This Art Historian Teaches FBI Agents And Surgeons How To See

In her new book, Amy Herman shows how art can help people fine-tune their visual perception and improve at work.

Amy Herman teaches people how to see. Her tools of choice are famous artworks from major art institutions all over the world. Her typical pupils? Cops, FBI officers, medical students, and first responders.


Herman teaches a class, Art of Perception, that helps people fine-tune their observational skills–which often prove critical in, say, solving a crime or conducting open heart surgery. She started offering course in the early 2000s while she was the head of The Frick Collection in New York City–first to medical students, and then to NYPD. Since then, she’s expanded it for an array of different professions–anything from IT technicians to architects–and has given a popular TED talk on the subject.

This month, her book Visual Intelligence–a fascinating narrative that merges scientific research, anecdotes and practical how-to–reveals her strategies for anyone and everyone to use.

Art, Herman says, is the perfect medium for teaching people to sharpen their visual perception. Most people who take her classes don’t have a formal art education, or even visit museums regularly. In fact, it’s often easier if they don’t come in with former knowledge, biases, or preconceived notions. “Ninety-nine percent of people who are taking these classes have not studied art professionally, but they don’t need to have a subtext or prior knowledge or art: it’s a complete set of data,” she says. “I believe when you change your environment and when you change what you’re looking at, when you go back to your field you have cleaner lenses.”

She doesn’t ask her pupils to talk about brush stroke, palette, or historical context, and she doesn’t compare artists to one another. She merely asks her students to observe the paintings and then articulate what they see. She teaches them to notice the details that are hidden in plain sight and pick up on subtle contextual clues. The pieces she choses are tailored to her audience, but the methodology always stays the same.

A sample exercise from her class goes a bit like this. Take a long look at pop artist James Ronquist’s 1981 painting House on Fire. The painting includes three panels, each with its own seemingly unrelated subjects–a grocery bag, a red bucket and lipstick–but there is a strong thread of color throughout. Come up with a cohesive narrative to describe the painting. You need to describe the painting in objective terms, and with clarity and precision.

Depending on the class, the attendees will either describe the answer verbally or write it down (for intelligence agents, for example, Herman usually assigns writing projects to practice for writing highly detailed case reports). Herman stresses that she’s not looking for an interpretation of the artwork, but an objective work of what you see–a woman holding a piece of fruit, maybe, or a mahogany table–and the more details the better. “People will say they don’t ‘get modern art,” she says. “Well the truth is I don’t care if you ‘get’ modern art or not. Can you talk about what you see in it?”


Herman’s classes vary based on who she is teaching and the dialogue she hopes to inspire. For people who aren’t used to art, she starts with portraits, because she finds that it’s easy for people to describe other people. The Rembrandt and the Old Masters portraits she was surrounded by when she worked at The Frick are good for that. Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly are great for office workers who want to practice their communication. “I use abstract art a lot because how many times do you have to talk about abstract concepts in the workplace? The ability to communicate abstractly is a hard skill. We practice by describing abstract works of art.”

Though the class was designed to teach professionals to be better at their jobs, Herman says that many came back to her and described how the skills she taught them were helping them become more observant in their day-to-day life, talking to their children, for example, or their partner. “The book draws the distinction between seeing and observing, but there’s an analogous distinction between hearing and listening and these are everyday life skills,” she says. “We have to think about situational awareness; we have to think about where we are and what’s happening. Those skills are not just used for your professions, they’re used in so many different ways and the ability to observe rather than see and communicate clearly can be used in your personal life as much as in your professional life.”


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.