In modern societies most people learn to read written language, but many have never been taught how to actively ‘read’ pictures, such as photographs, paintings and drawings.

This is a shame, because a lot can be missed when our engagement with a visual work is done half-consciously and ill-informed.

Instead, you can get the most enjoyment from viewing a photograph, painting or other work of art by viewing it actively instead of passively. Here’s how.

Activate your awareness
The first thing you can do when viewing a picture—whether it be a photograph or other kind—is to put yourself in a heightened state of conscious awareness.

Normally, we tend to go through much of our day not being fully aware of our surroundings—even what’s going on in our own minds! We are thinking about so many things at once that it’s easy to be distracted. As a result, we are often not completely ‘tuned in’ to any one thing in particular.

So, to actively read a picture, first bring yourself fully into the present moment, paying close attention to both your external experiences and your internal responses. …In other words, wake up!

Watch where you look
Next, look away from the picture for a moment and then bring your gaze back to it. At first glance, pay careful attention to where your gaze is attracted. Then notice the path your eyes take as they travels across the image. Eye travel is an inherent part of viewing an image, but we usually do it without thinking.

What elements do you most strongly notice? What do they look like? …What do they remind you of? …How are they interacting?

Remember to also scan around all the edges of the picture—sometimes there are joyful surprises to be discovered there! You may also encounter elements that distract your attention from the main point of the picture.

Go deep
Stand (or sit) at a distance that allows the picture to occupy most of your field of vision. Allow your eyes to relax and defocus a little, as if you were looking “through” the picture, not at it. This allows the edges of the picture to fade away into obscurity, immersing you more fully into the picture space. Then, once you’re deep into the image, bring your focus back to clearly observe the individual elements within the picture. You will pick out many of the same objects that attract your attention, but you may also notice new things.

Associations, themes and metaphors
The brain is an association machine—everything we recognise and understand is based on something we learned before. The mind is constantly (and unconsciously) evaluating visual input to compare with what is already known. New stimulus provided by the unfamiliar creates new intellectual interest and new pathways in the brain. And even the most abstract imagery can trigger memories and emotions through these associations.

Many artworks are created to tell a story or convey an idea. While looking at the picture, consider what you interpret the artist is trying to say with the work. The best visual artworks have a clear point to make, even if the image is soft and the message is subtle.

Where do they want you to look, and what to see most clearly? Is the artist’s intention aligned with your physical experience of seeing the work?

Castle Point, New Zealand - a lighthouse stands illuminated atop a sea cliff overlooking a small bay at sunset on the southwest coast of New Zealand's North Island. Photo © Nat Coalson, all rights reserved.

Use language
Try to apply some words to visual elements you perceive and your viewing experience in general. Let’s use my photograph of Castlepoint Lighthouse as an example.

Start with simple adjectives that describe individual elements, larger groupings and the work as a whole.

Keep it very basic at first: “blue”, “cloud”, “lines”, “water”, “rocks”.

Then expand your mental language to articulate more complex ideas: “twilight”, “coolness”, “outside”.

Work your way to broader concepts, such as “solitude”, “hope”, “safety”, “searching”, etc.

What you’re doing here is using language to translate optical input into ideas, describing the characteristics of the picture using terms and concepts that you are intimately familiar with.

You’re also engaging multiple regions of your brain in the process. This is how viewing a picture becomes an active experience rather than just a passive, disengaged stare.

Importantly, whether or not you actually find the image appealing, this process allows you to make a more direct connection with the work, to determine what you think it’s trying to say, and to recognise and clearly understand your own personal response.

Broaden your horizons
Active seeing can not only enhance your experience viewing art but throughout your life. This state of awareness, in and of itself, is likely to bring you surprising revelations as you begin to notice much more in the world around you. It’s also in these ways that photographers and artists find such a deep, meaningful connection to their subject matter and, more broadly, to their lives.

To review the basic steps:

1. Activate your awareness
2. Watch where you look
3. Go deep
4. Consider associations, themes and metaphors
5. Use language