How Photographers Can Learn from Art Museums

Do you love photography and want to be inspired? Head to an Art-Museum to sharpen your skills and learn, says photographer-mom Trish Reschly from Kansas City. Read more for her pro-tips on composition, light, colour and more that you can learn from museums!

1. Find Your Voice

What is it about this piece that grabbed your attention? What makes this specific piece stand out? How is this artist’s collection of work unique and recognizable from other artists? Is it the use of light, brush strokes, color or composition?

Do you share any of these traits? In what ways could you incorporate the aspects that draw your individual eye and heart into your own work?

Van Gogh’s Starry Night | MoMA
Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944): Composition 8 | Guggenheim

2. Look at the Artist’s Use of Light

Stepping nearer our chosen piece, we can inquire about the light source. Is it in the image or outside the piece? From what direction is the light coming? Is it soft or hard? Are there any special characteristics of this specific light?

Look closely at the subject(s). What or whom is the artist choosing to illuminate? If there is more than one person, does the light differ in how each is illuminated? Is the lighting giving us a clue to their character? Look at the shadows and what lies therein.

Left image: Rembrandt, Portrait of a Young Woman in a Black Cap (1632) | Right image : Trisha’s photography
Left image: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)

Think about your own photography, what story do you want to tell in your image? Search out art with a similar theme to gain inspiration or practice imitating your favorite artist’s use of light. Simply taking apart the light in a scene will help your eye for light grow leaps and bounds.

3. Use of Colour

Now step back and look at the colors of the artwork. What colors caught your attention? Look at the shades, hues, the blacks and whites. Are they bright and bold or muted and soft? How is the artist using color to tell a story or convey a feeling? Do you find a common color theme in the images that catch your eye?

Left image: Katsushika Hokisai, Gaifū Kaisei (South Wind, Clear Sky) (1830). Take a look at the color palette the artist chose to use. This inspiration can easily be applied to your photography and editing process.

Look at your work, do you use these same colors in your images? Do you prefer strong blacks and whites or an overall muted tone? How does this affect your editing choices? By looking at great artwork we train our eyes to understand color combination and expression.

4. Find the separation between the Subject & the Background

As our eyes continue to move around the frame, we take note of how the subject is distinct from it’s background. Is there a light figure on a dark ground or a dark figure on a light ground? Is the distinction clear or does the subject muddy into the background? How does a clear distinction ground the piece?

Look at your work. Do you notice a clear distinction between subject and background in terms of lights and darks? Try turning your color images into black and whites at first as you learn to see in terms of figure. As you shoot, become aware of the lightness or darkness of your subject and look at the background.

Dark subject on a light background. Left image: Will Barnet, Dialogue with Space (1983)

For example, can you move so the white bicycle is in front of the deep green hedge instead of the light grey sidewalk? Challenge yourself by taking several images that clearly make this distinction and see if you like the way it affects your own work.

5. Discover the use of geometry, repeating shapes, and framing

Finally, we’ll look to see how the artist has framed their subject(s) within the specific piece. Did they use natural elements, include elements within a room or use architectural frames? Look closely: Do you see the use of triangles, squares, rectangles or circles? How do these strengthen the image?

Note the way in which the subject is framed and the use of repetitive geometric shapes within the image. Left image: Johannes Vermeer, The Geographer (1668-1669)

There is something about shapes that delight us. They give the eye purpose as it moves about the frame and they lend stability to an image. After looking at a favorite piece of art compare the use of shapes to your own work. Do you notice geometric forms you had not seen before or repetition of shapes?

Here the pyramid helps to organize the images. Also take note of the light source, color and light, and dark figures. Left image: Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768)

These do not need to be direct shapes, such as a square window. They can come in the form of a head resting on two hands forming a triangle. As you study the way in which artists frame their subject(s) and make use of repetitive shapes, you will begin seeing the wealth of geometric shapes in the world around you.

Here again, we see a pyramid and repeating geometric shapes that lend interest to keep the eye in the frame. Left image: M.C. Escher, Cycle (1938)

Include your Family!

Studying art is a great exercise to do as a family. I have been amazed at how friendly many art museums are toward children and there are even exercises a young child can participate in, such as an age appropriate scavenger hunt. It builds a love of art in your children and trains their eye at an early age.

If you don’t have an art museum nearby, there are many websites available to get a closer look at great works of art and grow your photographic skills.

Text and Images, unless otherwise noted, by Trish Reschly. You can see her work here. 

The works not in the public domain are being showcased purely for educational purposes and all copyright and other IP rights remain with the original artist and/or licensee(s).


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