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A Note about Viewing Art with StudentsShare

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Describing and Drawing
Objective versus Subjective
Responding through Art

Exploring works of art should begin with close observation. When you present an artwork, we recommend that initially you do not provide students with any information about the work, not even the title or date. This will encourage students to base their comments solely on what they see. Ask students to begin their investigation by exploring the visual characteristics of the artwork. For example:

  • What do you see? For example, what colors do you see? What shapes or patterns? What forms and textures?

  • What do you think the object is made of?

  • Are there any words on this object? If there are words, can you tell what language they are in? Do you know what the words say?

  • Are there any people represented? What do you observe about the way they look, what they are wearing, how they are posed, or what they are doing?

  • How would you describe the setting?

Then, begin to solicit students' interpretations of the artwork. Encourage them to consider how the work's visual characteristics contribute to its meaning and impact. For example:

  • Does this work of art evoke a particular mood or sensation? Is there a sense of movement? Calmness? Confusion? How has the artist created this atmosphere?

  • What do you think the images or symbols mean? Do they remind you of anyone or anything?

  • Where or when do you think this work was made? What makes you say that?

  • If there are figures, what do you think they are thinking?

  • What do you think will happen next in this scene?

As students respond, make sure they base their comments on specific visual evidence drawn from the artwork. If they make subjective or interpretive comments, like "I think it's about the Holocaust" or "The woman probably feels scared," ask them, "What about the work of art makes you say that?" or "What visual evidence do you have to support that idea?" Each image on this website is accompanied by questions for further discussion. These questions can help you structure your class's examination of the works of art.

Gradually introduce facts about the work and its historical context to help steer the discussion in useful directions or facilitate interpretation of the work. Pay attention to any questions and observations that might serve as fruitful directions for further research or offer interesting connections to other areas of study. Listing them on the board may be useful.

Finally, be open to new discoveries and new interpretations. When viewing a work of art for the first time, students may see things that have eluded even the most astute art historians.

Here are a few simple activities you can use with any work of art to help students hone their close-looking skills:

Ask students to sketch an object or even just a part of it. Students may claim they cannot draw. Let them know that it doesn't matter if they are future Rembrandts or if they can barely hold a pencil. Making a sketch requires close observation, and that is the goal of the activity. Students will often discover details through sketching that they might otherwise have overlooked.

Describing and Drawing
Group students in pairs and give one member of each pair an image of an object. Ask that student to describe the object in enough detail that his or her partner will be able to draw a picture of the object without seeing it. Then have the students switch roles and let the draftsman (using a different image) become the describer.

Objective versus Subjective
Present students with a work of art or an image of a work of art. Ask each student to divide a sheet of paper into two columns, one labeled "Objective" and the other labeled "Subjective." In the objective column, have students jot down what they can see in the artwork without adding any interpretation or inference. In the subjective column, have them write down their interpretations, associations, feelings, and assumptions. Then discuss. What do we bring to our observations of art? How much of our response is based on what we see, and how much comes from our own biases and experiences?

Responding through Art
Explore alternative modes of expression as techniques for responding to art. For example, encourage students to move in ways that are inspired by an artwork. Or ask students to role-play a scene, dramatizing the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the characters in a painting. You might even invite students to sing a song that is evoked by a particular work of art.