Some thoughts on the practice of beholding art

Light and darkness as revealed 



The polarity of light and darkness is an excellent example of a binary opposition where the two opposing forces are best experienced simultaneously. Although they can be found in nature separately, our experiencing of them is enhanced by seeing them together, in interplay. consider the two photographic images to the left. 

In the first, the gradation in the tonal transition between dark to light is quite subtle and small, though enough to our perception to see a receding distance, and the creation of a strong mood.





In the second, there is less mood but great tonal drama. Note that the close to the source of the light, where it is brightest, we find the deepest shadow. And where the light weakens, the so does the intensity and density of the shadow. Both approaches can be used to evoke strong responses in the viewer, but whereas the gentle tonal transition provides something of a dreamy or unfocused quality, the second provides the great contrast and duality that we so often feel in ourselves and our life. 




Rembrandt's The Philosopher in Meditation

Rembrandt’s The Philosopher in Meditation

The Dutch Baroque artist Rembrandt was a master of the use of light, shadow,  atmosphere and space, imbuing his work with enormous drama, humanity and inwardness. He used chiaroscuro (meaning clear-obscure) in such as way as to add both a spiritual and yet very physical dimension to his works, though he never allows it to overwhelm his appreciation of the humanistic qualities of his subjects. Rembrandt’s understnading of light/darkness is perhaps best appreciated in his more reflective works, such as his self-portraits (such as the featured image) and everyday scenes in repose.

Many of his paintings beautifully reveal the inner life of his subjects, the human being turning inward to ponder himself and his soul. His Philosopher in Meditation (sometimes known as Old Man in an interior with a winding staircase), completed in 1632, is such an example.


People often tell me they find it difficult to engage with fine art for more than a minute or two, unless on a guided tour, especially if they are unfamiliar with the work or the artist. It’s too easy to slip into theoretical discussion about the work’s social “message” or technique, (constructed by “experts” projecting their particular theoretical assumptions onto the picture); or get distracted by the details of the artist’s personal life. Which doesn’t really help you appreciate the “painterly” qualities of the work itself. You don’t have to “understand” a work in terms of conceptual meanings to enjoy it – the artist themselves may have had no such intentions anyway. And visual art is a non-verbal expression of human experience, so trying to use words or concepts to understand it may mean you are missing out on a whole world of impossible-to-articulate expereinces. Before reading up on opinions of others, however well researched and considered, it’s worth trying to develop your won perceptions and insights into a work.

To experience the unspoken expression in a painting, without the distraction of data, try taking the contemplative approach of beholding. “Behold” is a beautiful, rather old-fashioned word, which asks you to hold off on instant gratification and indulge in some old-fashioned “take-your’time”. Beholding asks you to make yourself receptive to what the painting has to say to you, before you start deconstructing it’s meaning and purpose. If this sounds a little abstract, try this approach: 

  1. Begin by gazing at the work with your eyes a little unfocused, or focused on the space between you and the image, so that you can observe the picture in its entirety, rather than looking at its parts. In Gestalt theory, the whole is more than the parts: many painters (and I do the same) can tell you that their eye is running over the whole surface as they paint, even though they are working on one particulate area. Their eye is seeing the whole emerge, not just the part where the brush is. Use this same approach as you observe the work. 
  2. Try to allow the mood or atmosphere of the work to wash over you. How does it make you feel? It doesn’t matter how subjective you think this approach may be – your experience is more relevant to your relationship to a work, than that of a critic or art historian. The aim is for you to develop your own feeling for the art, not superimpose another’s ideas onto your experience.  
  3. Then imagine your eye being like a hand reaching out to touch the painting: run your eye’s fingers over the surface of the image, so you feel its composition and different elements. Where do your fingers sink into the darkness? where do they skim over sharp, bright edges or play with dust motes in the streaming light. Give full attention to the quality of light and darkness – their interplay and juxtaposition. Let your hand rest lightly to the light, imagine pressing tentatively into the warm shadows. 
  4. Only now begin to look at the shapes and forms, colours and details, still using your eye’s “hand” to explore them, as though you had entered into the inner space of the picture yourself, rather than objectively standing back, categorising them from a distance. 
  5. Ask yourself: where to you experience the harmonies? where do you feel tensions or conflicting elements?
  6. Now close your eyes and recall the memory of the image inwardly. 
  7. Allow the inner image to fade – what mood are you left with?

There are many interpretations you can them explore, once you have your own experience of a work. For example, in The Philosopher in Meditation, the staircase shaped as a spiral helix in the almost centre of the painting could suggest both the dualtiy of light/darkness and the duality we experience in ourselves as citizens of a graspable, physical world and an intangible hidden world, here bridged by the spiraling stair that represents, perhaps, our consciousness. (In engravings of this painting, there is a woman standing on the stairs, in the deepest shadows, but this is barely obvious in the painting, possibly due to darkening of the varnish with age). Or we could consider Rembrandt’s remarkable ability for bringing what the poet Rilke described as “world interior space” into his paintings. This has nothing to do with three-dimensional perspective: rather, it refers to the “felt” soulspace of the artist’s inner world and the world of his subject, the realm that arises from the interaction between the outside world and us. 


Through all beings stretches the one space:

World-innerspace. The birds fly quietly

through us. Oh, I who wish to grow,

I look out, and inside me the tree grows.

 (Rilke, Sämt. W, 2:93)

For a contrasting experience, you then repeat this contemplation with another work, quite opposite in its theme and location: Caspar David Friedrich‘s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (also discussed in an earlier post). 

Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog


Rembrandt’s works have great inwardness or introspection. Even his landscapes appear to gaze inwardly, to see the landscape as part of the human experience. By contrast, Friedrich’s works put the soul into the landscape, to experience herself out in the isolation of nature. Both artists have solitude as important themes, but you could compare moving between the two works as being something of a centre/periphery experience, as discussed here. The philosopher Rudolf Steiner describes this practice as relating to our experience of God and Self: we put ourselves in the centrepoint and God in the surrounding circle as an expression of “I am in God”; and our Self on the periphery and God in the centre as an expression of “God is in me”.  With the Rembrandt and Friedrich paintings, one could substitute Nature for God. (Though you could also argue that they are one and the same, anyway. It might be that both artists would have seen Nature as a manifestation or embodiment of God anyway).



Whatever your relationship to Nature or God, next time you go to the art gallery, take a little time to try a more contemplative approach to the works, and you may be surprised at how strongly the painting speaks to you. Of course, this approach isn’t limited to paintings – any work of visual art can be approached this way. But find your own relationship to art works, have your own experiences. Don’t just let the gallery tell you what art should mean to you.      



2 Replies to “Some thoughts on the practice of beholding art”

  1. […] ← Some thoughts on the practice of beholding art […]

  2. […] an earlier post, I have outlined one approach I recommend for learning to ‘behold’ art. But back to the […]

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at
%d bloggers like this: