Best Ways to View a Painting

by | Sep 6, 2011 | Blog | 9 comments

Ideas About Viewing Art

We watch a film or listen to music in a line – starting at the beginning of the first film frame or music note. The content unfolds to us in a linear way, so we can absorb and experience the work fully. Movies and concerts require a fixed amount of time to absorb from start to finish.

While viewing a painting, however, we often think it’s a one shot deal. We see it and spend on average about three seconds per painting while wandering in an art museum or gallery. I believe that paintings are best viewed by considering the same linear approach we use for film and music. I have found that by slowing down the viewing process, while taking in a painting, my eyes seem to move through the piece like they’re on a road trip.

An interesting fact is that Westerners (who read from left to right) view a painting starting on the left side and move across towards the right. Perhaps those in other countries whose language is read from right to left might find the reverse is true. At any rate, paintings are their most inviting when there is some “entrance” on the left side of the painting. This could be anything that creates a diagonal movement into the work. It could be a light ray, a path, a tree branch, a figure, a brushstroke, anything that has an angle. If, however, there is some shape or form on the far left that is completely vertical, running up and down along the left side of the painting, then it can create a visual barrier. Without some sort of inviting angle, the viewer might not be compelled to look at the painting for more than a quick glance.

After some practice of viewing paintings in slow motion I have found even more surprising discoveries. Once the eye gains entrance on the left, it will happily move towards something bright colored, or something with high contrast that contains a light value (like white) next to a dark value (like black). This just scratches the surface of the visual tendencies I’ve found. If anyone is interested perhaps I’ll write more in my next blog. In conclusion, I have found that the more the eye can travel on a journey through the painting, the longer the viewing experience, and the more potential for creating a fulfilling visual and aesthetic experience.

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  1. peter

    I write from left to right but I always view a picture from right to left. Perhaps, I am different from other people .(
    A famous picture is more and more special than a famous film ( like star Trek), but people just spend for it several seconds. It is so unfair.
    For those love painting, you can get much useful information here:

  2. Udaysree

    some time ago i took a design class. they taught me that the viewers eye goes from the upper left to the upper right side, all the way across to the bottom left followed by the bottom right; like a "Z" pattern. though you are not going into deeper detail when saying the eye views the artwork from the left to the right side, i wonder if the eye goes across the artwork in the Z-pattern as well. please share your observations.
    very interesting posting. thanks for sharing.

  3. Diane Sandlin

    I think this topic is fascinating and I hope you'll explore further. I've read that some museums are sponsoring "slow art" days where the viewers agree to spend time thinking about a piece — much longer than the standard few seconds — perhaps writing about it or sketching it. Then the group gets together and talks about the works.

  4. stephanie clayton

    Fascinating observations! Yes, as Westerners we are accustomed to reading left to right; it stands to reason that we tend to look at art- at least representational imagery- in a similar way.
    I'm interested in knowing more.

  5. Rita Rake

    I enjoyed your comment and certainly would be interested in more comments. I certainly am trying to concentrate on compoisition and what makes peoples stay in my paintings so this certainly ties in with what I am trying to accomplish
    P.S. I am finally starting to rework one of your project from one or your workshops and am very exited about where its going.

  6. Catherine Simmons

    This is great. I need and will use this concept in designing wearable art (among other things).
    I want to learn acrylic painting also and have 'played' w/ it.

  7. Mary Manning

    Nancy, In recent landscapes, I've noticed that I paint in a way that leads the eye from left to right and back again. I also notice that I place something, an object, a block of some sort so the eye does not fall off of the right side of the painting. Please keep exploring this topic!

  8. Sandi

    Yes, this is fascinating – please do post more!

  9. Mary Gravelle

    Nancy, very interesting post and observations of the path of eye on a painting. I think I will look at my own paintings and test your research on my own work and that of others. I might even utilize your research on my next painting and see what happens. Thank you so much for posting this. I would love to hear more in your next post.


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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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