Monday, July 25, 2011

Strategy for visiting an art museum.

I recently adopted a different strategy for visiting an art museum  I always felt I should look at everything!  Naively I was under the impression that if the museum thought a piece important enough to include in their collection, then I ought to spend the time to look at it (that's convent school training for you!). The result was I always had a very jumbled memory of any museum, mainly involved with visual overload, to say nothing of an aching back and feet!

I know that looking at great work is a key way to improving one’s own work.  Analyzing the composition that the artist has used, tracing it with one’s eye to see where the main masses of values are and how they’re balanced within the four edges of the piece.   It’s important not to just see – ahh a pretty picture of boats on a river, but rather to assess where are the darks and lights, what is the structure of this piece, how is one shape blended – or not – into another.

So what I’ve decided to do now is just focus in on a few key pieces.  So first I do a quick recce of the whole place looking for pieces that catch my eye.  Of course this would be a bit difficult with somewhere as big as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or the British Museum…but for the average art museum in a small or medium sized city I think it’s very possible.  So I zoom around looking for those stand outs.  And I’m beginning to realize that many museums have had to flesh out their collections with lesser works by well known artists.  I’ve given myself permission to say that’s not a very good piece even though it’s by so and so and I’m not going to waste my time on it!

Then I borrow one of the little folding stools that most museums have these days (or should have!  It’s always good to ask if you don’t see them).  I like to choose no more than 3 or 4 items and then sit and sketch them.  The point of sketching them is that it really does force you to figure out what the artist did.  Where are the main shapes?  How are things arranged here…what strong lines do I see as I gaze at the piece.  How has contrast been used?  And what about gradation – of value, or color or line quality?  Where is the center of interest and how is that indicated?  What’s the craftsmanship like? Does it have a distinctive style that it is in keeping with the subject matter?  What ideas could I “steal” to use in a quilt.  remembering Picasso is reputed to have said that great artists steal, mediocre artists copy i.e. make it your own!

Using this strategy on my last museum visit I felt I got a lot more out of my visit.  I didn’t stay too long and I focused in on my key "take home" works of art.  If you go with another person I recommend after the whiz around and choosing of the study pieces, you go your own way but then meet up in the coffee shop later – another pleasure!

Well, I thought I would be enjoying some cool Canadian air but instead I seem to have brought the heat from the SouthEast up here with me!  However, a trip to the wonderful Tom Thomsons at the McMichael collection in Kleinberg, ON is on the cards!!  I’m also teaching my online class Working in Series and have an amazing group of students from all over North American, Europe and Africa.  Registration for my next QU class, Inspired to Design is open by the way (there's a link in the sidebar), hope to see you there! 

If you have been, thanks for reading!  Let me know what you have found to be the most effective way to visit a museum – I’d love to know.   Elizabeth


Kit Lang said...

Oooh - did I somehow miss that you are teaching somewhere in Southern Ontario (and if I did, when and where and is there any more room in your class?)

And: "Aha! It's YOU who is responsible for this weather."

Unknown said...

I have always described myself as the "visitor sympathetic curator." Another point I always do is that I don't read all labels. The labels should be done like and outline...and each individual item label may be a jewel, but only if you're interested. You should be able to get the gist of the whole thing by NOT reading each and every label.

The other point which is really fun is that if you do as you suggest Elizabeth, there's always something new to discover, no matter how many times you've visited a permanent installation. :)

lisa Quintana

Faith said...

Many years ago, when I lived in Brookings, SD, I visited the museum and sat for a long time looking at The Prairie Is My Garden by Harvey Dunn. I didn't know any of the questions you ask in paragraph four, but I wish I did. At the time I knew only that it grabbed my attention like no other painting has ever done. I don't know if I learned anything about making art by looking at it. Perhaps looking at the photos will allow me to gain some insight even though on-line photos of the painting don't do it justice.

Elizabeth Barton said...

yes, Kit, alas I seem to trail excessive heat and dryness where e'er I go!! I'm heading back south on Saturday so expect good weather next week! alas no I'm not teaching in Southern Ontario, though I'd be happy to if anyone wants to hire me! My next teaching is in Tennessee in October, and online of course.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thanks for your comment Michigoose! I so agree about the labels...they compel you to read them, but they prevent you from just spending time with the artwork. I'm trying to break myself of the label habit!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Faith, the Prairie is my Garden is a lovely picture and has a lot to look at. It's also very well composed - you can see the points he's making and how he draws your eye to them.
Thank you for drawing our attention to it!

Nancy said...

Elizabeth, the suggestions about visiting a museum are spot on.

One tip on visiting a large museum is to go first to the gift shop, pick up postcards of the pieces you like and then ask where they are located. Saves feet. Generally the most renown pieces are the ones on the post cards not the lesser works of the well known.

I wish our main museum allowed for sketching for those not in a museum class. Alas.

Elizabeth Barton said...

that's such a shame, Nancy, and seems so pointless - maybe an appeal to the head bod?