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See Like an Artist: Questions to Ask Yourself Next Time You Go to an Exhibition

Natasha Hicken

Developing a critical eye for visual culture is a crucial skill for any creative. Visual thinking strategies form the foundations for all creative solutions. By training yourself to see like an artist, you’ll notice new layers of meaning in everything you look at and do. You’ll be better at saving inspiration and coming up with fresh ideas.

At art school, we quickly honed the ability to understand art, siphoning off what interested us and applying that to our work. My course was massively cross-disciplinary, so we had a lot of practice in deciphering all kinds of visual arts. We were encouraged to see even the most mundane objects as harbouring secret contextual meaning and visual clues that could lead to our next project idea. Even without a formal education, you can easily teach yourself to read context clues and become an expert in visual culture by engaging critically with what you see.

These questions will help you engage your artistic eye, see context clues, and develop a rich understanding of the visual arts.

Virgil Abloh, 'Question Everything', 2018

Next time you see an art object, ask yourself some of the following questions:

Question Your Own Reactions

In some ways, this is the easiest place to start. You don't need any knowledge of art history or the wider context of visual culture to have a reaction to an object. This sensory context is already there, but might need a bit of teasing to come to the surface:

1. What are your first impressions? How are they impacted by _____?

  • size
  • colour
  • shape
  • sound
  • texture
  • surroundings

2. Does this object remind you of a specific _____?

  • place
  • person
  • time
  • feeling

3. How do your feelings interact with each other?

  • If you like it, what aspect do you hate about it?
  • If you hate it, what aspect do you like about it?

4. If you had to pick 3 emotions which would be most appropriate? (Try to look deeper than surface-level emotions.)

The Feeling Wheel, Dr. Gloria Willcox

Question the Creator's Intent

Trying to interpret the creator's intent can help you read some of the more subtle context clues. Although this may be largely guesswork, conducting research into the life of the creator can inform our understanding of their work.

1. Does their work refer to any specific _____?

  • people
  • places
  • objects
  • ideas
  • events

2. What mediums have been used?

  • Why did the creator choose those mediums?
  • Did they break conventions or use something in an unusual way?

Question the Wider Context

Nothing is made in a vacuum. Diving into the wider context can help you see underlying themes and subtle references. These questions should help trigger new episodes of research and discovery.

1. Have you seen anything similar before?

  • How is it the same?
  • How is it different?

2. What major events were going on when this was made?

  • Does it try to comment on those events?

3. What was this work influenced by?

  • people
  • materials
  • natural phenomena
  • global events

4. What has been influenced by this work?

  • people
  • materials
  • global events

5. What would this be like in a different ____?

  • medium
  • discipline
  • timeframe
  • format
  • city

6. What can you tell about this work without any extra research?

7. What do you want to know more about?

Question What This Means to You

Having a well-trained eye and a brain full of references are two of the most valuable assets to any creative. The art of understanding visual culture is the art of understanding yourself.

Keep these questions to hand, to help you read context clues and engage visual thinking strategies to create better work yourself.

Question sheet for understanding visual art