Galleries are like old school first dates: unless you’ve done a little research, you’re walking in blind. As you stare at a contemporary painting—perhaps composed entirely of wild brushstrokes or large oblique shapes—it can be difficult to fathom what the artist is trying to convey.

Gene Wisniewski has built a career on art: he creates art; he critiques art; he teaches art. In his new course, the SixHour Art Major, recently enjoyed by IVY members, Gene helps his students understand what to look for in artworks, to dispel some of the mystery and decipher their meanings. Gene sat down to talk with IVY Magazine to share some of his insights and offer tips for fellow IVY members when they’re looking at a piece of art they’re not familiar with.

Learn the Story “OF” Versus the Story “BEHIND”

Art and history are completely intertwined, and to really appreciate a work, you first need to know the story of the painting—what it’s actually depicting. At the same time, it’s also important to know the story behind a painting—what inspired its creation and what the artist went through to actually produce the work.

There’s a painting by the French Neoclassicist Jacques ­Louis David created during the French Revolution that depicts a legend from Roman history about overthrowing the Roman King. Although the actual painting depicts Roman times, it was made to reference the French Revolution. For Louis XVI, this was a very dangerous painting. (It was about overthrowing kings.) He had it banned, which caused a big uproar and probably brought the painter one step closer to the guillotine. Knowing what’s actually depicted (the Romans) and why (the French Revolution) is crucial to really appreciating what David was trying to communicate.

Artists have served different functions over the ages. For most of art’s existence, it’s been basically a job, where artists were hired by patrons to do very specific work, within an accepted range of subject material, like ancient myths, or glorious victories in battle. It was, “You will paint this ceiling; it will cost this much; and you will be done by this time.” Artists were considered craftsmen, and there was no real differentiation between the two.

But as artists developed more of a desire to create work that reflected the modern world in which they lived, there was a long evolution toward art becoming more about expressing individual ideas.

SixHour Art Major

Oath of Horatii, Jacques-Louis David. “Knowing what’s actually depicted (the Romans) and why (the French Revolution) is crucial to really appreciating what David was trying to communicate.”

Locate the One Eternal Truth

Art’s function used to be tell a story. People were illiterate, and they used art as a way of learning. For example, the stained glass windows in Gothic cathedrals were used to teach people their Bible study. But as more and more people started being able to read, something changed, and people no longer needed to find a story in art.

Today, art really just needs to evoke something. A ballet doesn’t have to be about a nutcracker turning into a handsome prince at Christmas, it can simply be evocative. Today, you can just listen to music and get a feeling from it. The same can be true for a work of art. That’s what artists like Kandinsky came to believe in the twentieth century; music doesn’t have to tell a story, so art doesn’t either.

Now, we see art as intrinsically interesting on many different levels. You can look at a work as a technical object and see what the artist physically did with the canvas. Also, while a piece of art necessarily reflects its time, you also hope that somewhere in there there’s a truth that’s eternal.

For example, there’s a Caravaggio painting I like to show called “Cardsharps,” and it depicts a rich young man being ripped off in a game of cards. To me, except for the clothes, that painting could be happening anywhere in the world today. Although it is very much of its time, it still has a certain universal truth.

SixHour Art Major

Cardsharps, Caravaggio. “While a piece of art necessarily reflects its time, you also hope that somewhere there’s a truth that’s eternal.”

Don’t (NOT) Ignore the Medium

A technical understanding of the artwork is not always important to fully appreciating the work. I don’t know that it really matters to most people whether it’s a watercolor or oil. Knowing the medium can, however, add a level of interest, and it can make you realize an artist’s accomplishment. For example, you’re blown away when you realize Michelangelo did the whole Sistine Chapel and couldn’t make a mistake because he was painting into wet plaster, and it was instantly permanent.

Knowing how a piece of art was produced can also change how an artwork looks. The look of painting changed entirely when artists started using oil paints in the 1400s. Because oil paint dries so much slower, artists could blend their strokes a lot better and obtain more realistic effects and finer textures because the oil is so much more versatile than the egg tempera they had been using.

People think that artists go to art school to learn art. But artists specialize, like doctors, and they tend to focus in alone particular field. Every time an artist takes up a new medium, there’s a learning curve.

Certain mediums, like watercolor and fresco, are more unforgiving. On the other hand, oil paint is more forgiving because you can correct it. That’s one reason Michelangelo didn’t like oil painting: he thought it was for amateurs because you were allowed to make a mistake. He also didn’t like the fact that it made people look like they were made out of flesh and blood—he wanted his paintings to look like sculptures, and for him oils were too life­-like.

SixHour Art Major

Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo. “Michelangelo didn’t like the fact that [oil painting] made people look like they were made out of flesh and blood – he wanted his paintings to look like sculptures…”

An Artwork is Its Own Little Universe

Some people expect to understand art right away, and if they’re not able to understand it right away, they’re not willing to give it the time to explore what it’s about. The most important quality for the piece is that it works as a unified whole—it has to be balanced. A work of art is its own little universe, just like a short story. It exists in and of itself; it is a complete entity.

People tend to have the same sort of love/hate relationship with art as they do with celebrities: on the one hand, some people think it’s sort of a big intellectual joke, on the other, they’re completely intimidated by it.

I recommend first thinking of three adjectives that describe the piece. You need to allow yourself to have a suspension of disbelief and put yourself in the work, the same way you would a book or a movie. Think of the work as an idea rather than a hand­crafted object, so even for abstract paintings, you’re entering the emotional landscape of the piece. Also, be sure you look at a painting close and far way. You need to see the intricacies in the artist’s hand, in addition to appreciating the piece as a whole.

It’s important to remember there is always a story behind a work of art: either the circumstances that produced it or artist themselves. Picasso’s work, for example, is pretty much a de facto autobiography, so knowing something about whichever one of his mistresses that is in that painting helps you understand it better. But start by focusing on what you know and what you can see and how that makes you feel, and when you don’t know something, never be afraid to look it up and learn more.

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