Gebhart: Understanding art in three steps

Editors note: Our stories focus on the people behind the creations of the new companies, products and arts. In order to build something you must form it (clay) and help it grow (milk). Be it our venture, the nurturing of a community or the entrepreneurs, artists and others from the middle working with their own stories to tell. 

We’re excited to start telling more stories from the arts.

We start with an explanation of how to look at art…

In this world of constant bombardment of visual stimulus, our brains have become trained to make quick responses, often overlooking critical information. This happens in all aspects of life, including looking at art.

Art is personal as well as communal. Visual literacy provides tools for introspection, communication, and reasoning through an in-depth gaze at art. The practice of visual literacy is first and foremost about slowing down. It is about understanding our judgements and our interpretations, and then recognizing how our past experiences and our bias are influencing what we see. We make a lot of assumptions every day, and practicing visual literacy helps us challenge ourselves and opens new opportunities for learning.

So how do you look at art to really understand it?

The most basic visual literacy practice is done in three steps – Describe, Interpret, Evaluate.

Describe begins by looking. Really observing the specifics. It involves noticing things like line, shape, color, texture, and the juxtaposition of them. This step is challenging because our brain instantly wants to jump to judgement and understanding. We need to cognitively force it to take a step back. It is important to avoid emotion or unnecessary associations in this step. For example, do not say things like – this reminds me of… When you think you’ve seen it all, ask yourself – What more can I find? Don’t move on until you’ve seen at least one more thing.

Once you’ve given words to the visual facts, move on to the Interpret step. Start by combining the different elements to form meaning. What meaning, message or feeling can you find in the work of art? Through the presentation of art elements described in the first step, what is the artist trying to communicate? Multiple interpretations are valid and expected as long as you can tie it back to the visual by asking yourself: What did I see that made me say that? Avoid using the word ‘obvious’ in any visual literacy practice. Nothing is obvious. Everything needs to be noticed.

The last step is Evaluate. Evaluation is when you notice how and why you had the interpretation you did. It does not mean deciding whether you like the work of art or not. Ask yourself: How are my experiences or knowledge influencing what I see? Because of this evaluation, no two people will see exactly the same thing when they look at a work of art. In fact, the same person will see things differently from day-to-day and the final step is to recognize those influences.

By taking the time to actively participate with a work of art, you as the viewer, bring meaning to the art and can enrich yourself through the process.

Want to give it a shot? We’re asking for your take on art at an upcoming Clay & Milk event from 4:30-6:30 p.m. July 7 at Olson-Larsen Galleries.

Once you’ve been able to describe, interpret and evaluate the work of art shown above, send us your review. Or see it in person, now through the end of July at the Iowa State Historical Building. Send your reviews to

Nancy Gebhart is the Educator of Visual Literacy and Learning for University Museums, based in Ames, Iowa at Iowa State University.