Meditation On A Painting

"The eye that sees is the I experiencing itself in what it sees. It becomes self-aware, it realizes that it is an integral part of the great continuum of all that is. It sees things such as they are."
Frederick Franck in The Zen of Seeing

One can look at a painting and not really see it. Or one can look at a painting and see beyond the colors on the canvas. Looking at an object suggests that our eyes are pointed at it. Seeing it means we are looking, and we are processing the image--seeking to understand.

Some artwork is made purely for decorative purposes, say to brighten an empty wall. True art is created to communicate with the viewer. It shares the artist's experience. It portrays something of what the artist saw, felt, or thought at a given moment.

A great work of art may draw the receptive viewer into a meditative state through its own compelling nature. You may have had the experience of walking through a museum or gallery past numerous paintings or sculptures, until one of them catches you and draws you in. Something about the work resonates with something in you, and it captures your focus. Suddenly, the rest of the world is quiet and it is just you and the artwork. It takes you in, and it seems that in some way you now know the artist, or you know the subject of the work. You are seeing with more than just your eyes. Your mind reaches out and the art touches it. Your body is involved too. Your breathing may change. You may feel a chill up your spine. You may feel the hair on your arms or the back of your neck stand up. Your life force has been stirred.

Not everyone will have this experience, but anyone can learn to see more deeply. The following practice is intended to help you to appreciate a work of art more completely, and to open yourself to whatever it has to offer.


Approach a work of art. For the sake of this exercise, let’s make it a painting. You can use the image of a painting on your computer screen or in a print, but it would be far better to look at an original painting.

As you sit or stand in front of the painting, take your time. Allow yourself to be with it for a while. Give it your full attention, as if it had something important to tell you.

Take a couple of deep breaths and let them out slowly. Notice any tension in your muscles, and let it go. Tell yourself to relax. Allow yourself to just be with the painting for the time being. Let your thoughts be only of the painting.

Look at the painting. See it in its wholeness.

What strikes you most strongly about this painting? What is your first impression?

What is the subject of the painting? Is it a person, a place, a thing, an idea?

What is the artist trying to show us about the subject?

What do you suppose was the artist’s relationship to the subject?

What emotions did the artist hope to create in us?

Where did this picture take place?

When? What’s the time of day? What’s the time in history?

Look at the colors. What colors predominate? What colors are more subtle?

What effect do the colors have upon you? Do they stir any emotions?

Are you attracted to the colors? Are you repelled?

Look at the artist’s brushwork. How was the paint applied? Was it carefully, quickly, spontaneously?

How has the artist used light? Where is the light coming from? How is it reflected? How has shadow been used?

Look at the foreground. How has the artist represented the part of the painting that is close to us.

Look at the background. How has the distance been represented? Are there any images in the foreground or the background that add meaning to the subject?

Look at the painting again. Is there anything you missed about the painting up to this point. Does anything strike you as odd about it? What are the relationships in the painting? How are the different objects in the painting related to one another? How are they related to you, the observer?

View the painting from arm’s length, where the painter might have stood. Step back far enough that you can see the whole image at once. Then go back farther. Look at the painting from across the room. How does your perception of it change with distance?

Close your eyes and try to remember what you’ve seen. What are the images? What are the colors? How do things go together? Can you recall the subject in detail? Can you recall what is shown in each area of the painting?

Open your eyes and see how well you remembered the images. Try opening and closing your eyes until you have the painting memorized.

Imagine you are in the painting. If you were part of the scene, what would it be like? What would you see if you could look behind the objects in the painting? If you were in the scene and time passed, what would change? What would move? What sounds would you hear? How would you feel being there? What does the weather feel like? What is the emotional climate? What would you feel if you could touch the objects in the painting?

Imagine you are the artist in the act of painting this picture. What is your experience? What do you feel? What are you trying to communicate about your world, your perceptions?

Come back out of the painting and out of the artist’s point of reference. See the painting in its current context. See yourself in your context as the observer of the artist’s observation and representation.

Thank the artist for creating this work. As you move along, practice seeing the world around you as if you will be representing it in a work of art. Look more deeply. Practice seeing.

Links to Look at to See what you can See:

The Louvre: Selected Works
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections

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© 1999 Tom Barrett