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Alma Thomas (artist), Pansies in Washington, 1969, acrylic on canvas overall: 127 × 121.92 cm (50 × 48 in.)

Mindful Looking: Finding Personal Meaning in a Work of Art

There are many ways to approach a work of art. Some viewers may want to know about the artist and the history of the object right away. Others may prefer to explore the work creatively by sketching or writing about it. Others still may decide that the work doesn’t interest them at all and quickly move on. There’s yet another way to connect with a work of art, though: by considering what it means to each of us on a personal level.

Spending a few mindful minutes with a work of art can be especially powerful during this time, when life is unexpectedly complex and we often feel we have more questions than there are answers. You don’t need an “answer” here—what you see, feel, and think are all valid. Interacting with works of art also lets us engage with the creative spirit and contemplate our shared humanity, which can alleviate some of the stress of these uncertain days.

Try taking some time with this work of art to discover what it might mean to you in this moment. Give yourself the gift of slowing down to quiet the mind and body, and to be fully present. Perhaps even invite a friend, loved one, or colleague to share in this experience with you.

Pansies in Washington

Alma Thomas, Pansies in Washington, 1969, acrylic on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Vincent Melzac), 2015.19.144

Alma Thomas, Pansies in Washington

We recommend spending at least one minute on each of the following steps, but take as long as you can on each.

  • Close your eyes or lower your gaze and take a deep breath. Keep breathing as you listen to the sounds around you, and notice the sensations you feel on your body. Notice your thoughts, and then do your best to set them aside for the moment. Open your eyes slowly. 
  • Take another deep breath as you take in the whole composition of this work of art. As you exhale, let your eyes wander. Notice where your gaze goes first, and where it travels from there. When you feel like you’ve seen everything, look for something you hadn’t noticed yet.
  • Think about or write down ten words or phrases that come to mind as you look at this painting. Pause, take another look, and then see whether you can come up with ten more.
  • Circle or identify the two or three words or phrases that feel the most relevant in this moment and ask yourself: Why do those seem so important?
  • Look at the painting again. How has it changed since you first saw it? What would you like to keep with you from this experience?

Once you’ve explored this painting, we hope you’ll be inspired to find other works of art and use the same prompts to look carefully and craft personal meaning.