Disney's Looking at Paintings: An Introduction to Fine Art for Young People

On my family's Christmas holiday trip to Walt Disney World, I happened upon a copy of the 2002 book Disney's Looking at Paintings: An Introduction to Fine Art for Young People, written by Erika Langmuir and Ruth Thomson to coincide with an exhibition at London's National Gallery. I picked it up for an idle peruse and within seconds, I was hooked.

I confess that I am not a very sophisticated appreciator of fine art. Novels like Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev and Steven Brust's The Sun, the Moon and the Stars (as well as films like Emile de Antonio's Painters Painting) have given me a glimmering of what other people see when they look at paintings, but they've also left me half-convinced that I was missing something important. I find most paintings...nice, but somewhere between the art, my eyeballs, and my brain, something seems to go astray. Sometimes I'm just left wondering what the big deal is.

Looking at Paintings is a beginning textbook for young children (I'd say 6-12) who are wondering the same thing. Using beautifully reproduced paintings and crisp prose, Looking at Paintings expounds on the history of visual art, and the use of size, shape, color, light and dark, perspective, frame, motion and materials in creating visual effects. The short chapters are lavishly illustrated, and each section ends with a short quiz and a Mickey Mouse comic that uses comedy to re-cover the material.

Having read the book, I feel like I learned rather a lot. The beautiful art, combined with the simple, intelligent accompanying text, has me looking at artists from Pollack to Chagal to Rembrandt in new ways. I only wish someone had handed me a book like this when I was about seven. I can't wait to get to a gallery again.

Looking at Paintings: An Introduction to Fine Art for Young People


  1. I worked as a security guard at a museum when I was in grad school. It was a much more free-wheeling time to be a security guard, no certification required. As expected, it was mainly boring. I mostly worked Saturday nights when the museum was booked out to wedding receptions. Let’s just say drunks and contemporary art do not go hand-in-hand.

    One thing I did notice, however, is how open children were to more difficult contemporary work. They tended not to care about paintings in general, and I agree with Cory that a book like this would have helped. But, the non-painting, usually installation-based work was often of interest to children. They may not have understood it per se, but they were certainly open to it. I recall watching children on the security monitors taking in an audio installation. They were clearly fascinated by it. So much so, that one girl must have spent about 10 minutes walking around it, through it, taking it in. She excitedly ran to get her mother, who was in the museum restaurant, and eventually talked her into going upstairs to see the piece. The mother glanced in the direction of the work and immediately went back downstairs.

    I’m not saying you need child-like wonder to appreciate difficult work, but I guess children still have an openness and lack of self-consciousness to just give things a chance. Something her mother lost a long time ago.

    I bought my niece this book, a guide to Canadian art history from the 19th century through to contemporary art. If you know nothing about Canadian art, the names in the book would mean little, aside from perhaps Michael Snow, but it’s a pretty cool book that doesn’t pull punches.


  2. I wouldn’t trust a company that butters its bread by making things that attract little eyes to teach little eyes what they should find attractive.

  3. Anyone who wants to get a good sense of what abstract-expressionism is all about should read Vonnegut’s Bluebeard. What’s interesting is that it’s not a gushing love-letter to action painting and is often highly critical, but when I read it, I got a good, palpable feel for the time and why artists were painting in that manner.

  4. I’ve worked in New York’s art industry for over 10 years, so I know I would be killed by my peers if they heard me say this, but I think the Sister Wendy TV show is a great introduction to art and would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn how to look at and appreciate paintings.

    1. I agree. She provides a great intro to art and she doesn’t just focus on the blockbuster names either. She’s witty and totally accessible.

  5. The old (30 years!?) BBC multi-part documentary The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes is well worth seeking out for similar reasons.

    1. I like Sister Wendy a lot, but Hughes’ is the best overv iew of modern art I’ve seen. I use it a lot in my classes. Mr. Hughes is not without his biases, but overall I think it could help most people grasp the reasons for a lot of things they may not have previously accepted.

  6. i’m torn by this. On the one hand it’s commendable to see such an educational book from disney. On the other, i can never trust disney not to be pushing their agenda of white-washed, watered down idealism. Bet there’s no paintings of nudes or mention of Van Gogh’s general nuttery.

    1. Shame on Disney for not printing nudes and discussing mental illness in their art book for six-year-olds. And the Germany pavilion in Epcot doesn’t even so much as mention the Holocaust!

          1. I don’t know what that book contains, fresh – it’s out of print – but it says it’s for ages 9-12, and if it deals with more mature subject matter directly and with respect to the kids, that’s great. But there’s no question that a book marketed to six-year-olds featuring nudes would never get on the shelves in America. In fact, it would probably end in legal trouble for anyone who sold it – remember the whole thing with Dan Clowes’ Eightball comics? And those kids were in high school.

      1. Hey Tom, Donald is right there going pantless as always. Wait? Is that Donald’s corkscrew penis I see?

        I also see Donald has a camera. Is he going to get harassed for taking non-flash photography at the museum?

  7. Goofy looks puzzled. “You mean there’s art we can use without paying for it? And this is a piece of it? How does it survive without a corporate pappy to serve as protector and prison guard?”

  8. If you’re looking for another excellent way to better understand the nuance, and beauty, and significance of masterpieces, I’d also highly recommend Simon Shama’s Power of Art. It was a fantastic BBC series that came out a few years ago, and frankly, they ended it way too soon. It helped me inch closer from a state of “Oh, I like this painting, I wonder if it comes in Mousepad form,” to having a much deeper appreciation for paintings. Not there yet, but those DVDs were a big help.

  9. For a more adult but still interesting look at modern art I cannot recommend Kurt Varnadoe’s A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern.

    He worked for both the National Gallery in Washington DC and MOMA NY, and his writing was one of the few things I enjoyed about art history classes in college.

    1. Do you really mean to say “I cannot recommend” Varnedoe’s book? ‘Cause it sounds as if you kinda liked it.

  10. I looked through the book with Amazon’s Look Inside. It includes Guernica, describing it as expressing the horrors of war. It really is good.

  11. “In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak features full frontal male nudity, but kindergarteners see it as the sweet little “tale” that it is. There’s lots of other examples of nudity in books for children. It’s actually the 9 year olds that start having trouble with it. Nudity is pretty normal for little kids, as well as the people that live or work with them.

  12. I was in the National Gallery in London once when I observed a class of schoolchildren (about 8 or 9 years old) being taken through.

    Teacher: Now, children, what does it mean when we see naked people in a painting?

    Pupils (excited clamor): It means they are gods or goddesses.

    Fairly good rule of thumb for the Renaissance, at least.

    I liked the Simon Shama series. I found the show on Guernica particularly illuminating.

  13. Oh, wow. Cory, your post made me so *sad*. I read your posts every day and I think how jealous I am of this fellow who is a professional author and understands so many things I wish I understood about technology and science. Today you post that you’re finally understanding what the big deal is about paintings because of a children’s book and it makes me want to break down and cry–no hyperbole.

    To be clear, though I find it a little odd that its a Disney product, it sounds legit and I’m GLAD GLAD GLAD that it changed the way you approach art, so thank goodness that you found it. I hope it becomes the first step for your continuing knowledge and love for fine art.

    Why I’m sad is that I always took for granted that people turned on by intellectual pursuits could intuit the greatness of great painting for what it was. But, as your post makes clear, a grown intellectual can make his or her way through this world–quite successfully–without grasping art. This plays into my fear that art has become the unicorn and the ship of 21st century knowledge will abandon it to the flood of “progress” and “ones-and-zeroes.”

    It is sickening that people have a vague notion that art is one of the crowning intellectual pursuits of mankind, yet we are in a climate that enables remaining ignorant of its principals, and at worst its dismissal as irrelevant to a general education. People are completely alienated from art–even folks like you who like it in theory–only because it is intellectually ghettoized . We know the importance of the fundamentals in language and mathematics and wouldn’t dare leave out the ABCs or addition/subtraction from a child’s basics, but skills as fundamental as training your hand to draw what the eye sees and understanding perspective are elective, and only then for high school. Do you think Leonardo would agree? His understanding of engineering and art flowed from the same well. Is it not upsetting that the average joe, faced with the inscrutability of J. Joyce, can at least read it; however, when that same person is faced with Joyce’s contemporary Picasso, they don’t even understand perspective before having to interpret the inscrutability of Picasso intentionally shifting it?

    I’m upset that you needed a Disney book to explain this at all, because that means A) a contemporary and influential mind that I admire wasn’t taught to read, in the visual sense, simply as a matter of course, and B) it points out that very core ways of relating to the world that I take for granted due to exposure, study, and whatever my degree of native intellect do NOT correlate intuitively to equal or greater intellects. Which is sad and frustrating: art in the 20th century changed so rapidly, it is often lampooned for being insular and of no relevance but to academics, but that’s only because they speak a dying language. The “language” is not only beautiful, but necessary to the growth of mental muscle. I so often feel like a drowning unicorn yelling at the passengers on the digital ark: “No, seriously y’all, you *need* to know this! It’s FUNDAMENTAL! Photoshop is ELECTIIIIIIIVVVVE-Glub glub glub….”

    To anyone interested, I can recommend PBS’s “Imagining America: Icons of 20th-Century American Art,” though it doesn’t look like its on dvd. check local listings. And the aforementioned Bluebeard was a joy to read, though limited to Abstract Expressionism and, well, a work of literature foremost.

  14. As an alternative to the somewhat saccharine perspective of Disney, Blast! is a new kids book about New Zealand artist and peace activist, Pat Hanly. I remember as a kid going to Kite Days organised by Pat, with heaps of people gathering in a big open park to fly kites. Pat’s art is colourful, vibrant and life affirming. The book asks questions of the reader to engage you visually. It helps the reader think about what the images might mean, so is a stepping stone for anyone to engage with visual art. What I love is that the book met with critical acclaim, so is being donated to schools in New Zealand. Hopefully thousands of kids will get turned on to art, not just multimedia…

    Art’s not Dead!

  15. My gut reaction is: I hope Disney isn’t planning on laying claim to the copyright on the public domain art they look at… any of the Van Gogh sunflowers f’rinstance.

    I join noah django in being sad that you have missed out, but it is never too late.

    Still, I suspect that you have more art appreciation than you know: something that a lot of people miss out on is that art is all around us.

    My first art appreciation was comic book art (although i was spoiled because my dad bought reprints of the greats – Will Eisner’s The Spirit, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan – so i didn’t just have the cookie-cutter art prevalent in the 60’s/’70’s mass publications).

    Then there was book cover art. Frank Frazetta was my art idol as a teen, and although I don’t think the brothers Hildebrandt as good overall, my breath catches every time I look at their painting of A Gilft of Galadriel (I’ve framed my print from the calendar and hung it above my desk so I can look up and have my breath taken away by Galadriel’s glow whenever I want).

    I am just becoming aware of “Steampunk”, which is a new type of art you surely know more about than I.

    If you want to connect with classical art my advice is to go to an art gallery on a weekday afternoon when you have time (sans electronica), by yourself and just wander and look. REALLY look.

    Look at the things that interest you. Follow your own tastes. The same way you don’t love all the best selling novels of today, you won’t love all the best selling old masters.

    The second time, go with your kids.

    One of my favorite artists (now) is Van Gogh, but initially I just didn’t get it. I owe my appreciation for his art to Don McLean’s song “Vincent”. (And I’m sure the movie “Lust For Life” didn’t hurt either.) For me it helps to understand the time and place, but again, everyone is different. All art won’t appeal to all people, no matter how great it is.

    Don’t overlook the art all around us. Some of the most amazing “classic” art I have seen is in the children’s books by Don and Audrey Wood especially Heckedy Peg, also a must read. My other favorite children’s book artist is Michael Martchenko who has illustrated many of Robert Munch’s best books.

    Follow your own inclination. All art is subjective.

  16. I agree. Children can learn so much through art. Just like us the colors and style of artwork keeps their atttention. Introducing them to art at a young age can help them scholastically later in life.

  17. RE: noah django,

    “Why I’m sad is that I always took for granted that people turned on by intellectual pursuits could intuit the greatness of great painting for what it was.”

    Dude it IS sad, that you are sad about this. Are you serious?

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