Go to the Museum

Article by Darren Rousar. Most recently updated in September of 2020.

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One of the early reasons for museums was to help in the training of artists. They would go and copy whatever works interested them or were assigned by their master. Nowadays most visitors are the general public. But whatever the reason for the visit most people barely glance at what they’re seeing. That’s a shame. To counter that, let’s go to the museum as an artist might.

Nothing can take the place of viewing art in person and that’s what I’ve geared this article towards. But as of this writing many places are still in lockdown. If that’s your situation and you have an Internet connection you can at least take a virtual tour. Most museums have an online presence and many have upgraded their websites to provide more immersive experiences.

Why Go to a Museum?

Since I just suggested a virtual trip to a museum as an option, you might wonder why even bother doing it physically. Given the digital ubiquity of our present age, it’s a good question.

Some have posited that our perception changes over time due to the frequency which which we see digital content. I agree, but I cannot prove the hypothesis. Regardless, I fail to see how digital can ever match a real experience. And since you probably are or want to be an artist, you’ll need to see the real thing as often as possible.

It is only by viewing the real thing (hopefully under natural light) that you will truly see from the major down to the minor. The major is presence, which is perceived only at life-size. The minor are things like brush strokes, edges, etc.

mona-clickImage credit: Bramfab

What Most People Do

I’m guessing that most people, even those who are artists, do a museum in a similar way. They start by finding the ‘masterpieces’. Once found, they glance at them, and take a selfie if photos are allowed. Then they move on. Of course there are exceptions.

Why am I certain of my guess? Because I see it happen every time I go to the museum. In fact, I’ve occasionally done it myself! Let’s agree right now that doing a museum that way is 98% wasted effort. That leftover 2% is the fact that you did literally ‘see’ the masterpiece. I mean, you have selfie-proof. No?

Far better is to do the following.

Before the Trip

Pre-trip preparation varies depending upon the kind of museum being visited as well as how long you’ll have once there. In either case, knowing what to expect beforehand will make even a brief stop more beneficial than not.

The Internet makes research so simple and free that it’s just silly to waste the opportunity. At a minimum, look up the museum in your favorite search engine to determine what major works are currently on display. Doing so not only clues you into the options, it also let’s you know whether the Mona Lisa will be on tour in Venezuela when you’d like to see it on your trip to Paris.

So that was a little humor. The Mona Lisa does not travel. Nevertheless, many artworks do.

You’d do well to print off a map of the museum and mark the locations of whatever you decide to see (based upon what follows below).

If you can, purchase your tickets online in advance as well.

If your eventual visit is longer than just a drive-by you’ll have many options. Get creative and you’ll have more fun.

  • You could ‘theme’ the visit.
  • You could limit yourself to an single artist, style, technique, or era.
  • You could concentrate on a single artwork.
  • And so on.

Theming

The basic principle of theming is to focus on one aspect. I’ve left that awkward sentence like that for a reason and you might correctly ask, “Focus on one aspect of what?” The ‘what’ is manyfold.

Perhaps it’s hands. Maybe you go through the museum looking at how each artist posed the sitters hands? Maybe you look at how well or poorly they where drawn, painted, or sculpted and try to figure out why.

What about drapery? Is there a consistent series of folds being represented across artworks? Does it look like the folds were done from life, or do they seem to have been made up? You might even discover a type of drapery shorthand that may be useful to you in your own work.

The choice of theme is almost endless.

Be Selective

Very much akin the a theme is choosing a single artist, style, etc. A minor difference is that for these choices you may be better able to do some in-depth research research ahead of time.

The more you know about your selection, the better. For example, maybe your artist frequently painted images of bees in his work. Knowing that beforehand may help you better understand the artist’s compositions.

Maybe your focus is on what is known as the Venetian Method. When reading up on it first you learn that some claim those artist’s under-painted in greyscale, then over-painted the final colors. You may be able to prove or disprove that assertion, at least based upon the paintings on display at the museum you’re visiting.

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One Artwork Only

In 1990 London’s National Gallery gave me permission to copy Velazquez’s painting of Philip IV. The trouble was, only upon arrival was I informed that my access was to be delayed by a month. Although the painting was on display, it had recently returned from a traveling show. Apparently the local public had to have a chance to see it without having to peer around my easel.

Undaunted, I chose to go there everyday and stare at the painting. I sketched in my sketchbook and took copious notes. Despite not having actually copied the painting, I know it almost as well as my own face.

That kind of experience never leaves you, even if it’s only a day’s worth of looking.

Group Visits

Going alone is one thing, but going with others can elevate the trip considerably. Your choices above could be turned into a game – and we know that gamifying helps learning.

What if you split up and each member of the group searched for every picture that had a specific kind of composition or color combination? How about a certain number of figures? And so on. You’ll need to assign areas or floors for games like these to be effective.

After meeting up at a scheduled time, the group goes to each member’s finds and discusses.

While At the Museum

Some museums are notoriously crowded (I’m thinking of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre again), while others are nearly empty.

Whatever the case, take your map and head to your first target. Once there, resist the urge to use your cell phone. Or at least wait until you’ve given the work a long, serious look.

The best idea is to bring a small sketchbook to sketch and write about what you see. Don’t be shy about taking notes along with your sketches. Doing both will actually help you be more perceptive. Both will also help you remember what you saw and learned.

Set a defined time limit. Just like you need frequent breaks when drawing or painting, you also need them when looking. An hour of intense study will be more beneficial than a full day binge.

After the Museum

Ideally, you’d have the opportunity to make use of what you learn immediately afterwards. If you do, take advantage of it. If not, no worries. The time will come when it comes. Either way, take some time to reflect about what you saw and learned. Doing so will help that information to become a part of your increasing knowledge base.

I mentioned above that using a sketchbook will help you remember what you saw. In light of that, once you get home try to draw some of what you saw from memory without referencing the sketchbook. You know how important a good visual memory is to an artist.

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