Learning to Look at the Visual Arts (Online)


Have you ever looked at a picture in a museum or gallery and been able to see and feel its characteristics but not had the vocabulary to put your thoughts into words? This course offers you the opportunity to learn how to study and analyse paintings, drawings and prints and learn the 'language of looking' to communicate your appreciation of art.

In this course you will learn about the qualities that make up a picture including composition, space, form, tone and colour, why each element is important, and how they relate to each other to create the aesthetic appearance of the image. You will also learn to understand the importance of subject matter, original function and setting of a picture in appreciating its visual meaning.

Teaching and learning will be through guided reading and by interaction and question and answer sessions to promote visual understanding through appreciation of a series of paintings from the fifteenth century to the present day. A key element of the course is art criticism where you will take part in guided viewings of paintings and then have the opportunity to put your new visual vocabulary into practice working on tasks with your fellow students.

For information on how the courses work, please click here.

Programme details

Unit 1 - Introduction to learning Look at the Visual Arts

  • Introduction to the course

Unit 2 - Composition

  • Horizontals and verticals
  • Harmony and balance
  • Curves and diagonals
  • Colour and composition
  • Asymmetry
  • Apparently random composition
  • Collage

Unit 3 - Space

  • Linear perspective
  • Geometrical space
  • Imaginative space and illusionism
  • Aerial perspective and space to walk about in
  • Spatial distortion ignoring the middle distance
  • Multiple viewpoint perspective
  • Space in front of the picture
  • Spatial disorientation

Unit 4 and Unit 5 - Form

  • Sculptural form in the human figure
  • Form achieved by chiaroscuro and sfumato
  • Form made tangible
  • The disintegration and rebuilding of form
  • Form created with colour
  • The closing of the gap between painting and sculpture in the twentieth century

Unit 6 - Tone

  • The use of tone for imaginative expression
  • Tone used to create drama
  • Tone and the expression of emotion
  • Tone and the realisation of form and space
  • Tone used to create atmosphere
  • Tone and the reconstruction of form

Unit 7 - Colour

  • Primary and complementary contrast and the afterimage
  • The vocabulary of colour
  • Using the vocabulary of colour
  • The use of colour to express emotion
  • The power of colour to express emotion without a figurative subject and the effect of colour and scale
  • Colour and the expression of texture
  • The use of coloured light for expression

Unit 8 - Subject-matter

  • Religious subjects
  • Historical subjects
  • Scenes of everyday life with a moral
  • Subject matter and image making: clarity and ambiguity in communicating a message
  • The idea of ambiguity in a visual image
  • Subject matter and the idea of abstraction
  • Poetical subjects and the idea of painting as poetry

Unit 9 - Drawing and its purposes

  • Drawing used to try out ideas
  • Drawing and sculptural expression
  • Landscape drawings and watercolours
  • Line drawing
  • Individual drawing techniques in the twentieth century

Unit 10. Looking at print

  • The exploitation of detail: line engraving, woodcut and wood engraving
  • The etching: the creation of mystery and ambivalence by means of tone
  • The development of a print from its original drawing: etching and aquatint
  • Lithography
  • The coloured lithograph and the silk screen print

We strongly recommend that you try to find a little time each week to engage in the online conversations (at times that are convenient to you) as the forums are an integral, and very rewarding, part of the course and the online learning experience.


Credit Application Transfer Scheme (CATS) points 

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £30 fee for each course you enrol on. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online. If you do not register when you enrol, you have up until the course start date to register and pay the £30 fee. 

See more information on CATS point

Coursework is an integral part of all online courses and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework, but only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education, you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee. 


Digital credentials

All students who pass their final assignment, whether registered for credit or not, will be eligible for a digital Certificate of Completion. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so. 

Please note that assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail. 


Description Costs
Course Fee £385.00
Take this course for CATS points £30.00


If you are in receipt of a UK state benefit, you are a full-time student in the UK or a student on a low income, you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees. Please see the below link for full details:


Concessionary fees for short courses


Mr Gordon Reavley

Gordon Reavley teaches topics in Art History and Visual and Material Culture for Oxford University's Dept of Continuing Education (OUDCE), and Critical Theory for the University of Nottingham. He has been widely published on American social and cultural history and on the history and theory of art and design.

Course aims

  • Teach students to look at painting from a more visual and analytical point of view.
  • Teach the necessary visual vocabulary or language of looking.
  • Provide a method for looking at paintings, drawings and prints which is both flexible and clear.
  • Generate understanding of pictorial qualities and their integration for the aesthetic appearance.
  • Create a feeling for the integration of the aesthetic appearance with the subject matter and period of the picture.

Course objectives

  • Learn how to look in a more objective and analytical way.
  • Learn the visual vocabulary and glossary of terms.
  • Understand pictoral qualities and what they mean, that is Composition, Space, Form, Tone, Colour, Subject Matter.
  •  Think critically.

Assessment methods

You will be set two pieces of work for the course. The first of 500 words is due halfway through your course. This does not count towards your final outcome but preparing for it, and the feedback you are given, will help you prepare for your assessed piece of work of 1,500 words due at the end of the course. The assessed work is marked pass or fail.

English Language Requirements

We do not insist that applicants hold an English language certification, but warn that they may be at a disadvantage if their language skills are not of a comparable level to those qualifications listed on our website. If you are confident in your proficiency, please feel free to enrol. For more information regarding English language requirements please follow this link: https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/about/english-language-requirements


Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an Enrolment form for short courses | Oxford University Department for Continuing Education

Level and demands

FHEQ level 4, 10 weeks, approx 10 hours per week, therefore a total of about 100 study hours.

IT requirements

This course is delivered online; to participate you must to be familiar with using a computer for purposes such as sending email and searching the Internet. You will also need regular access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.