The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

ART/WRITE – Viewing Strategies

Homepage Works of Art Viewing Strategies Writing Activities Worksheets Standards

“Why look at art with my students?”

Learning to look comes first and students need to be encouraged to look longer, spending time analyzing, inferring and questioning what they see. Extended and close encounters with art can help students see better and have more thoughtful things to say. Before beginning any writing assignment, students must look closely to discover details, themes, make connections and develop questions. Visual arts can be a great catalyst to inspire careful observation and richly detailed writing. Learning to look therefore leads to learning to write well.

The viewing strategies on the UAMA art/write website require students to use the following 21st Century Thinking Skills:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Media Literacy
  • Global Awareness

“What if I do not know art history?”

One does not require an art history or studio background in order to look at and talk about art, just the desire to look, look again, and then look even closer. Learning to look does take practice; it requires slowing down to take the time to see and to think critically about what is before us.

 Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS):

This type of viewing activity asks students/viewers three basic questions which require a careful analysis of not only what is seen in the work, but also a reflection on the students’ thinking. This format is an inquiry-based approach that creates dialogue and discussion. The questions are designed to require students’ interpretations and ideas to be based on what is evidenced in the visual artwork. The questions to guide class discussion are:

1) What’s going on in this picture?

2) What do you see that makes you say that?

3) What more can we find?

Inquiry-Based Looking:

This type of looking activity is question based and can be done individually with students but works best as a class discussion. Students should be informed that there are no single, correct answers, only personal responses to what “I see”. Not all questions need to be asked about a single work of art.

  • Describe the colors, shapes and textures you see?
  • What stands out the most in this image? What makes it stand out to you?
  • What is the subject? Does the image depict people, a place or an event?
  • What visual clues help you understand who the people are, what the time period or setting is?
  • Read the label. Does this give you any more clues?
  • Describe the motion in the image. Is there a lot of energy, or does it feel still? What visual clues support this feeling?
  • Describe the framing of the image. What is included in your view, what might the artist have left out?
  • What is closest to you, furthest away?
  • Describe the style, is it realistic, abstract, expressive, etc.
  • What words would you use to describe this image? Why?
  • Based on what you see, what do you think this work of art is about? What visual evidence supports this opinion?
  • What do you think the image communicates? Based on what you see, how do you know this?

Connotations and Denotations

Careful looking creates informed experiences with visual works of art. This strategy helps students look longer, gathering evidence that leads to an informed interpretation of the image. Students first list all they see (denotations) and secondly what these visuals mean (connotations). This type of interpretive approach requires the students’ interpretations to be based on what they see. Use the “What I see- What it Means” worksheet to document the looking process. Students may begin working individually and then share their experiences with the class.

Conversational Interpretation

Once you feel students have begun to feel comfortable looking and talking about art, they may be ready to work more independently. A community of learning must be established for students to feel comfortable sharing their interpretations, as their ideas are meant to develop through the conversation. They may change, modify or solidify their interpretations based on the conversation. The main objective is that the interpretation is a collaborative endeavor, based on careful looking and that opinions are based on the visual evidence in the work of art.

  • Students may use some of the questions from the list under Inquiry-Based Looking to prepare before a discussion. Conversations should not be scripted, but some students may prefer to plan out ideas ahead of time.
  • Have a small group of students talk for a defined amount of time (5-10 minutes) about one work of art. Print out an image from the UAMA art/write site and give it to the group, informing them that they must all contribute to an interpretation. Assign one student as the record keeper, one as the time keeper, and one the moderator.
  • Have students record their conversations using a digital tape recorder, video camera or audio recording software on a computer. These can be used as final assessments.