Perhaps you’ve seen a painting in a gallery and thought to yourself, the blue looks nice. The blue goes with your rug, but what a shallow thing to say out loud! Or perhaps at a museum you’ve seen an ugly painting. Then you find out Claude Monet painted it. Monet, wasn’t he the French Impressionist who painted gorgeous pictures of his garden, not muddy blurs like this? Now you’re stumped. You stare in silence.
If works of art leave you tongue-tied and intimidated, you’re not alone. In Victoria, painter and art writer Robert Amos believes most people approach his art “with some sense of embarrassment. They don’t have the language and they’re afraid of offending me by showing their enthusiasm and I’m sure even more afraid of offending me if they don’t like it. They say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t say this but that really goes with the colours of my living room.’ ” Amos tells them, “Believe me, I’m glad it goes with the colours of your living room. I want you to take it home. I’m not the least bit offended.”
Or let’s say you’re flummoxed but you’d like to say something positive about the subject matter. Amos suggests starting with something as straightforward as, “Oh, I see you’ve painted a monkey.” Chances are, the artist will say, “ ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been making a study of monkeys for many years,’ and on they go,” Amos says. There is no need to be philosophical or make a reference to art history. “The best way to act when you’re enthusiastic but don’t know how to go forward with it is just to ask a question. Any question will do,” he says.
At Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, graduating student Jenn Jackson believes that questions work equally well in a situation where you don’t like the work. “There is nothing worse than being dishonest if someone asks for your opinion,” she says, but “if you don’t think something is working, it is tactful to ask a question.” If you’re asked your opinion and you don’t like it, ask back: “What does this colour mean?” she suggests. Or, “Is this saying something?” or “Does this matter?”
Fellow student Tiffin Breen says, “Sometimes you just don’t know why you don’t like an artwork. Sometimes people just rub you the wrong way and that’s all it is, and it’s the same for artwork. Maybe the person who made it got their bad vibes all over it.” Usually, she says, “when I don’t have anything to say, I keep quiet. I don’t think art should suck your soul away from you or mentally exhaust you. You don’t have to apply every theory you’ve ever read to a work of art.”
But if it’s love at first sight, “Just go for it!” says Jackson. “Be enthusiastic with ordinary words such as ‘That’s great!’ because half the time when people are talking about art behind closed doors, that’s how they talk about it. Among friends, people just speak in their own language. You can use whatever language you want.”
At Dales Art Gallery in Victoria, owner Alison Trembath admits, “I, too, have felt intimidated in art gallery situations. I find it a little pretentious.” Trembath loves “helping people understand their feelings when they’re looking at a piece of art—I will fill in their blanks,” she says. “They might stand in front of a piece and go, ‘Ew, there’s lots of colours!’ I’ll give them some next-level words. I’ll say, ‘You mean the vibrancy is there?’ And they’ll look at me! And that’s the thing they’ve learned today! It’s great!” she says.
“Comparisons are risky if you’re talking directly to the artist,” says B.C.-born painter Robert Kinnard. “I like it when people react without too much analysis.” He remembers a visitor mistaking one of his paintings for a Van Gogh. “Initially it sounded complimentary but then I started to feel uneasy with it. It’s not a Van Gogh. No one could do what he did because every artist is an individual. I started to feel a bit diminished by it. Art is about being an individual. Anyone who’s serious about painting is striving to create something that has their own personality and identity. Just a spontaneous, honest, emotional reaction. That’s what I find rewarding.”