Looking at art

Many artists spend weeks, months, even years creating a work of art. Yet many people spend only seconds looking it. Why not try a different pace?

There are many ways to look at art.

You don’t need a detailed knowledge of art history or theory to enjoy an artwork or to develop your own understanding of it.

Here are some suggestions for different ways of thinking about an artwork. You might select a few that appeal to you or that seem particularly suitable for a specific artwork. Or you might like to spend some time really getting to know just one or two artworks by considering a whole range of questions, perhaps even doing some further research to find the answers or make other connections.

A personal response

  • What first attracted you to this artwork?
  • What is it that holds your interest?
  • How does the artwork make you feel?
  • Does it remind you of anything? eg another artwork, a place, person, story, idea or memory
  • What is it about the artwork that sparks these memories and associations?
  • Talk about the artwork with a friend or family member. Are your responses the same or different?

The basics

  • What is the title of the artwork?
  • What is the name of the artist? Where and when did they live? Are they still alive?
  • When was it made? If no date is given, the artist’s birth date can give you a rough idea.
  • What is it made of?

This information will be on a label near the artwork if you are in the Gallery. It usually accompanies an image of the artwork if it is reproduced, eg in a book or online.

What you can see

What is your eye drawn to first? What are the different elements in the artwork? How have they been put together?

Look at the directions of lines, the edges of shapes. Are the lines horizontal or vertical or at other angles, straight or curved, continuous or broken, thick or thin, long or short, heavy or light, smooth or jagged, aggressive or delicate, fuzzy or crisp?

Are the shapes rounded, rectangular, triangular, regular or irregular, symmetric or asymmetric, fat, thin or tapered, convex (bulging) or concave (hollowed out)?

Look at the light and dark, shadows and highlights. Are the tones pale, murky, dazzling, dim, harsh, subtle? Is the contrast high or low?

Are the colours natural or exaggerated, intense or soft, dull or bright, warm or cool, complementary (opposite on the colour wheel) or harmonious (near each other on the colour wheel)?

Are the patterns bold or subtle, simple or intricate, geometric or regular, rich or sparse?

What is the surface texture like? Is it even or uneven, smooth or coarse, shiny or matte? If it’s a painting, can you see the brushstrokes?

Process and technique

  • What type of artwork is it? eg a painting, drawing, sculpture, photograph, video, sound work, installation.
  • How do you think it was made?
  • If it is a painting, drawing or sculpture, can you see evidence of how the artist’s hand moved?
  • Do you think it moved slowly and carefully or quickly and energetically?
  • How long do you think it took to make?
  • Do you think other people may have helped the artist make it?
  • How is it displayed? If it is in a frame, what is the frame like?


  • Where and when was the artwork created? What do you know about the place and that period in history? What was life like? What was happening socially, politically, culturally? Do you think the artwork is influenced by this?
  • What do you know about the artist, their life, influences and art practice?
  • Was the work originally created as a piece of art or do you think it had some other purpose? eg religious, ceremonial, practical
  • Do you think it was originally intended for display in a gallery or for another space? eg palace, temple, church
  • How does it compare to other works? eg by the same artist, or by someone from the same place and period in history, or those displayed in the same room. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different?
  • What part of the Gallery is it in? Why do you think it is in that particular location?

Subject and meaning

  • Can you classify the artwork and its subject according to a type? eg landscape, portrait, still life
  • Does it depict something recognisable like a person or an object? Is it realistic or more abstract? Natural or unnatural?
  • Could it be a symbol for something else?
  • Does it tell a story?
  • Is the subject familiar to you? What other examples can you recall? eg in other artworks, literature, music, films
  • Can you see people in the artwork? If so, what are they doing? What might they be thinking? Look at their expressions, gestures, clothes.
  • What do you think the artwork is about?

What you can’t see

  • What difference would it make if something about the artwork changed? eg if was a different colour or size or made of other materials or in a different frame
  • What difference would it make if the artwork was in a different setting? eg a temple, outdoors
  • Can you extend the artwork in your imagination? If it shows a scene, what might have happened before or after that moment? What is happening outside the frame?

At the Gallery

When looking at artworks at the Gallery, you can expand your knowledge and enjoyment of art.

  • Read the information provided – look for labels and text panels on the walls, room brochures, information boards that you can carry around the room.
  • Take advantage of our tours, exhibition talks, lectures and symposia, courses and publications.
  • Visit again! Even seemingly simple artworks will reveal new things on a second, third or fourth viewing.


On the Gallery’s website, you’ll also find:

  • tips for introducing kids to art
  • audio introductions to specific artworks in our online tours
  • information about each of the artworks in our collection in the Collection section, along with images of many of them
  • more ideas about looking at and thinking about art in our education kits