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How to Read a Painting

How to Read a Painting
How to Read a Painting

    Art is a great status symbol in modern society and because of that it can be quite intimidating to the casual viewer. For many the first impulse is to blow it off, to see it as a worthless plaything for the rich and boring. This is too bad, not only because art can be a great source of pleasure in our lives, but because even a passing acquaintance with art can enrich and deepen our understanding of the world around us.

    Fortunately, developing a casual understanding of art is not all that difficult. It is true that some people devote their entire lives to studying the minutest details of an artists’ work, but there’s no need to become an expert to have a meaningful relationship with art. All it takes is a moderate attention to detail, a little bit of patience, and a willingness to reflect on your own feelings.

    Here, I’ll show you a quick way to approach and appreciate a painting, although the ideas here can be applied to works in other mediums (sculpture, drawing, even architecture and fashion) quite easily. There’s no shortcut to understanding I can give; great art rewards the hundredth viewing as much as he first, and you can spend a lifetime pondering the decisions an artist made in one painting. Instead, I’ll try to give you a process to follow that will help you get the most out of a painting the first time you see it.

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    While I’m on the subject, a word about “great art”. Andy Warhol said that if you want to tell a good painting from a bad one, first look at a thousand paintings. There are no hard and fast rules about what makes a piece great, mediocre, or bad; remember, Van Gogh’s work was once considered amateurish and forgettable. There are, of course, standards that matter within the professional art world, but you don’t owe the professionals anything, so don’t worry too much about what they think qualifies as “great”.

    Take a Look

    Art should appeal to you first through your senses. That doesn’t mean a painting has to be beautiful to be good, but it must grab your eye in some way. Give a work a moment to do its thing — some works are intriguing in subtle ways. A work might grab your attention through its subject matter, it’s use of color, an interesting juxtaposition of objects, it’s realistic appearance, a visual joke, or any number of other factors.

    Breughel's Tower of Babel

      Once you’ve gotten an overall look at the painting, ask yourself “what’s this a picture of?” That is, what is the subject of the painting? The subject might be a landscape, a person or group of people, a scene from a story, a building or city scene, an animal, a still life (a collection of everyday items like a bowl of fruit, a pile of books, or a set of tools), a fantasy scene, and so on. Some paintings won’t have a subject — much of the work of the 20th century is abstract, playing with form and color and even the quality of the paint rather than representing reality.

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      The painting above, by the Dutch artist Breughel, represents the Tower of Babel. Scenes from the Bible or from classical mythology are popular in older work; since the end of the 19th century, scenes of everyday life have become more common. If you know the story, you’re one step ahead of the game, but it’s possible to enjoy the work without knowing the story it illustrates.

      What’s That All About?

      Look for symbols. A symbol, very simply, is something that means something else. The Tower of Babel is a well-known symbol in Western society, representing both the dangers of pride and the disruption of human unity. Often a painting will include very clear symbols — skulls, for instance, were often included in portraits of the wealthy to remind them that their wealth was only worldly and, in the grand scheme of things, ultimately meaningless. But just as often the symbolism is unique, the artist’s own individual statement. Don’t get caught in the trap of trying to figure out “what the artist meant”; focus instead on what the work says to you.

      How’d They Do That?

      Vermeer's Milkmaid

        The next consideration is style, which is essentially the mark of the artist’s individual creativity on the canvas. Some artists follow well-established styles — many Renaissance portraits look almost exactly alike to the casual viewer, for instance — while others go out of their way to be different and challenging. Some artists create closely detailed, finely controlled works, others slap paint around almost haphazardly creating a wild, ecstatic effect.

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        It may not seem as obvious as the subject and symbolism, but style can also convey meaning to a viewer. For example, Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings convey the motion and freedom of the artist in the act of creation, despite being completely abstract. Vermeer’s Milkmaid, on the other hand, is notable for it’s incredibly fine detail and careful application of thin glazes of oil paints (which doesn’t come across in a photograph, alas) which create a luminous quality, imparting a kind of nobility and even divinity to the simple act of a servant pouring milk.

        My Kid Could Do That!

        A large part of the appeal of art is emotional — some artists go out of their way to inspire strong reactions ranging from awe and lust to anger and disgust. It’s easy to dismiss work that upsets our notion of what art could be, and any visitor to a gallery of modern art is likely to overhear at least one person complaining that “any three-year old with a box of crayons could do that!”

        Knowing that an artist may be deliberately evoking an emotional response, it pays to take a moment and question our immediate reactions. If a work makes you angry, ask yourself why. What is it about the work that upsets you? What purpose might the artist have in upsetting you? Likewise, if your feelings are positive, why are they positive? What about the painting makes you happy? And so on — take the time to examine your own emotions in the presence of the painting.

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        This is by no means a complete introduction to art, let alone a complete course, but it should help get you started in appreciating art. The more you know, the better the experience will become, but you don’t need to know much to get at least something out of a painting. Keep in mind these 4 concepts (I’m trying not to call them the “Four Esses”) — subject, symbolism, style, and self-examination — and pay a visit to your local art museum or gallery and see if you don’t find something worth your time.

        Artwork courtesy of Nicholas Pioch’s WebMuseum.

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        Last Updated on February 13, 2020

        What Is Speed Reading and How to Successfully Learn It

        What Is Speed Reading and How to Successfully Learn It

        Too much to read, too little time! Don’t you wish you could read faster without compromising your knowledge intake? This is where a valuable learning technique comes to the rescue: speed reading.

        Speed reading is the top skill to learn in 2020. Read on to find out all about this amazing technique!

        What Is Speed Reading?

        On average, an adult can read somewhere between 200 to 300 words per minute. With speed reading, you can read around 1500 words per minute.[1] Yes, that sounds impossible, but it is true.

        In order to understand how this skill works, you first need to know how the reading process works inside a human’s brain.

        The Reading Process

        The first step is for the eyes to look at a word. This “fixation” on every word takes around 0.25 seconds.

        Next, the eye moves on to the following word. It takes 0.1 seconds for the brain to move from one word to the next. This is called “saccade.”

        Usually, a person reads 4 to 5 words or a sentence at once. After all the fixations and saccades, the brain goes over the entire phrase again in order to process the meaning. This takes around half a second.

        All in all, this allows the average person to read 200 to 300 words in a minute.

        Speeding up the Process

        The concept of speed reading is to speed up this process at least 5 times. Since the saccade period cannot be shortened any further, speed reading emphasizes quicker fixations.

        To accomplish this, scientists recommend that the reader skips the subvocalization: when the readers actually say the word in their mind, even when reading silently.

        Basically, speed reading is the technique of only seeing the words instead of speaking them silently.

        Do not confuse this with skimming. When a reader skims through a text, they skip the parts that their brain considers to be unnecessary.

        You may skip important information in this process. Moreover, skimming does not allow the brain to retain what has been read.

        Why Speed Read?

        Speed reading is not just quick, but also effective. This skill saves a lot of of time without sacrificing information.

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        Also, it has been proven to improve memory. The brain’s performance improves during speed reading, which allows the reader to remember more information than before.

        Since speed reading stabilizes the brain, the information is processed faster and more efficiently.

        Believe it or not, this technique leads to improved focus, too. As the brain receives a lot of information during speed reading, there is far less chance of distraction. The brain focuses solely on the job at hand.

        Since the brain is, after all, a muscle, the process of speed reading acts as an exercise. Just like the rest of your muscles, your brain needs exercise to grow stronger, too.

        A focused brain means improved logical thinking. As your brain gets used to receiving and organizing so much information so quickly, your thinking process will become faster.

        As soon as a problem is thrown at you, your brain will quickly put two and two together. You will be able to retrieve stored information, figure out correlations, and come up with new solutions, all within seconds!

        Still not convinced? Read 10 Reasons Why You Should Learn Speed Reading

        Greater Benefits

        With a healthier brain, you can expect better things in other parts of your life, too. A boost in self-esteem is just one of them.

        As you begin to understand information at a faster pace, you will also begin to figure out more opportunities all around you.

        With the ability to deeply understand information in a shorter period of time, your confidence levels will quickly grow higher.

        Moreover, all the aforementioned benefits will relieve you of stress. You will manage your readings in lesser time, your brain will be healthier, and you will feel so much better about yourself.

        With all these advantages, your emotional well-being will be healthier than ever. You’ll feel less stress since your brain will learn to tackle problems efficiently. Speed reading will lead to a relaxed, tension-free lifestyle!

        How to Learn to Speed Read

        Speed reading is a superpower. Fortunately, unlike other superpowers, this one can be learned!

        There are different techniques that can be used to master this skill. Opt for the one that best suits your learning style.

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        1. The Pointer Method

        The person who is credited for popularizing speed reading, Evelyn Wood, came up with the pointer method. It is a simple technique in which the reader uses their index finger to slide across the text that they’re reading.

        As the finger moves, the brain coherently moves along with it. It is an effective technique to keep the eyes focused where the finger goes without causing any distraction.

        Readers have a tendency to back-skip. The pointer method prevents this from happening, thereby saving at least half the reading time.

        2. The Scanning Method

        In this technique, the reader’s eyes move along one part of the page only. This can be the left or right side of the text but is usually the center since that is the most convenient.

        Instead of pacing through the entire text from left to right, the vision shifts from top to bottom.

        This method involves fixation on keywords such as names, figures, or other specific terms. By doing so, the saccade time is minimized.

        3. Perceptual Expansion

        Generally, a reader focuses on one word at a time. This technique, on the other hand, encourages the brain to read a chunk of words together. In doing so, this method increases the reader’s peripheral vision.

        Here’s the thing: even though the fixation time remains the same with perceptual expansion, the number of words that the eyes fixate on increases.

        So basically, the brain receives 5 times more information within the same amount of time.

        This technique is the hardest to master and takes the most time to learn. You’ll need help from speed reading tools in order to practice the perceptual expansion method.

        However, once you master it, this technique will offer you the fastest reading pace with the maximum knowledge intake.

        The Best Speed Reading Apps

        The easiest tool to aid any process in any part of life these days is your smartphone.

        You can use mobile applications to learn speed reading on the go. It has been proven that regularly practicing speed reading is the fastest way to learn this skill. [2]

        Here are a few great options to look into:

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        1. Reedy

        If you own an Android smartphone, you can download Reedy to your mobile. Otherwise, get the chrome extension on your laptop to enjoy speed reading with Reedy.

        This app trains readers to read faster by displaying words one by one on the screen. Instead of having to go through lines or long texts, Reedy prepares the user to focus on one word at a time.

        Although this isn’t an effective method to learn speed reading long texts, it is a great way to start.

        Once your brain gets used to the idea, you can shift to another app to train speed reading sentences or longer texts.

        2. ReadMe!

        Whether you’re an android or iOS user, you can take advantage of the ReadMe! application. This app even comes with some e-book options to practice speed reading on.

        Start by choosing your desired font size, color, layout, etc. Other than that, there are different reading modes for the user to choose from.

        If you want to practice reading sentence by sentence or in short paragraphs, you can choose the focused reading mode.

        The beeline reader mode changes the color of the text to guide the eye to read from the beginning to the end at a certain pace.

        Lastly, there is the spritz mode in which the app focuses on chunks of words at once. This controls the reader’s peripheral vision. However, this mode is not fully available in the free version of the app.

        3. Spreeder

        Spreeder is available on both iOS and Android. However, users may also gain benefits from Spreeder’s website. This application lets the reader paste in any text that they would like to speed read.

        Starting off at a rather low speed, the app flashes words one by one. Gradually, as the user becomes more comfortable, the speed increases.

        Slowly, the user is trained to speed read without having to skip any words.

        This app is different from the rest because it tracks the user’s reading improvements, recording the overall reading time and speed.

        The progress and improvement are tracked in order to motivate the user to perform even better.

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        Adjustable settings, such as the speed of the text, background color, etc. are in the control of the user.

        The Controversy Surrounding Speed Reading

        Truthfully, speed reading does sound too good to be true. It’s hard to believe that it is humanly possible to attain such a fast pace in reading without compromising the quality of information you receive.

        Perhaps as a result, there are people who do not trust the process of speed reading. They believe that when you read through a text at such a high speed, you cannot comprehend the information successfully.

        According to these people, your brain is unable to process information at the speed that you’re reading, and so, they regard speed reading as problematic.

        It is true that speed reading will be of no use if you do not understand the text you’re reading, no matter how quickly you did it.

        Similarly, if you were to read slowly and still not retain or understand the information you read, that would be useless, too.

        However, there a few factors to consider here. When reading at a normal pace, there is enough time in between every step of the process for the brain to get distracted.

        Conversely, speed reading leaves behind no time for the brain to focus on something else. It is unlike skimming. No part of the text is skipped, which means that the brain receives every single bit of information.

        Conclusion

        Keeping all of this in mind, speed reading cannot be labeled a hoax or a failure. Science has backed up this technique, and numerous readers have been using this skill to improve their learning ability.

        At the end of the day, it is your decision whether or not you want to trust this process.

        However, if you decide to take advantage of the opportunities speed reading provides, you will find a world of possibilities opening up to you.

        We live in a fast-paced world. Consuming information faster will help you keep up with that pace and find further success.

        Speed Read Like a Pro!

        Featured photo credit: Blaz Photo via unsplash.com

        Reference

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