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How to Use Layers Thinking Routine to Analyse Artworks

How to Use Layers Thinking Routine to Analyse Artworks
Every month in the Visible Thinking Membership we have a specialist thinking routine class that gives us the opportunity to discover a new thinking routine or to dig a bit deeper into one we already know. For November, our members chose LAYERS. Here’s how we used layers thinking routine to analyse an artwork in an online group discussion via Zoom. ⁠

What is Layers?

Layers is a thinking routine that provides a structure for the analysis of creative works and to dig deeper into ideas. It can be used to approach or look at any creative work. By creative work, I mean fine artwork (sculpture, paintings, drawing, sketching, performance art), objects, dance, writing (literature), filmmaking and music.

5 Layers & 4 Elements

The thinking routine consists of 5 layers or frameworks through which you can look at your creative work:
  • Narrative
  • Aesthetic
  • Mechanical
  • Dynamic
  • Connections
Each layer consists of 4 possible elements for participants to seek out and identify in the work –
  • Narrative: The story, the back or pre story, the other or hidden story, the message
  • Aesthetic: The appeal (what pulls you in?), the reward or take away, the skill/mastery of the artist on display, the new/different/unusual
  • Mechanical: Technique, Form/structure, Methods, Symbolism
  • Dynamic: Surprise, Tension, Emotion and Movement
  • Connections: To other works (in and out of the medium/genre), to history, to yourself, to the artist’s other works or personal life

About Layers

It’s worth nothing that some of the layers may be more appropriate to use than others – it really depends on the kind of creative work that you’ve chosen. An essential part of the analysis involves selecting which layers the group is going to use for the discussion. This may mean rejecting an obvious layer and starting with one of the other more obscure layers.
If you’ve chosen an artwork, it’s always worth spending time looking closely at the artwork (e.g. Looking Ten Times Two) before you begin the process. This helps to warm up the group and to avoid hasty interpretations. It also means the entire group have a chance to fully observe before you start to analyse.
Analysis can be done individually, with a partner, or whole group. Although if you’re using this routine for the first time, it’s a good idea to work in groups so that participants have a shared experience using the layers together first.
MARTIN JOHNSON HEADE Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds, 1871, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Discussion

For this discussion, I used ‘Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds, 1871′ by Martin Johnson Heade. 
We started with two rounds of 5×2 – our shortened version of Looking Ten Times Two to get the group focused and ready for analysis. In the first round of observations, I gave the participants free rein to name and notice anything they wanted. In the second round, I asked them to make their observations as descriptive and creative as possible.
As we were working virtually via Zoom, I then created a poll asking two questions – the first asked them to think about which layer seemed the most prominent to them on first glance.
In this artwork, what layer immediately speaks to you? 
Interestingly, 50% chose Aesthetic, 17% Narrative, 17% Dynamic, 11 % Connections and 6% Mechanical as the most prominent layer for them personally. This question was followed by ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’ with the intention of asking for the evidence behind their choice. I then asked the group to think about which of the layers were the least prominent for them –
In this artwork, which layers seem more distant? 
And asked for the reasons behind their choice. Interestingly, for some it was a personal reason (not connecting with that layer or no experience of looking at art through that framework), or based on first impressions (that it didn’t jump out right away).
You could use these questions to work out collectively which of the 5 layers seem most appropriate and relevant to discuss. As 99% of this group were new to the thinking routine, I wanted them to cover all 5 layers this time. Therefore the next step involved randomly placing participants in 5 different Breakout Rooms to each discuss one of the layers. In future, I would probably select 2 or 3 of the layers to discuss in more detail rather than all 5.
Choosing all 5 layers meant that some of the group were going to be discussing the layer that they perhaps felt the least confident about, however, I did want our group of educators to step outside of their comfort zones a little bit and report back on how the experience felt afterwards. It was partly an exercise for these educators to ‘step into the shoes’ of their future group participants. It’s so useful for an educator to experience what a thinking routine art discussion feels like from the perspective of a participant!
The groups were each given a copy of the image and the thinking routine and were given 10 minutes to discuss ‘their’ layer in their small groups before reporting back to the group as a whole. Each group could select how many of the 4 elements of their layer they wanted to discuss. Interestingly, some groups focused on one or two elements and others went through each layer methodically.


Each group returned to the main meeting room and we discussed their findings. The discussions were very rich and full of detail – even in the groups where participants were less certain about the elements of their layer. Some groups (ie Technical) said they took a while to get going, but enjoyed being pushed out of their comfort zone and ultimately could’ve spoken for much longer than the allotted time.
All participants loved hearing the thoughts of others and agreed that the discussions worked well because new ideas were inspired continually by each other’s comments. As the groups were small, it made everyone feel comfortable and open to sharing.


  • Be creative in your use of creative work. Use music, writing, video and objects too.
  • You may want to introduce each layer at a time, so that the group gets used to the different layers together
  • Consider renaming some of the layers when introducing the routine for those not familiar with these terms or for those who feel less confident about discussing art.
  • You may want to select only one of the elements from each layer. Or have the group decide which element is the most interesting to discuss.
  • Vary the way you work –  individually, with a partner, or whole group.
  • Use the layers as a way of identifying questions you want to ask about the creative work!
  • Compare/Contrast – Use the layers to contrast 2 works to see how they relate to one another. Looking at both, where do you see connections as well as differences in terms of the layers?
Have you used Layers before? I’d love to hear how you’ve used it to analyse a creative work. Please share in the comments!

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