, encaustic, acrylic, or some other type of paint? Was it a fast-drying paint that allowed little time to make changes? What kind of textures and lines was the artist able to create with this medium? Does it create a shiny or flat look? How durable was the medium? How was the paint applied to the surface: with a brush, a palette knife, dripped, or sprayed?
Printmaking: What is the process the artist undertook to create this work? Did the artist need to engrave or etch? Did the medium require a steady hand? Strength, or patience?
Visual communication design: What format did the designer select (poster, book, advertisement, etc.)? Is the work color or black and white? How does the artwork combine text and images?
Sculpture: Is the sculpture high or low relief, or can we see the object in the round? What challenges did the material present to the artist? Was the work created through a subtractive process (beginning with a large mass of the medium and taking away from it to create form), or an additive one (in which sculptors add material to make the final artwork)? What tools did the artist use to create the form? If the form is human, is the artwork life-size?
Architecture: Does the building represent the work of a community or the power of a leader? How was it constructed? What was the structure’s intended use? How does it fit with its surroundings? Is it a domineering or welcoming structure?
Traditional craft media: Is the work made of ceramic, glass, metal, fiber, wood, or some other material? Why do you think the artist chose this material?
Photography: Was the photograph taken digitally, or using film? Is it in color or in black and white? What is the subject matter?
Film or video: Is the film in color or in black in white? Is it silent or is there sound? How is it displayed in the gallery?
Alternative media: Does the work emphasize ideas rather than the physical product? Is there a physical product? The work could be conceptual, or temporary—a performance by an artist, for example. Are you as the viewer involved in the work? Perhaps you are walking through an installation or environment created by the artist.
Modes of Analysis
Consider whether any of the following ways of analysing an artwork can be applied to the subject of your assignment:
Formal and stylistic analysis: Does the work clearly depict objects or people as we would recognize them in the world around us (is it representational)? Alternatively, is its subject matter completely unrecognizable (is it non-objective)? To what degree has the artist simplified, emphasized, or distorted aspects of forms in the work (or abstracted it)? Does this artwork have a unique style? Or can you identify characteristics that it shares with other artworks by the same artist, from the same period or place, or belonging to the same artistic group or movement?
Iconographic analysis: Are there things in the work that you can interpret as signs or symbols? For example, is there anything that suggests a religious meaning, or indicates the social status of somebody depicted in the work? Labels often provide good information about iconography.
Biographical and psychological analysis: Would information about the life of the artist help you to interpret the work? Do you think the artist’s state of mind (happy, depressed, anxious) has affected the artwork? Again, labels are often a good source of biographical detail. In some museums volunteer docents are available to answer questions about an artist’s life and works.
Feminist and gender studies analysis: Is the role of women in the artwork important? Is the artist commenting on the experience of women in society? Is the artist a woman? How does the gender of the artist affect his or her work? How does your own gender affect your experience of viewing the artwork?
Contextual analysis: Would you understand the work better if you knew something about the history of the era in which it was created, or about religious, political, economic, and social issues that influenced its creation?