How to look at a painting with patience

Some time ago, I read a book called How to Look at a Painting.

I imagine I thought I looked artistically intellectual reading it on the tube, though it was actually rather interesting and totally unpretentious.

The book by New Zealand curator and art writer Justin Paton came flooding back to me when I was stood – or rather squeezed – in the Royal Academy of Arts to see the exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse.

Like many of these ‘big ticket’ London shows, you try to pick the right day (a week day) and time (first thing in the morning or after lunch) only to find your viewing thwarted – or often obscured – by a bus load of school kids or clubs of pensioners. Yes, we’re all individual numbers, I know!

On this particular instance, I dug deep (with the breath) and resisted the urge to tut or say ‘thank you’ when someone fails to do so when you let them pass (the British gallery-going equivalent of telling someone to … off), and fully worked the mindfulness.

So, here’s how to cope with the crowds and look at a painting with patience (and enjoy it!) … tips that are applicable to many other busy or stressful situations:

1) Ground your feet – not so you stubbornly refuse to let Ms Pushy of Pinner anywhere near Monet’s water lilies but so you stay calm among the bustle (rooting through the feet is a widely used public speaking tip). It also keeps you steady to enjoy the moment – and maintains your energy to move on, not sagging into one hip giving yourself bottom/backache!

2) And exhale … At length … It’s the out breath that stimulates the restful/calming part of our nervous systems (and also aids digestion), so making the exhale longer than the inhale helps us relax in stressful situations (good for pre job interview jitters). In a gallery it’s nice to inhale and view a painting, exhale and see ‘what’s your reaction/feeling about it?’

3) Take in a new perspective – when the crowds are thronging take a step back. What do you see (size of picture and rabble dependent)? You literally do get a different impression of the impressionists, and then step back in when there’s space and note what you see on closer inspection.The giant crescent canvas of Monet’s latter life water lilies at the end of the exhibition are best viewed from varying angles.

4) Drink in the colours/shapes/outlines – be fully present and aware of what is before you. These are amazing artists and we’re privileged to be able to see them (ok at almost £20 a head we’re the more privileged paying for the privilege). Immerse yourself in the colours of Henri Matisse, and notice the twilight bathing the houses within Henri Le Sidaner’s gardens and how it seems to change before the eyes.

5) Silence is golden but it’s also good to talk – the room hosting the exhibition’s Gardens of Silence – those without human presence – is suitably dark and chatter among viewers tends to naturally quieten there. Everyone’s experience of art is unique and best consumed by yourself first, and then you can share and compare it with a friend afterwards (just not too loudly into a stranger’s ear!).

So, mind the crowds with mindfulness and hopefully you’ll gain the best possible impression of a painting. Book tickets for Painting the Modern Garden

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Lovely post, very helpful, thanks Flavia x

    1. Thanks – glad it’s helpful 🙂

  2. That’s a really helpful post Flavia – it’s too easy to feel overwhelmed by the people instead of the art. I think it can sometimes help to sit down and people watch for a moment too, as that can help me remember they are real too!

    1. Top tip too! Yes, and it’s good to sometimes take time out to watch other people’s reactions too. People watching itself can be very relaxing too – activities dependent! 🙂

  3. The advice on standing is great, it’s easy to get fatigued when viewing a long exhibition, especially one where you want to draw in and contemplate what you are looking at. I also love the breathing technique in helping ones understanding of a piece. I can’t wait to try it out!

    1. Great! Yes, I agree – big exhibitions can be very tiring (without the crowds!) and these tips help me to stay focused on the art

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