100 Questions Designed to Boost Your Visual/Arts Intelligence Quotient


Q. When was the last time you were emotionally moved by a work of art? 

A. Think about this for a while before you form an answer. There are many reasons why it will be important to raise your sensitivity level to images if you aim to better understand and appreciate your visual life. Visual artists seek to connect both intellectually and emotionally and their ability to do so will depend, in part, on your willingness to explore your visual preferences and limits. Understanding your own reactions to images will help you become a better viewer over time.

The photograph above would have to be my choice. This is the work of Michel Aguilera, who has photographed the found clothing of victims of Hiroshima. Aguilera’s photographs are profoundly moving and important. The visual statement is simultaneously direct, elegant and haunting.  His photographs allow us to access an event that would otherwise be both distant and incomprehensible. These photographs are a form of personal evidence and their gravity is disarming.


Red Rose

Q. What photos do you carry with you and why?

A. We all have at least a few pictures that we treasure and keep safe. A stranger could probably tell a lot about your life by reviewing the pictures on your phone, for example. Personal photographs keep us connected to important people and relationships and help to preserve fragile memories. How many times a day do you access personal photos in an effort to center yourself and connect with what you hold most dear? Without these artifacts, would memory be enough?


Seeing Beyond Sight

Q. If you were blind and someone gave you a camera, what would you take a picture of?

A.  If you were like Tony Deifell’s visually impaired students, you might take pictures of the feeling of warm light and cool shadows, all kinds of surfaces, the voices of your friends and family, barking dogs, the ground you walk on, your toys and maybe even your money. The incredibly beautiful and profound treatment of these subjects by Deifell’s students is captured in the book Seeing Beyond Sight.

The picture above was taken by Katy, a thirteen year old girl with low vision in Kennesaw, NC. Proof positive that it is as important to “feel” a picture as it is to “see” it when pressing the shutter release.


If you are interested, here is an exercise from a wonderful book Drawing Projects: An Exploration of the Language of Drawing by Mick Maslen and Jack Southern (2011, Black Dog Publishing).  The exercise is to draw a tactile self-portrait by closing your eyes and feeling your face with one hand while drawing it with the other. The idea is to improve your ability to “see” by helping your appreciate the interplay between sight and your other critical senses. The exercise translates to paper what is felt instead of what is seen.

Drawing Projects_Maslen & Southern


Q. Describe the source and quality of the light in the room you are sitting in (paying special attention to the light’s color, intensity and direction)?

A. The quality of light changes markedly throughout the day and year and there are significant differences in light by source (romantic dinners are carried out by candle light not florescent light, for example). Light is unbelievably mercurial and fascinating. It can be buttery or white, soft or bright and can come from any direction. The differences between natural and artificial light are also significant. Spend a day simply watching what happens as natural light shifts through a room or visit a lighting store and compare the light made by different kinds of lightbulbs. You might be surprised at how much variation there is. Developing an artist’s sensibility to light might change the way you view almost everything.

These photographs are the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto, a master of perception and careful observation. As a photographer he engages us with an elemental but profound subject of immense complexity – light itself.

Hear Sugimoto discuss his work with light at the following link.



Q. Do you think rich people look at art more than poor people?

A. There are short and long answers to this question.

The short answer is that fine art is a commodity that is bought and sold for enormous sums of money by a small and elite group of individuals who are highly invested in maintaining rituals of exclusivity to protect exchange values. So, in a way, it is true that there are differences in access to art by class. In his classic book, Ways of Seeing, John Berger points out that those in the working class are twice as likely to view an art gallery as a church as those in the professional class who view them as libraries. The art world is highly invested in conceptions of “high” and “low” culture, and of “art” and “craft,” as these distinctions help to protect wealth. Many conceptual artists have challenged these arrangements by rejecting the traditional methods of art making (they do not make “objects” which can be easily bought and sold) and instead create works of art based on inventive approaches to the presentation of ideas. In many conceptual works, there is no object at all. For example, Martin Creed won the coveted Turner Prize in 2001 for his Work No. 227, The Lights Going On And Off. As the title describes, the installation consisted of an empty gallery in which the lights turned on and off every 5 seconds. Each “on” negated the proceeding “off” and vice versa. This conceptual work turned the viewing experience on its head since the audience was directed to vacant walls and space (and a repetitive action) instead of an art “object.”

The longer and even more complex answer to this question has to do with what is defined as “art.” As a peek into anyone’s living room will reveal, most people incorporate art from a wide variety of sources into their daily lives and they  view, make, buy and save a staggering number of images in a lifetime. Most of us access art during the day without being consciously aware of it through street art, graffiti, and art in public spaces (including subways, airports, hospitals, office buildings, and public parks). So the answer here is complex. Your life is probably significantly more artful and art filled than you may have realized regardless of your social class.

Many people would assert that whether your interior space includes a painting of Elvis on velvet or a Rembrandt, your home and life are equally graced by “art.”


Q. What happens to our understanding of an image when it is reproduced?

A. Here are three versions of the same photograph by Richard Misrach (two of them were taken from museum websites). For anyone who hasn’t seen the original (most closely represented by the image on the far left) it would be impossible to tell which of these reproduced images is most “true”.

In his series Desert Cantos, Misrach makes plain for us the results of nearly 30 years of illegal bomb testing on the Nevada landscape. Our ability to grasp the gravity of Misrach’s work is also affected by seeing it in such tiny form. Nothing can come close to seeing this photograph in the original among the other photographs in this series.

Reproduction fundamentally alters images in significant ways and can affect our ability to understand what we are seeing. The size, scale, and other critical information (like color, texture and dimension) can be lost in translation. We are also frequently shown details of larger works (instead of the entire work of art) which also interferes with our ability to critically evaluate what we are seeing. Mass production and the transfer of fine art images to coffee cups, tote bags and greeting cards can also alter our relationship to the original work by turning art into something that is simply decorative and not about an idea. As critical viewers it is important to consider how a work can be changed through reproduction and to understand that the experience of seeing an original may be an altogether different experience.

The painting below, Newly Displaced Population by Liu Xiaodong from the The Three Gorges Project, measures 33 ft. by 9 ft. The size of this painting is central to its meaning; it is an enormous painting about an enormous transformation with enormous historical, political, environmental and personal impact. Much of the power and meaning of this painting is simply lost when it is seen in this small size.



Q. What visual assumptions do you make everyday?

A. Our visual assumptions are intuitive and developed from our lived experience of natural phenomena. These are, for example, assumptions of scale (mice are smaller than men), assumptions of light direction (sunlight comes from above not below), assumptions of motion (feathers fall more slowly than rocks), and assumptions about spatial relationships (objects moving away from us become smaller). Visual assumptions are intertwined with and are informed by a variety of other perceptual assumptions (fur is soft and sandpaper is rough, jackhammers are loud and butterflies are silent), for example.

Artists can play with these ingrained perceptual experiences in ways that are humorous, like the artist Claes Oldenburg (above) who whimsically disrupts scale by turning small, mundane objects into larger than life sculptures. Ice cream cones aren’t as big as buildings – are they?

Dan Graham’s architectural “pavilions” (below) are made of materials that are both reflective and transparent, curved and angular, and function like interactive mazes that challenge our assumptions of space, our place in that space, and our relationship to it and others. By disrupting what we expect and often take for granted, visual narrative is pushed into the realm of metaphysics and all that we assume about the world and ourselves is called into question.



Red Hot Chili Peppers Album Covers

Q. David Browne of The New York Times recently pointed out a distinct progression in the way album covers are designed. This is a sequential sampling of album covers used by the Red Hot Chili Peppers since 1984. What has changed?

A. As we transition from the traditional album cover (a 12×12 image) and CD cover (a 5×5 image) to a tiny app sized image on your iPod, covers are now more boldly and simply designed as they are significantly easier to identify in the smaller format. The last cover (on the far right), designed by Damien Hirst, is a perfect example of the new approach.

You may also notice that there has been a similar trend in the evolution of many logos.




Q. How are our associations with primary shapes (square, circle, triangle) being used to extend meaning in these familiar logos?

A. According to Donis A. Dondis, in A Primer of Visual Literacy, we ascribe meaning to shape based on our intuitive need for perceptual balance and equilibrium. For example, we psychologically equate the solid square with “honesty” and “fairness”, the continuous circle with “harmony,” and the “tipped” triangle with “tension” based on their relationship to horizontal axis. Logos often exploit these associations.

For example, the use of the square within a square in the JCP logo communicates that this retailer is “fair and square” and about as American as apple pie since these are slight variations on the shapes and colors of the American flag (the letters JCP are the “stars” in this familiar flag motif).

The simple circle of the Target logo is turned into a bulls-eye, or a “target” which visually reinforces the brand name and communicates that this retailer will “hit” our comprehensive as well as “core” needs.

The Doritos “electric” triangle, which is tipped and off balance, references the shape and spicy flavor profile of this product; these tortilla shapes are essentially “hot” triangles.

There are endless variations on the way associations with shape can be exploited, as the logos below demonstrate. Because the letters GM are anchored by a leveling bar in a blue square, they look as solid as a house with a new foundation; the red circle within a circle, when given dimension, becomes an “eye on the world” in the BBC logo, and the triangle becomes the perfect visual metaphor for the transformative process of recycling.


Many artists work with primary shape and color. See below the use of the square, circle and triangle by a few very famous artists (Ellsworth Kelly, Damien Hirst, Jasper Johns and Blinky Palermo).

The preoccupation with primary shape and color by modern artists was no coincidence. The visual building blocks were no longer elements of narrative, they became the subject matter itself.




Q. How is brand identity communicated without logos?

A. See above the easily recognizable tartan plaid of Burberry, the signature use of color by the jeweler Tiffany & Co., and the distinct shape of the very famous Hermes (Kelly) handbag. Many luxury retailers have so refined their use of pattern, color and shape that their products are easily identifiable without any reference to logo or brand name whatsoever. Retailers are anxious to capitalize on our desire to publicly display wealth, status and social class quickly and effectively through this type of visual messaging.