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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 July 27, 2020

        20 Time Management Tips to Super Boost Your Productivity

        20 Time Management Tips to Super Boost Your Productivity

        Are you usually punctual or late? Do you finish things within the time you stipulate? Do you hand in your reports/work on time? Are you able to accomplish what you want to do before deadlines? Are you a good time manager?

        If your answer is “no” to any of the questions above, that means you’re not managing your time as well as you want. Here are 20 time management tips to help you manage time better:

        1. Create a Daily Plan

        Plan your day before it unfolds. Do it in the morning or even better, the night before you sleep. The plan gives you a good overview of how the day will pan out. That way, you don’t get caught off guard. Your job for the day is to stick to the plan as best as possible.

        Here’s How to Create a To-Do List that Super Boosts Your Productivity.

        2. Peg a Time Limit to Each Task

        Be clear that you need to finish X task by 10am, Y task by 3pm, and Z item by 5:30pm. This prevents your work from dragging on and eating into time reserved for other activities.

        3. Use a Calendar

        Having a calendar is the most fundamental step to managing your daily activities. If you use outlook or lotus notes, calendar come as part of your mailing software.

        I use it. It’s even better if you can sync your calendar to your mobile phone and other hardwares you use – that way, you can access your schedule no matter where you are. Here’re the 10 Best Calendar Apps to Stay on Track .

        Find out more tips about how to use calendar for better time management here: How to Use a Calendar to Create Time and Space

        4. Use an Organizer

        An organizer helps you to be on top of everything in your life. It’s your central tool to organize information, to-do lists, projects, and other miscellaneous items.

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        These Top 15 Time Management Apps and Tools can help you organize better, pick one that fits your needs.

        5. Know Your Deadlines

        When do you need to finish your tasks? Mark the deadlines out clearly in your calendar and organizer so you know when you need to finish them.

        But make sure you don’t make these 10 Common Mistakes When Setting Deadlines.

        6. Learn to Say “No”

        Don’t take on more than you can handle. For the distractions that come in when you’re doing other things, give a firm no. Or defer it to a later period.

        Leo Babauta, the founder of Zen Habits has some great insights on how to say no: The Gentle Art of Saying No

        7. Target to Be Early

        When you target to be on time, you’ll either be on time or late. Most of the times you’ll be late. However, if you target to be early, you’ll most likely be on time.

        For appointments, strive to be early. For your deadlines, submit them earlier than required.

        Learn from these tips about how to prepare yourself to be early, instead of just in time.

        8. Time Box Your Activities

        This means restricting your work to X amount of time. Why time boxing is good for you? Here’re 10 reasons why you should start time-boxing.

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        You can also read more about how to do time boxing here: Get What Matters Done by Scheduling Time Blocks

        9. Have a Clock Visibly Placed Before You

        Sometimes we are so engrossed in our work that we lose track of time. Having a huge clock in front of you will keep you aware of the time at the moment.

        10. Set Reminders 15 Minutes Before

        Most calendars have a reminder function. If you have an important meeting to attend, set that alarm 15 minutes before.

        You can learn more about how reminders help you remember everything in this article: The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

        11. Focus

        Are you multi-tasking so much that you’re just not getting anything done? If so, focus on just one key task at one time. Multitasking is bad for you.

        Close off all the applications you aren’t using. Close off the tabs in your browser that are taking away your attention. Focus solely on what you’re doing. You’ll be more efficient that way.

        Lifehack’s CEO has written a definitive guide on how to focus, learn the tips: How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

        12. Block out Distractions

        What’s distracting you in your work? Instant messages? Phone ringing? Text messages popping in?

        I hardly ever use chat nowadays. The only times when I log on is when I’m not intending to do any work. Otherwise it gets very distracting.

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        When I’m doing important work, I also switch off my phone. Calls during this time are recorded and I contact them afterward if it’s something important. This helps me concentrate better.

        Find more tips on how to minimize distractions to achieve more in How to Minimize Distraction to Get Things Done

        13. Track Your Time Spent

        When you start to track your time, you’re more aware of how you spend your time. For example, you can set a simple countdown timer to make sure that you finish a task within a period of time, say 30 minutes or 1 hour. The time pressure can push you to stay focused and work more efficiently.

        You can find more time tracking apps here and pick one that works for you.

        14. Don’t Fuss About Unimportant Details

        You’re never get everything done in exactly the way you want. Trying to do so is being ineffective.

        Trying to be perfect does you more harm than good, learn here about how perfectionism kills your productivity and how to ditch the perfectionism mindset.

        15. Prioritize

        Since you can’t do everything, learn to prioritize the important and let go of the rest.

        Apply the 80/20 principle which is a key principle in prioritization. You can also take up this technique to prioritize everything on your plate: How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

        16. Delegate

        If there are things that can be better done by others or things that are not so important, consider delegating. This takes a load off and you can focus on the important tasks.

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        When you delegate some of your work, you free up your time and achieve more. Learn about how to effectively delegate works in this guide: How to Delegate Work (the Definitive Guide for Successful Leaders)

        17. Batch Similar Tasks Together

        For related work, batch them together.

        For example, my work can be categorized into these core groups:

        1. writing (articles, my upcoming book)
        2. coaching
        3. workshop development
        4. business development
        5. administrative

        I batch all the related tasks together so there’s synergy. If I need to make calls, I allocate a time slot to make all my calls. It really streamlines the process.

        18. Eliminate Your Time Wasters

        What takes your time away your work? Facebook? Twitter? Email checking? Stop checking them so often.

        One thing you can do is make it hard to check them – remove them from your browser quick links / bookmarks and stuff them in a hard to access bookmarks folder. Replace your browser bookmarks with important work-related sites.

        While you’ll still checking FB/Twitter no doubt, you’ll find it’s a lower frequency than before.

        19. Cut off When You Need To

        The number one reason why things overrun is because you don’t cut off when you have to.

        Don’t be afraid to intercept in meetings or draw a line to cut-off. Otherwise, there’s never going to be an end and you’ll just eat into the time for later.

        20. Leave Buffer Time In-Between

        Don’t pack everything closely together. Leave a 5-10 minute buffer time in between each tasks. This helps you wrap up the previous task and start off on the next one.

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        Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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