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A Beginner’s Guide to Finding Art You (Actually, Genuinely) Like

May 8, 2017

by Katie Hawley

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We’re not afraid to say it: Art can be really intimidating. We’ve all found ourselves at a friend’s birthday party or an office happy hour casually shooting the breeze, when all of a sudden someone (usually wearing really cool shoes) brings up so-and-so’s latest blockbuster exhibition, or nonchalantly name-drops an obscure, up-and-coming mixed-media artist you’ve most definitely never heard of. “What do you think?” they innocently inquire. You freeze.

It’s strange how a seemingly simple question can elicit such profound panic, but when it comes to art, forming (let alone articulating) an opinion can sometimes feel downright paralyzing. In How Art Can Make You Happy, out this month, art book editor and art-for-everyone evangelizer Bridget Watson Payne sets out to tackle this conundrum head-on and demystify the process of art appreciation once and for all.

She sets the stage for her guide with an outwardly obvious but secretly revolutionary claim: “Art should bring happiness to your life.” That’s right, happiness—not fear, insecurity, or crippling self-doubt. Happiness! And according to Bridget, it all starts with figuring out what kind of art you’re into. More than anything else, she writes, “it matters what you actually, personally, like.”

Read on for Bridget’s refreshingly unpretentious, beginner-friendly tips on finding art that works for you.

Photograph of the author by Irene Kim Shepherd

Accept that art is for you (yes, you).

Before you can start down the path of figuring out what kind of art you like, you first have to buy into the idea that art exists for everyone. “When you’re an art book editor, the subject of art comes up a lot in casual conversation,” says Bridget. “I find that many people feel really intimidated—they want to appreciate art more in their lives, but they’re afraid it isn’t really for them because they don’t have a specialized skill set.”

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone, but you’re also not giving yourself enough credit. “I’m a huge believer in a big, wide-open definition of art: Everyone is invited to the art party,” Bridget explains. It’s time to abandon the notion that art appreciation only belongs to the people who studied it in college, or turned it into their life’s work.

Becca Stadtlander Bengal tiger print, from $25

Ditch your preconceived notions.

Taste is subjective, and as humans, we each bring our own unique set of likes and dislikes to the table—it’s what keeps things interesting. Imagine how boring life would be if we all liked exactly the same music, or exactly the same food. And yet, when it comes to art, it sometimes feels like there are certain things—artists, periods, forms of expression—that we should like (and, conversely, others we’re supposed to view with disdain).

“There’s this cultural notion that we can’t trust our own taste with art,” says Bridget. “And that what we like is somehow a mark of our sophistication or lack thereof. There’s all kinds of baggage that seems to come along with visual art in particular that doesn’t really come with other things.” But here’s the thing: There’s no “right” kind of art. There’s no “wrong” kind of art. There’s only art, and you’re bound to like some types of it more than others, the same way you really like mushrooms but can’t stand broccoli. Stop reading into it. Embrace it. “Have the courage to be your own tastemaker,” writes Bridget. When it comes to art appreciation, you call your own shots.

DODO botanical print, from $45

Expose yourself.

Once you’ve accepted that art is for you, and tossed your ideas about “right” and “wrong” art out the window (where they belong), it’s time to get to work. So how do you go about figuring out what kinds of art you actually, personally like? According to Bridget, it’s all about exposure. “Just look and look and look,” she says. “The more we look, the more we learn. And by ‘learn’ I don’t mean memorizing a million art periods and names and dates—I mean building up a visual vocabulary. The more we look, the more we start to articulate to ourselves what’s resonating in our own brains and what isn’t.”

Swing by a local museum and wander through the halls. Visit a nearby gallery—“even if you’re not remotely shopping for things in that price range”—and check out what’s on display. If there’s no art nearby to soak up in person, embrace the joys of looking at art without leaving your house. “Most people probably have an art book or two around their house,” says Bridget. “You might not even realize it’s an art book—you might think of it as a coffee table book, or it might be something someone gave you as a gift. Make yourself a hot beverage, sit down, and spend some time with the books you have. Slowly page through them, and really look at the images.”

If all else fails, turn to the internet. “More and more of the major museums are now digitizing their entire collections,” says Bridget. “You can go online and just browse forever.” She counts The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s among her favorite digitized collections. And if you’re looking for a more curated experience—“because having the entire archive of a museum at your fingertips can be overwhelming”—online art publications and art blogs provide great alternatives. Booooooom and The Jealous Curator are two of Bridget’s personal go-tos.

Lisa Congdon screenprinted poster, $38

Trust your instincts.

After you’ve thoroughly bombarded your visual receptors and immersed yourself in all things art, it’s time to parse out what you like. This is the part where you listen to that little voice inside your head and hear what it has to say. Out of everything that you’ve seen, what stuck with you? What made you feel something? What did you forget the second you walked away? “Only you can know when a work of art is working for you,” writes Bridget. “Deep down we know what we like and what we don’t—the same way we know whether we like or dislike mushrooms. We know what gives us a thrill and what doesn’t.”

But before you go rattling off a list of all the art that made you grin, a word of caution: “When I talk about How Art Can Make You Happy, I don’t mean ‘happy’ in a simplistic, jolly, eating-bonbons-and-skipping-around-in-a-field-of-daisies kind of way,” explains Bridget. “I mean ‘happy’ in a profound emotional sense, which isn’t always comfortable.” All to say, sometimes the art that most resonates with us might not bring a smile to our faces. “It can shake you up, it can be unnerving—it’s about being moved,” Bridget says.

Lola Donoghue limited-edition print, from $91.59

Use your words.

Now that you know what kind of art you like, you just need the language to describe it. To get the ball rolling, Bridget suggests drilling down into a specific piece that speaks to you with a series of simple questions: What’s the artist’s name? To what period, style, or movement does she belong? In simple terms, what is it that you like about the piece? The colors? The subject matter? What does it make you feel? “As you start looking at more and more art, you can use the descriptive words to start to triangulate,” she writes. “Which factors do you find yourself consistently drawn to?”

In addition to dramatically improving your happy-hour conversation game, finding the right words to describe the art you’re drawn to will allow you to strategically find more of it when you want to, whether you’re looking to buy or to browse. “Eventually, as you start coming up with those words, some of them will become relevant search terms, should you want to purchase something down the road,” explains Bridget. “Either way, you are using language as the blocks from which to construct the palace of your own taste. And that is a tremendous thing.”

Michelle Armas signed print, from $45

Now that you know what you like and how to talk about it, you’re ready to search for even more art to fall in love with. On Etsy, you can find original art (and limited-edition prints) from artists working in all kinds of mediums, from paintings, to prints, to drawings and illustrations, and even photography. Because the ultimate way that art can make you happy is when you get to enjoy it on your very own walls on a daily basis.

How Art Can Make You Happy is available now, in bookstores and online. For even more tips for buying art on Etsy, check out Emily Henderson’s expert guide.

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