The art of observation

Pat Sullivan discusses the art of observation with three students

Photo by Bernard Clark

In this issue, students and professors explore the paintings from The Bader Collection on display at the exhibition Singular Figures: Portraits and Character Studies in Northern Baroque Painting.

The average viewer in a gallery looks at a painting for about seven seconds. In a workshop pioneered for occupational therapy students at Queen’s, participants study each painting for 10 minutes. Using only visual evidence, they test their observational skills and then examine their biases. it’s all part of a strategy to prepare them to assess clinical situations in the workplace.

“Art is such a good vehicle for developing observational skills,” says Pat Sullivan, the public programs manager for the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. She has conducted the workshop in collaboration with Danielle Naumann, an occupational therapist and PhD student in Rehabilitation Science, for the last few years. “When you take a few moments to sit and look carefully at a painting you haven’t seen before, you pick up a lot more than you would imagine.”

We invited three students who hadn’t been into the gallery before to participate in a mini-workshop with Sullivan and Naumann. They studied Portrait of Five Sisters (Jan Albertsz. Rootius, c.1655), and practised articulating their objective observations of the painting.

“I see sadness.”

“You’re interpreting sadness,” coaches Naumann. “But what you actually see are faces that are not smiling.”

Now the observations come more quickly.

“I see bags under the girl’s eyes.”

“Their faces are wrinkled in a way.”

“I see a girl wearing a gold bracelet.”

“I see the beads on her dress.”

After taking inventory of what they see in the painting, the students then change from “I see” statements to “I think” statements.

“I think they aren’t smiling because it takes more muscles to smile than to maintain a neutral expression,” says engineering student Tanis Worthy, thinking about how long the children would have had to stay still for a portrait session.

The students explore their own reactions and interpretations, gain insight into other perspectives and, in doing so, broaden their own.

“This is an invaluable tool for occupational therapists and others who make clinical decisions in groups,” says Naumann.

  • Tanis Worthy, Sc'16, Jennifer Williams, Artsci’16, and Heather Evans, Com’16, share their observations of Portrait of Five Sisters with Danielle Naumann.

    Photo by Bernard Clark

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