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  • Writer's pictureBen De Winter

Aesthetic Experiences: Why Do Some Artworks Speak to Us and Others Leave Us Cold?

Although most visitors want to enjoy a visit to a museum or an exhibition, it is often like they are in a race to the finish. Among museum professionals, there is consensus that the average time a person spends looking at a Work of Art is between 15 seconds and 30 seconds. A study conducted in 2001 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art confirms this assumption: the mean amount of time visitors spent looking at great Art Works was about 27 seconds.[1]


What happens within our brains when we take a moment in a museum to gaze at a painting? Whenever we encounter something novel – be it a painting, sculpture, photograph, book, song, or even a magazine cover or a billboard – our mind subconsciously pose the question: “Do I like this?” The human brain, in turn, navigates through three stages to generate a response. Our reaction to art invariably hinges on what we see, what we feel and what we know.

The sensual element

Typically, the art interpreter initially perceives and engages with the information acquired through its senses, including the surface features of the art object like color, texture, contrast, and lighting. Light for instance plays a crucial role in enhancing the visual appeal of a painting in several ways. Proper lighting helps to illuminate the details and textures of a painting, it can create depth and dimension, it can influence the mood of the artwork and can contribute to the creation of a specific atmosphere within the painting. In general, people are more appealed to lighter paintings (however this may vary among individuals based on personal bias or cultural background). Think of the proverbial example of a child seeing a bright light and reaching out for it. Similar considerations apply to the color palette used. The colours used influence the visual appeal of an artwork by creating visual hierarchy, contrast, harmony, or chaos.

Here is an example of how it works in landscape photography:

The human eye is a sense organ adapted to allow vision by reacting to light. When strolling around an exhibition, the viewer’s eye is more likely to be appealed to the lighter photo in the mid (‘seeing a bright light and reaching out for it...’). The emotional impact of a painting and its perceived lightness are interconnected aspects that contribute to the overall aesthetic experience.


Also, the arrangement of elements in a piece, the use of symbols and themes, and the overall composition can be incoming information presented to our brain. To analyze the visual stimuli presented to us, the human brain will start a complex interplay of cognitive processes that initiate the second stage of perceiving and appreciating art: the stage of emotional impact.


The emotional element


At the core of our connection with art lies the realm of emotions. Psychology studies elucidate how different elements within an artwork can elicit specific emotional responses. Our interpretations and responses to artistic expressions are deeply intertwined with them. People tend to favor art that elicits positive emotions like happiness, amusement, beauty, or delight, while expressing a disliking for art that induces negative emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, or melancholy.


Throughout history, many cultures have associated certain colours with unique meanings, representing a spectrum of emotions, values, and beliefs. Warm colors such as red, orange, and yellow elicit feelings of passion, excitement, warmth, and energy, whereas cool tones like blue or green symbolize calmness, peace, confidence, and relaxation.


Let us have a closer look at some art pieces and see how color is used to set the mood of a painting:

Summer evening on Skagen Sønderstrand, Peder Severin Krøyer, 1893, From the collection of: Skagens Museum, Skagen, Denmark.


The composition is dominated by shades of white and blue. The shade of blue used in the painting is very lightly coloured and fades off into the sky in most parts, creating the mood that night could be approaching. The tone felt from this painting would be peace, beauty, and calm. The two women walking by the water appear to be enjoying one another’s company and are walking along side the water to enjoy it’s beauty, which could also provide a stress-free feeling for the audience as well. 

Leapaway girl, Ian Scott, 1969, From the collection of: Te Papa, Wellington, New-Sealand. 


There are several different shades of blue in this painting that really add meaning to it and helps draw the attention to it for the audience. The bright colour of the blue water draws the attention of the audience to the interesting background in the painting. As the eye leads up the painting to the girl wearing the bright green dress, the sky is a darker blue behind her. It helps create a sense of creativity and imaginativeness for this painting. 

The Last Day of Pompeii, Karl Brullov, 1830/1833, From the collection of: The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. 


The dark colors create the sense of dread and the intense red from the volcano makes the path for attention in the piece. The colors bring about horror which depicts this event in history well.



The Knowledge component

Ultimately, during the concluding phase, individuals interpret the artwork and comprehend it in connection with their existing knowledge, past experiences, and the context in which they encounter the artwork. Our response to art always depends on what we know. If this final stage of processing proves successful, the viewer has effectively established a connection with the original idea or concept that inspired the work in the creator's mind, all perceived through their personal perspective.


Our cultural background influences the symbols, themes, and narratives we are familiar with. Art often incorporates cultural references, and individuals from different cultural backgrounds may interpret the same artwork in diverse ways based on their unique cultural contexts. Someone with a background in abstract art, for example, may interpret abstract pieces differently from someone more accustomed to realistic representations.


Our past experiences influence our personal preferences and play a role in how we respond to different artistic styles, genres, or themes. Individual life experiences, including personal triumphs, challenges, and significant events, can colour our interpretation of art. Art has the power to resonate with personal narratives, triggering emotions and memories tied to specific life moments. Psychology professor and photographer Arthur Shimamura once told that one person was particularly moved by his photo ‘Graceful Aging’ because it reminded her of her recently deceased mother as it elicited a sense of sadness and beauty at the same time.


 Gracefull Aging by Art Shimamura


Personal beliefs and values, whether influenced by religion, philosophy, or individual convictions, can shape how we interpret the themes and messages conveyed in art. Different worldviews may lead to contrasting interpretations of the same artwork.


The environment in which we encounter art, whether it is a museum, gallery, or public space, can also impact our interpretation. The context of display can influence our perception of the artwork and its intended meaning.


Formal education in art, art history, or related fields can provide individuals with a deeper understanding of artistic techniques, movements, and historical contexts. Those with art education may notice subtleties and references that others might overlook, influencing their interpretation.


Knowing the artist’s name and understanding his identity provides insight into his background, influences, and intentions. It also helps to contextualize the artwork within the broader scope of their body of work. Even the title of the creation may act as a vehicle to get a better understanding. Look at the photo below. It first appears as an abstraction of colours and shapes. But once the viewer knows that this photograph is titled ‘Broken Memories’, a more emotional response may arise because he knows that the objects shown were once part of someone’s life. As beholders, we share in a story told by the artist.

Broken Memories by Art Shimamura






In summary, the importance of perceptions, emotions, and knowledge in looking at art lies in their collective ability to shape a unique and meaningful experience for each viewer. The dynamic interaction of these elements contributes to the diversity and depth of responses to art across individuals and communities


The most profound art experiences often involve a holistic integration of sensations, emotions, and knowledge. Art will drive all three elements of this experience and the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation will be the result of their interaction.


During the creative process, it might be worthwhile for any artist to consider this, as it seems artworks will be better appreciated when they amplify all three components in the beholder.


[1] Smith, J. K., & Smith, L. F. (2001). Spending time on art. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 19(2), 229–236.

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