7 Tips for Succeeding in your Art History Course

7 Tips for Succeeding in your Art History Course

Whether you are taking your first art history course or are an art history major, here are seven things you can do to help yourself succeed in, and get the most from, your  art history classes.

A page from my old Ideas notebook.

A page from one of my grad school notebooks.

1. Take lots of notes.

Every professor formats his or her art history class differently, but generally speaking, your professor will be talking a lot. You will receive a bunch of information very quickly so it is important that you come to class prepared to listen and absorb information. Some professors will help you out by providing access to their PowerPoints, weekly glossary lists, or study guides, but you can’t always rely on these items being available to you, so make sure you take notes! Actively taking notes ensures that you are paying attention to what your professor is saying. Ideally, your notes will contain all the pertinent information you need to study for exams or complete assignments.

So, what should you actually be writing down? Unless you professor tells you not to worry about writing down or remembering certain things, a good rule of thumb is to write down the following:

  • Information about the Artist: Write down an artist’s name, date of birth and death, where they are from and who they trained with (this can be important!), what medium(s) they used, and who their major patrons are, if any.
  • Information about an Artwork: You want to make sure you remember the title of an artwork, who made it, the date it was created (and/or commissioned), the medium, its location and size, and who commissioned it, if anyone. Make note of any stylistic elements that identify the artwork as being by this particular artist, and write down anything that stands out to you about the work. Drama or heightened emotion, contrasts of color, light or shadow, or a unique representation of a certain theme, are all good to remember and can help keep the artwork fresh in your mind.
  • Information about Culture and History: Art history involves the study of history by its nature, so you will learn about historical and cultural figures and shifts that had an impact on artists and influenced the creation of art. In your notes, try to associate history with the artworks being discussed. If you’re struggling to absorb this information or if you’re trying to prepare for an exam, one thing that might be helpful is to create an illustrated timeline with dates on one side and works of art and facts on the other.
  • What you think!: Every once in a while, you might encounter a work of art, an artist, or a set of cultural or historical facts that lingers in your mind. Keep track of any observations, “Eureka” moments, things that fascinate you, art historical theories, or questions that you have. When you make your course material personal in this way, you begin to form your own ideas about art (and even the world around you).

Taking effective notes can take time and practice, so try not to feel discouraged if none of this comes naturally.  Developing a shorthand is a good idea if you begin to feel overwhelmed by how fast you need to write or type. If you feel like you missed something during class, you may want to compare your notes with those of your friends.

2. Memorize, memorize, memorize.

At some point in their lives, every art history student has lamented the arduous process of memorizing images for an exam, but as annoying or exhausting as memorization can be, it is crucial to this field. The hope is that through memorization, you will form a mental “image bank” of artworks which you can use to demonstrate your awareness of shifts artists’ styles and iconography over time. If you are having trouble with memorization, one way to remedy this is to experiment with different study techniques like flash cards (whether physical or digital) or Style Sheets. Giving each artwork you are trying to memorize a backstory can also help to make artists, artworks, or dates more memorable. You may want to enlist the help of your friends by having them quiz you.

Arturo Ferrari, In the Old Street (Vicolo San Bernardino alle Ossa a Milano), detail (1912). Fondazione Cariplo.

Arturo Ferrari, In the Old Street (Vicolo San Bernardino alle Ossa a Milano), detail (1912). Fondazione Cariplo.

3. Study the art you’ve seen in class in more detail online or in museums, and explore the web for similar artworks or artists.

Your art history classes are designed to relay pertinent stylistic, cultural, and historical facts to you and to give you the knowledge and tools you need to translate color, line, and form into meaning. That being said, there is only so much that your professor can fit into two or three hours a week. Reinforce what you have learned by exploring the art that you’ve talked about in class online, and search the web for similar artworks or artists. And of course, if you live near any museums or galleries, spend as much time as you can in front of actual art objects.

Researchers have found that the average person spends only 30 seconds or less looking at a work of art when they go to a museum. In the same vein, looking at slides in your art history class leaves much to be desired in terms of what some call slow looking. Outside of class, take your time looking at, and looking for, art, regardless of whether you are doing so in a physical or digital environment. Make a point of exposing your mind to as wide of a variety of art as possible, even if it is outside of the scope of your course. By intentionally dedicating time to inspect and research art, you are helping yourself to enhance and expand your mental image bank and your awareness of the world around you, both past and present.

The Google Art Project and Artstor are excellent resources to search for specific items or browse treasures from participating museums. You can also find high resolution images to examine (and even download) at many museums’ online collections, including the Getty, LACMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery (D.C.), the Prado, and the Rijksmuseum, to name a very select few. You might find a fascinating detail or a new favorite artist while you’re exploring!

Reading matters!

Reading matters!

4. Do your reading. (And visit your library!)

The study of art history is not just comprised of looking at art all day and memorizing facts; art history is a discourse, which means that to learn and understand it, you have to read what art historians have to say. To get the most out of your art history class, do all of your assigned readings. Your professor might test you on information found in the readings or ask you to write an essay using your readings as reference. But even if your professor does not test you on this material, and he or she very well might not, the texts required for your class are assigned because they enhance the course material. If you don’t have time to do all of the readings, learn how to skim read or speed read. If you’re having trouble understanding some of the concepts or arguments raised in your reading, do not hesitate to email your professor or visit them in office hours. You may also want to experiment with various techniques for effective annotation. Don’t forget to take advantage of the resources that your college’s library has to offer, including research guides and academic librarians, special collections, inter-library loan, and subscriptions to valuable resources like JSTOR and Artstor.

5. Push the boundaries of how you think about art.

Even if your art history class seems like it is just a semester-long exercise in how fast you can read and how well you can memorize names, dates, and facts, I would urge you to push the boundaries of how you approach your course and think about art. In other words, for the benefit of your own mind, don’t allow yourself to settle for the bare minimum. Resist what is easy, and resist laziness. Don’t let your course end with a file folder full of notes and old exams that you may or may not look at again. From a professor’s perspective, the material we present to you in class and in your readings is all required knowledge, but we want you to take what you’ve learned and digest it. Form your own ideas about art. Your status as a student of art history does not preclude you from expressing your thoughts and ideas about an artwork. Do not hesitate to be bold in your interpretations while maintaining respect for historical constraints.

All that being said, not everything you encounter in art history will speak to you or interest you. You might find yourself in a situation where you are completely uninterested in the art (or even culture) that you’re studying, and thus struggling to care about the material. Telling you that art history matters regardless of whose history it is probably won’t jolt you into sudden fascination with your course material, but try to find something that you can genuinely appreciate about what you’re studying. See your art history class as an opportunity to view the resurrected past; a mental portal to ghosts of lived experiences that remain as a collective visual memory.

Telemaco Signorini, Unable to Wait, detail (1867). Fondazione Caripolo.

Telemaco Signorini, Unable to Wait, detail (1867). Fondazione Cariplo.

6. Practice talking and writing about art.

Many of the students I’ve spoken with over the years express the same concern: they are not sure how to write about art. Art history classes often require essay exams or research papers, and because talking or writing about art doesn’t always come naturally, this can seem like an exceptionally difficult task. With practice and patience, you can learn how to write about art well.

One strategy you can use to become a better writer is to study your course readings. How does the author structure his or her article? Make an outline of the flow of the text that you’re reading. Every source you read will have an introduction and conclusion, but each author will have his or her own style of writing and argumentation. Take notice of where, in the text, the author describes a work of art, talks about iconography, explains the historical circumstances surrounding the artwork, provides biographical notes on the artist, and so on. Also note if the author seems to focus more on description, history, or analysis. How do all these elements – and anything else not be listed here – form a cohesive argument that builds from paragraph to paragraph? Does the author have a “smoking gun,” or a final, shocking piece of evidence that cements their case? The more you read, the more you will familiarize yourself with different ways of writing about art history, and hopefully you will begin to develop your own style.

If you’re having trouble with timed essay exams, you can practice before test day. Sitting in a similar classroom environment (somewhere quiet and dim), set a timer for however long the timed portion of your essay is (usually 15, 30, or 60 minutes). If your professor has given you a study guide of images and/or compare/contrast sets, then use these as your practice slides. If not, select images to write about from ones that your professor has discussed in class. Once you have your images ready and have started your timer, start writing! Write down anything and everything you can think of about the image(s) in front of you. Some of the questions you might consider answering as you write are:

  • Who made this artwork? When? With what materials? Where is the work located?  
  • What is the subject of the artwork? 
  • Who commissioned the artwork, if anyone? 
  • Who would have seen the artwork in its original environment, and what would they have thought or felt looking at the work? In other words, what kind of conversation would this work have sparked in its time? 
  • What is the purpose of this work?
  • What were the historical or cultural circumstances surrounding the creation of this work? 
  • (With a compare/contrast) How are these artists’ styles similar or different? How do their approaches to this subject differ, and how are they similar? Why might this be?  

Your thoughts might not be coherent or cohesive at first, but by doing this exercise repeatedly (with different images) then eventually you will become comfortable writing under pressure and can feel at ease on test day.

There are several excellent books available about writing about art, including A Short Guide to Writing About Art by Sylvan Barnet, Writing About Art by Henry M. Sayre, and Learning to Look by Joshua C. Taylor. You may also find Marjorie Munsterberg’s website, Writing About Art, a useful online resource. To learn about various art historical methods, I recommend Art History: A critical introduction to its methods by Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk.

Empty offices are the worst.

Empty offices are the worst.

7. Visit your professor or TA during office hours.

Did you know that your professor actually wants you to go to office hours? Professors set aside office hours specifically so that they can help you with assignments, answer your questions about the class, and simply even get to know you better. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that there is nothing more disappointing for me as an educator than sitting in my office for two hours a week waiting for a student to walk through the door  with a question, concern, or exciting tidbit they want to talk about and having no one show up. Or email. Or call. It is true that professors often grade, write, or do research while waiting for a student to arrive, but the purpose of the office hour isn’t to conduct one’s own work; it’s to help you. So go to office hours!