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Visual Analysis Guidelines


Medium; techniques, size. How do these affect the style?

Scale of figures relative to the total object. Does this suggest something about the relative importance of figures?

Treatment of the human body (or animal body; or drapery; etc.). Naturalistic? Schematized or abstracted? Idealized? Note proportions. Is it a portrait? What is the attitude towards the person/animal?

Composition. How is it organized? Is there a focal point? Is the composition unified? Fragmented? Does color affect the composition? Hierarchy? Symmetry? Many or few forms included? Geometrically ordered or free and seemingly accidental? Crowdedness or spaciousness? Variety or repetition? Does the composition help to direct viewers’ attention: in what way and how?

Space . How is it handled—essentially two-dimensionally or three-dimensionally? Shallow or deep? Open or screened off? What kind of perspective used? Atmospheric; one-point; worm’s eye, bird’s eye? Is space suggested by planes in depth or by recession? What is relation of “shape” of space to picture plane? How does the handling of space affect the relationship of the image to viewers?

Brushstroke . Painterly or linear? Tight or free? Emphasis on the boundaries (edges) of objects? Or do they appear to merge with adjacent forms? Are lines used at all? What effect does this have on the image?

Color . Bright or subdued? Many or few? Any one(s) dominant? Warm or cool? Recede or push forward? Complementary colors juxtaposed? To what effect?

Light. Is there a consistent source? Inside or outside the picture? Strong or muted contrasts (“spot-light-lighting”)? Shadows used? What is the function of shadow (e.g., to clarify form or space, or to emphasize a mood)?

Function . If you know the work’s function you can consider the relationship between its purpose and appearance. How have the style and subject of the image been shaped or influenced by its original function?

Remember always that you must be able to justify your conclusions by observations that can be checked by others. Avoid “reading into the picture” qualities which really come from your own attitudes, convictions or sympathies. Distinguish between the given “data” and your own associations. Consider alternate choices that the artist might have made and how these might have affected the character of the work. 


Note: Note the difference between sculpture and sculptor.

Medium; technique; size . How do these affect the style? Is it done in a positive or negative technique (do you was it “build it built up,” as with clay and plaster, or carved it away, as with wood and stone)? Does the sculptor wish you to be conscious of the medium (can you see chisel marks in the stone or wood, or sense the modeled clay in the bronze), or does s/he wish you to “see” the material as something else (e.g., did the artist intend for you to see the marble as having the material qualities of drapery: soft, flowing, etc.?).

Treatment of the human body. See the questions asked above in “Pictures will Answer…” Also consider the scale of the sculpture relative to the viewer as s/he confronts the sculpture.

Composition. In addition to the questions raised in “Pictures will Answer…,” consider the following: do we know where the sculpture was originally located? From what vantage point was the image to be viewed – from below? from the front? Is there a main view? Could the viewer walk entirely around the object? Did the sculptor plan for it to be viewed from all sides?

Space . How does the sculpture relate to the space around it? Does it reach out into it, look or gesture outwards? Or is it self-contained and removed from the viewer’s space? What is the shape of the space, and does it progress or have implied movement (does it spiral upwards or outwards, does a group seem to move from left to right, etc.)? Does the sculpture actually move? Or actually change color or compositions? Does the sculpture seem restricted by the original shape of the material from which it was carved (e.g., has it retained the shape of the tree trunk or the cubic block of stone)? Are the figures fully freed from the material, or are they still attached?

Color and Lighting . Was the sculpture originally painted? Has the sculptor created coloristic effects through contrasting shadows and highlights that play on the actual sculpture? Are there deeply cut areas that create deep shadows? Are the figures modeled vigorously, creating a play of darks and lights, or modeled very smoothly? If we know the original location, did the sculptor take into consideration the lighting of that space?

Function and meaning. What was its purpose? How has the style and subject of the image been affected by its original function? 


Materials and Construction . What materials used in construction? Is the building trabeated (post and lintel system) or vaulted (arcuated)? Is it human in scale and design?

Composition of Plan. What are the overall characteristics of the plan: symmetrical or asymmetrical, organized or organic, compact or sprawling, axial or bilaterally symmetrical, geometrical? Does the architect direct you along a clear path through a sequence of rooms?

Style . Are the classical Orders used (which)? If so, are classical principles adhered to, or are they altered? Is it a revival of a classical style, or a purposeful distortion of the classical style? Does the building make no reference to the classical past? Why?

Site . How does the structure relate to the site? Is it harmonious with nature, or does it ignore the natural topography? Is it essentially long and horizontal, or tall and vertical?

Temporal Element . How do you approach the structure, immediately, or are you forced to make a slow and indirect approach? Has the architecture manipulated your first view of the structure it? Are you meant to experience the structure as a sequence of spaces? If so, how are these spaces related to each other (e.g., do you move through increasingly smaller and darker spaces; or do you go from a compressed space into an enormous space)?

Proportions. Was the architect concerned with perfect proportions? Was any mathematical system used to determine the height of columns, width, etc.? If so, what was the source for such an idea? Why was this important to the architect or patron?

Facade. Is there a focal point on the exterior of the building? Where? How does the architect indicate it? How is the facade composed (symmetrical, balanced, geometrically arranged, etc.)? Strong contrast of lights and darks, or relatively homogeneous surface? Use of sculpture, mosaics, painting, stained or unstained glass, colored patterns of stones/bricks? Is the appearance heavy and earthbound (why? what creates this effect?), or light and soaring (why?)? Does the architect wish it to appear substantial/insubstantial? How is this effect created? Is the structural system clearly articulated, or masked?

Interior . Does the exterior anticipate the interior, or are you surprised? If they contrast, how are they different and why? What are the sources for the lighting? Is it well-lit or dark? Why? What is the “shape” of the interior space (high and soaring, billowing, horizontal zoom, etc.)? Is the structural system visible or masked? Why? What are the structural methods used to create the building? Is it on more than one level?

Function. Why was the structure built? How was it used? Does the exterior declare its function? How? How does the interior respond to its function? Are there interior and/or exterior images or decoration which reflect the function? Is there figural decoration (why/why not)? What kind of subjects are included? Who (or what group) commissioned the work? What controls did they exercise?

Alterations . Is the structure in its original form, or are there additions and alterations? Was it completed as the architect originally planned? Was it built over a period of time with several builders? Is there a stylistic change from the earlier parts to the later? Was it planned carefully “on paper” before construction began?

Art History Department Contact



Skidmore College Filene Building 815 North Broadway Saratoga Springs, NY 12866

DEPARTMENT CHAIR: Saleema Waraich Telephone: (518) 580-8415 Office: 111


See Prof. Waraich for: signature on study abroad forms, major/minor forms, and AP credit.

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Art History

What this handout is about.

This handout discusses a few common assignments found in art history courses. To help you better understand those assignments, this handout highlights key strategies for approaching and analyzing visual materials.

Writing in art history

Evaluating and writing about visual material uses many of the same analytical skills that you have learned from other fields, such as history or literature. In art history, however, you will be asked to gather your evidence from close observations of objects or images. Beyond painting, photography, and sculpture, you may be asked to write about posters, illustrations, coins, and other materials.

Even though art historians study a wide range of materials, there are a few prevalent assignments that show up throughout the field. Some of these assignments (and the writing strategies used to tackle them) are also used in other disciplines. In fact, you may use some of the approaches below to write about visual sources in classics, anthropology, and religious studies, to name a few examples.

This handout describes three basic assignment types and explains how you might approach writing for your art history class.Your assignment prompt can often be an important step in understanding your course’s approach to visual materials and meeting its specific expectations. Start by reading the prompt carefully, and see our handout on understanding assignments for some tips and tricks.

Three types of assignments are discussed below:

1. Visual analysis essays

Visual analysis essays often consist of two components. First, they include a thorough description of the selected object or image based on your observations. This description will serve as your “evidence” moving forward. Second, they include an interpretation or argument that is built on and defended by this visual evidence.

Formal analysis is one of the primary ways to develop your observations. Performing a formal analysis requires describing the “formal” qualities of the object or image that you are describing (“formal” here means “related to the form of the image,” not “fancy” or “please, wear a tuxedo”). Formal elements include everything from the overall composition to the use of line, color, and shape. This process often involves careful observations and critical questions about what you see.

Pre-writing: observations and note-taking

To assist you in this process, the chart below categorizes some of the most common formal elements. It also provides a few questions to get you thinking.

Let’s try this out with an example. You’ve been asked to write a formal analysis of the painting, George Morland’s Pigs and Piglets in a Sty , ca. 1800 (created in Britain and now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond).

An oil painting of two pigs with piglets in a sty.

What do you notice when you see this image? First, you might observe that this is a painting. Next, you might ask yourself some of the following questions: what kind of paint was used, and what was it painted on? How has the artist applied the paint? What does the scene depict, and what kinds of figures (an art-historical term that generally refers to humans) or animals are present? What makes these animals similar or different? How are they arranged? What colors are used in this painting? Are there any colors that pop out or contrast with the others? What might the artist have been trying to accomplish by adding certain details?

What other questions come to mind while examining this work? What kinds of topics come up in class when you discuss paintings like this one? Consider using your class experiences as a model for your own description! This process can be lengthy, so expect to spend some time observing the artwork and brainstorming.

Here is an example of some of the notes one might take while viewing Morland’s Pigs and Piglets in a Sty :


Because these observations can be difficult to notice by simply looking at a painting, art history instructors sometimes encourage students to sketch the work that they’re describing. The image below shows how a sketch can reveal important details about the composition and shapes.

An oil painting of two pigs with piglets in a sty demarcating large compositional elements in different colors.

Writing: developing an interpretation

Once you have your descriptive information ready, you can begin to think critically about what the information in your notes might imply. What are the effects of the formal elements? How do these elements influence your interpretation of the object?

Your interpretation does not need to be earth-shatteringly innovative, but it should put forward an argument with which someone else could reasonably disagree. In other words, you should work on developing a strong analytical thesis about the meaning, significance, or effect of the visual material that you’ve described. For more help in crafting a strong argument, see our Thesis Statements handout .

For example, based on the notes above, you might draft the following thesis statement:

In Morland’s Pigs and Piglets in a Sty, the close proximity of the pigs to each other–evident in the way Morland has overlapped the pigs’ bodies and grouped them together into a gently sloping mound–and the soft atmosphere that surrounds them hints at the tranquility of their humble farm lives.

Or, you could make an argument about one specific formal element:

In Morland’s Pigs and Piglets in a Sty, the sharp contrast between rectilinear, often vertical, shapes and circular masses focuses viewers’ attention on the pigs, who seem undisturbed by their enclosure.

Support your claims

Your thesis statement should be defended by directly referencing the formal elements of the artwork. Try writing with enough specificity that someone who has not seen the work could imagine what it looks like. If you are struggling to find a certain term, try using this online art dictionary: Tate’s Glossary of Art Terms .

Your body paragraphs should explain how the elements work together to create an overall effect. Avoid listing the elements. Instead, explain how they support your analysis.

As an example, the following body paragraph illustrates this process using Morland’s painting:

Morland achieves tranquility not only by grouping animals closely but also by using light and shadow carefully. Light streams into the foreground through an overcast sky, in effect dappling the pigs and the greenery that encircles them while cloaking much of the surrounding scene. Diffuse and soft, the light creates gentle gradations of tone across pigs’ bodies rather than sharp contrasts of highlights and shadows. By modulating the light in such subtle ways, Morland evokes a quiet, even contemplative mood that matches the restful faces of the napping pigs.

This example paragraph follows the 5-step process outlined in our handout on paragraphs . The paragraph begins by stating the main idea, in this case that the artist creates a tranquil scene through the use of light and shadow. The following two sentences provide evidence for that idea. Because art historians value sophisticated descriptions, these sentences include evocative verbs (e.g., “streams,” “dappling,” “encircles”) and adjectives (e.g., “overcast,” “diffuse,” “sharp”) to create a mental picture of the artwork in readers’ minds. The last sentence ties these observations together to make a larger point about the relationship between formal elements and subject matter.

There are usually different arguments that you could make by looking at the same image. You might even find a way to combine these statements!

Remember, however you interpret the visual material (for example, that the shapes draw viewers’ attention to the pigs), the interpretation needs to be logically supported by an observation (the contrast between rectangular and circular shapes). Once you have an argument, consider the significance of these statements. Why does it matter if this painting hints at the tranquility of farm life? Why might the artist have tried to achieve this effect? Briefly discussing why these arguments matter in your thesis can help readers understand the overall significance of your claims. This step may even lead you to delve deeper into recurring themes or topics from class.

Tread lightly

Avoid generalizing about art as a whole, and be cautious about making claims that sound like universal truths. If you find yourself about to say something like “across cultures, blue symbolizes despair,” pause to consider the statement. Would all people, everywhere, from the beginning of human history to the present agree? How do you know? If you find yourself stating that “art has meaning,” consider how you could explain what you see as the specific meaning of the artwork.

Double-check your prompt. Do you need secondary sources to write your paper? Most visual analysis essays in art history will not require secondary sources to write the paper. Rely instead on your close observation of the image or object to inform your analysis and use your knowledge from class to support your argument. Are you being asked to use the same methods to analyze objects as you would for paintings? Be sure to follow the approaches discussed in class.

Some classes may use “description,” “formal analysis” and “visual analysis” as synonyms, but others will not. Typically, a visual analysis essay may ask you to consider how form relates to the social, economic, or political context in which these visual materials were made or exhibited, whereas a formal analysis essay may ask you to make an argument solely about form itself. If your prompt does ask you to consider contextual aspects, and you don’t feel like you can address them based on knowledge from the course, consider reading the section on research papers for further guidance.

2. Comparison essays

Comparison essays often require you to follow the same general process outlined in the preceding sections. The primary difference, of course, is that they ask you to deal with more than one visual source. These assignments usually focus on how the formal elements of two artworks compare and contrast with each other. Resist the urge to turn the essay into a list of similarities and differences.

Comparison essays differ in another important way. Because they typically ask you to connect the visual materials in some way or to explain the significance of the comparison itself, they may require that you comment on the context in which the art was created or displayed.

For example, you might have been asked to write a comparative analysis of the painting discussed in the previous section, George Morland’s Pigs and Piglets in a Sty (ca. 1800), and an unknown Vicús artist’s Bottle in the Form of a Pig (ca. 200 BCE–600 CE). Both works are illustrated below.

An oil painting of two pigs with piglets in a sty for comparison with the image of a bottle in the form of a pig.

You can begin this kind of essay with the same process of observations and note-taking outlined above for formal analysis essays. Consider using the same questions and categories to get yourself started.

Here are some questions you might ask:

As our handout on comparing and contrasting suggests, you can organize these thoughts into a Venn diagram or a chart to help keep the answers to these questions distinct.

For example, some notes on these two artworks have been organized into a chart:

As you determine points of comparison, think about the themes that you have discussed in class. You might consider whether the artworks display similar topics or themes. If both artworks include the same subject matter, for example, how does that similarity contribute to the significance of the comparison? How do these artworks relate to the periods or cultures in which they were produced, and what do those relationships suggest about the comparison? The answers to these questions can typically be informed by your knowledge from class lectures. How have your instructors framed the introduction of individual works in class? What aspects of society or culture have they emphasized to explain why specific formal elements were included or excluded? Once you answer your questions, you might notice that some observations are more important than others.

Writing: developing an interpretation that considers both sources

When drafting your thesis, go beyond simply stating your topic. A statement that says “these representations of pig-like animals have some similarities and differences” doesn’t tell your reader what you will argue in your essay.

To say more, based on the notes in the chart above, you might write the following thesis statement:

Although both artworks depict pig-like animals, they rely on different methods of representing the natural world.

Now you have a place to start. Next, you can say more about your analysis. Ask yourself: “so what?” Why does it matter that these two artworks depict pig-like animals? You might want to return to your class notes at this point. Why did your instructor have you analyze these two works in particular? How does the comparison relate to what you have already discussed in class? Remember, comparison essays will typically ask you to think beyond formal analysis.

While the comparison of a similar subject matter (pig-like animals) may influence your initial argument, you may find that other points of comparison (e.g., the context in which the objects were displayed) allow you to more fully address the matter of significance. Thinking about the comparison in this way, you can write a more complex thesis that answers the “so what?” question. If your class has discussed how artists use animals to comment on their social context, for example, you might explore the symbolic importance of these pig-like animals in nineteenth-century British culture and in first-millenium Vicús culture. What political, social, or religious meanings could these objects have generated? If you find yourself needing to do outside research, look over the final section on research papers below!

Supporting paragraphs

The rest of your comparison essay should address the points raised in your thesis in an organized manner. While you could try several approaches, the two most common organizational tactics are discussing the material “subject-by-subject” and “point-by-point.”

As our use of “pig-like” in this section indicates, titles can be misleading. Many titles are assigned by curators and collectors, in some cases years after the object was produced. While the ceramic vessel is titled Bottle in the Form of a Pig , the date and location suggest it may depict a peccary, a pig-like species indigenous to Peru. As you gather information about your objects, think critically about things like titles and dates. Who assigned the title of the work? If it was someone other than the artist, why might they have given it that title? Don’t always take information like titles and dates at face value.

Be cautious about considering contextual elements not immediately apparent from viewing the objects themselves unless you are explicitly asked to do so (try referring back to the prompt or assignment description; it will often describe the expectation of outside research). You may be able to note that the artworks were created during different periods, in different places, with different functions. Even so, avoid making broad assumptions based on those observations. While commenting on these topics may only require some inference or notes from class, if your argument demands a large amount of outside research, you may be writing a different kind of paper. If so, check out the next section!

3. Research papers

Some assignments in art history ask you to do outside research (i.e., beyond both formal analysis and lecture materials). These writing assignments may ask you to contextualize the visual materials that you are discussing, or they may ask you to explore your material through certain theoretical approaches. More specifically, you may be asked to look at the object’s relationship to ideas about identity, politics, culture, and artistic production during the period in which the work was made or displayed. All of these factors require you to synthesize scholars’ arguments about the materials that you are analyzing. In many cases, you may find little to no research on your specific object. When facing this situation, consider how you can apply scholars’ insights about related materials and the period broadly to your object to form an argument. While we cannot cover all the possibilities here, we’ll highlight a few factors that your instructor may task you with investigating.


Papers that ask you to consider iconography may require research on the symbolic role or significance of particular symbols (gestures, objects, etc.). For example, you may need to do some research to understand how pig-like animals are typically represented by the cultural group that made this bottle, the Vicús culture. For the same paper, you would likely research other symbols, notably the bird that forms part of the bottle’s handle, to understand how they relate to one another. This process may involve figuring out how these elements are presented in other artworks and what they mean more broadly.

Artistic style and stylistic period

You may also be asked to compare your object or painting to a particular stylistic category. To determine the typical traits of a style, you may need to hit the library. For example, which period style or stylistic trend does Moreland’s Pigs and Piglets in a Sty belong to? How well does the piece “fit” that particular style? Especially for works that depict the same or similar topics, how might their different styles affect your interpretation? Assignments that ask you to consider style as a factor may require that you do some research on larger historical or cultural trends that influenced the development of a particular style.

Provenance research asks you to find out about the “life” of the object itself. This research can include the circumstances surrounding the work’s production and its later ownership. For the two works discussed in this handout, you might research where these objects were originally displayed and how they ended up in the museum collections in which they now reside. What kind of argument could you develop with this information? For example, you might begin by considering that many bottles and jars resembling the Bottle in the Form of a Pig can be found in various collections of Pre-Columbian art around the world. Where do these objects originate? Do they come from the same community or region?

Patronage study

Prompts that ask you to discuss patronage might ask you to think about how, when, where, and why the patron (the person who commissions or buys the artwork or who supports the artist) acquired the object from the artist. The assignment may ask you to comment on the artist-patron relationship, how the work fit into a broader series of commissions, and why patrons chose particular artists or even particular subjects.

Additional resources

To look up recent articles, ask your librarian about the Art Index, RILA, BHA, and Avery Index. Check out www.lib.unc.edu/art/index.html for further information!

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Adams, Laurie Schneider. 2003. Looking at Art . Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Barnet, Sylvan. 2015. A Short Guide to Writing about Art , 11th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Tate Galleries. n.d. “Art Terms.” Accessed November 1, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms .

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Art History Resources

Guidelines for analysis of art.

Knowing how to write a formal analysis of a work of art is a fundamental skill learned in an art appreciation-level class. Students in art history survey and upper-level classes further develop this skill. Use this sheet as a guide when writing a formal analysis paper. Consider the following when analyzing a work of art. Not everything applies to every work of art, nor is it always useful to consider things in the order given. In any analysis, keep in mind: HOW and WHY is this a significant work of art?

Part I – General Information

Part II – Brief Description

In a few sentences describe the work. What does it look like? Is it a representation of something? Tell what is shown. Is it an abstraction of something? Tell what the subject is and what aspects are emphasized. Is it a non-objective work? Tell what elements are dominant. This section is not an analysis of the work yet, though some terms used in Part III might be used here. This section is primarily a few sentences to give the reader a sense of what the work looks like.

Part III – Form

This is the key part of your paper. It should be the longest section of the paper. Be sure and think about whether the work of art selected is a two-dimensional or three-dimensional work.

Art Elements

Principles of Design

Part IV – Opinions and Conclusions

This is the part of the paper where you go beyond description and offer a conclusion and your own informed opinion about the work. Any statements you make about the work should be based on the analysis in Part III above.

General Suggestions

Further Information

For further information and more discussions about writing a formal analysis, see the following sources. Some of these sources also give information about writing a research paper in art history – a paper more ambitious in scope than a formal analysis.

M. Getlein, Gilbert’s Living with Art (10th edition, 2013), pp. 136-139 is a very short analysis of one work.

M. Stokstad and M. W. Cothren, Art History (5th edition, 2014), “Starter Kit,” pp. xxii-xxv is a brief outline.

S. Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art (9th edition, 2008), pp. 113-134 is about formal analysis; the entire book is excellent for all kinds of writing assignments.

R. J. Belton, Art History: A Preliminary Handbook http://www.ubc.ca/okanagan/fccs/about/links/resources/arthistory.html is probably more useful for a research paper in art history, but parts of this outline relate to discussing the form of a work of art.


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Visual Analysis: How to Analyze a Painting and Write an Essay

how to write a visual analysis art history

A visual analysis essay is an entry-level essay sometimes taught in high school and early university courses. Both communications and art history students use visual analysis to understand art and other visual messages. In our article, we will define the term and give an in-depth guide on how to look at a piece of art and write a visual analysis essay. Stay tuned until the end for a handy visual analysis essay example from our graduate paper writing service .

What Is Visual Analysis?

Visual analysis is the process of looking at a piece of visual art (painting, photography, film, etc.) and dissecting it for the artist’s intended meaning and means of execution. In some cases, works are also analyzed for historical significance and their impact on culture, art, politics, and the social consciousness of the time. This article will teach you how to perform a formal analysis of art.

Need Help With Your Visual Analysis?

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A visual analysis essay is a type of essay written mostly by students majoring in Art History and Communications. The process of visual analysis can be applied to painting, visual art, journalism, photo-journalism, photography, film, and writing. Works in these mediums are often meant to be consumed for entertainment or informative purposes. Visual analysis goes beyond that, focusing on form, themes, execution, and the compositional elements that make up the work.

Classical paintings are a common topic for a visual analysis essay because of their depth and historical significance. Take the famous Raphael painting Transfiguration. At first glance, it is an attractive image showing a famous scene from the Bible. But a more in-depth look reveals practical painting techniques, relationships between figures, heavy symbolism, and a remarkable choice of colors by the talented Raphael. This deeper look at a painting, a photograph, visual or written art is the process of visual analysis.

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Formal Analysis of Art: Who Does It?

Most people who face visual analysis essays are Communication, English, and Art History students. Communications students explore mediums such as theater, print media, news, films, photos — basically anything. Comm is basically a giant, all-encompassing major where visual analysis is synonymous with Tuesday.

Art History students study the world of art to understand how it developed. They do visual analysis with every painting they look it at and discuss it in class.

English Literature students perform visual analysis too. Every writer paints an image in the head of their reader. This image, like a painting, can be clear, or purposefully unclear. It can be factual, to the point, or emotional and abstract like Ulysses, challenging you to search your emotions rather than facts and realities.

How to Conduct Visual Analysis: What to Look For

Whether you study journalism or art, writing a visual analysis essay will be a frequent challenge on your academic journey. The primary principles can be learned and applied to any medium, regardless of whether it’s photography or painting.

For the sake of clarity, we’ve chosen to talk about painting, the most common medium for the formal analysis of art.


In analyzing a painting, there are a few essential points that the writer must know.

Familiarizing yourself with these essential points will give you all the information and context, you need to write a good visual analysis essay.

But visual analysis can go deeper than that — especially when dealing with historic pieces of visual art. Students explore different angles of interpretation, the interplay of colors and themes, how the piece was made and various reactions, and critiques of it. Let’s dig deeper.

A Detailed Process of Analyzing Visual Art

Performing a formal analysis of art is a fundamental skill taught at entry-level art history classes. Students who study art or communications further develop this skill through the years. Not all types of analysis apply to every work of art; every art piece is unique. When performing visual analysis, it’s essential to keep in mind why this particular work of art is important in its own way.

analyze visual art

Step 1: General Info

To begin, identify the following necessary information on the work of art and the artist.

Step 2: Describe the Painting

Next, describe what the painting depicts or represents. This section will be like an abstract, summarizing all the visible aspects of the piece, painting the image in the reader’s mind. Here are the dominant features to look for in a painting:

Step 3: Detailed Analysis

The largest chunk of your paper will focus on a detailed visual analysis of the work. This is where you go past the basics and look at the art elements and the principles of design of the work.

Art elements deal mostly with the artist’s intricate painting techniques and basics of composition.

Design principles look at the painting from a broader perspective; how the art elements are used to create a rounded experience from an artistic and a thematic perspective.

Seeing as each work of art is unique, be thoughtful in which art elements and design principles you wish to discuss in your essay. Visual analysis does not limit itself to painting and can also be applied to mediums like photography.

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The Structure: How to Write a Visual Analysis Paper

It’s safe to use the five-paragraph essay structure for your visual analysis essay. If you are looking at a painting, take the most important aspects of it that stand out to you and discuss them in relation to your thesis. Structure it with the simple essay structure:

Introduction: An introduction to a visual analysis essay serves to give basic information on the work of art and briefly summarize the points of discussion.

Thesis: In your thesis, state the points of analysis on this work of art which you will discuss in your essay.

Body: Explore the work of art and all of its aspects in detail. Refer to the section above titled “A Detailed Process of Analyzing Visual Art,” which will comprise most of your essay’s body.

Conclusion: After you’ve thoroughly analyzed the painting and the artist’s techniques, give your thoughts and opinions on the work. Your observations should be based on the points of analysis in your essay. Discuss how the art elements and design principles of the artist give the painting meaning and support your observations with facts from your essay.

Citation: Standard citation rules apply to these essays. Use in-text citations when quoting a book, website, journal, or a movie, and include a sources cited page listing your sources. And there’s no need to worry about how to cite a piece of art throughout the text. Explain thoroughly what work of art you’re analyzing in your introduction, and refer to it by name in the body of your essay like this — Transfiguration by Raphael.

how to write a visual analysis art history

Learn From a Visual Analysis Example

Many YouTube videos are analyzing famous paintings like the Death of Socrates, which can be a great art analysis example to go by. But the best way to understand the format and presentation is by looking at a painting analysis essay example done by a scholarly writer. One of our writers has penned an outstanding piece on Leonardo Da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière, which you may find below. Use it as a reference point for your visual analysis essay, and you can’t go wrong!

Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian artist born in April 1452 and died in May 1519who lived in the Renaissance era. His fame and popularity were based on his painting sand contribution to the Italian artwork. Leonardo was also an active inventor, a vibrant musician, writer, and scientist as well as a talented sculptor amongst other fields. His various career fields proved that he wanted to know everything about nature. In the book “Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance” by Alessandro Vezzosi, it is argued that Leonardo was one of the most successful and versatile artists and anatomists of the Italian renaissance based on his unique artwork and paintings (Vezzosi, p1454). Some of his groundbreaking research in medicine, metal-casting, natural science, architecture, and weaponry amongst other fields have been explored in the book. He was doing all these in the renaissance period in Italy from the 1470s till his death.

Visual analysis essays will appear early in your communications and art history degrees. Learning how to formally analyze art is an essential skill, whether you intend to pursue a career in art or communications.

Before diving into analysis, get a solid historical background on the painter and their life. Analyzing a painting isn’t mere entertainment; one must pay attention to intricate details which the painter might have hidden from plain sight.

We live in an environment saturated by digital media. By gaining the skill of visual analysis, you will not only heighten your appreciation of the arts but be able to thoroughly analyze the media messages you face in your daily life.

Also, don't forget to read summary of Lord of the Flies , and the article about Beowulf characters .

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This article was co-authored by Veronica Winters and by wikiHow staff writer, Jessica Gibson . Veronica Winters is a Figurative Artist who owns an online art gallery and studio in Naples, Florida. With over 20 years of experience, Veronica specializes in surreal figurative oil paintings and colored pencil drawings. In 2022, she won the Award for Distinction at the 30th Annual Colored Pencil Society of America International Exhibition. Veronica is also a published author of two art books: How to Color Like an Artist and The Colored Pencil Manual. She received her BFA in Studio Art at Oklahoma State University and her MFA in Painting at Pennsylvania State University. Veronica also studied classical drawing at the Grand Central Academy of Art and the Art Students League of New York. This article has been viewed 2,475 times.

If you're taking an art history class, a visual analysis assignment might seem overwhelming. Fortunately, a visual analysis is basically just a description of what you see in a piece of art. It's really important that you don't rush yourself when you observe the piece since really detailed descriptions will help you explain how you feel about the work. You don't need to do research about the artist or the piece in order to make an effective visual analysis, although you might do that for a formal interpretive paper.


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Interpretation and Analysis

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Formal Analysis Paper

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How to analyze an artwork: a step-by-step guide

Last Updated on May 27, 2021

This article has been written for high school art students who are working upon a critical study of art, sketchbook annotation or an essay-based artist study. It contains a list of questions to guide students through the process of analyzing visual material of any kind, including drawing, painting, mixed media, graphic design, sculpture, printmaking, architecture, photography, textiles, fashion and so on (the word ‘artwork’ in this article is all-encompassing). The questions include a wide range of specialist art terms, prompting students to use subject-specific vocabulary in their responses. It combines advice from art analysis textbooks as well as from high school art teachers who have first-hand experience teaching these concepts to students.

COPYRIGHT NOTE: This material is available as a printable art analysis PDF handout . This may be used free of charge in a classroom situation. To share this material with others, please use the social media buttons at the bottom of this page. Copying, sharing, uploading or distributing this article (or the PDF) in any other way is not permitted.

how to write a visual analysis art history

Why do we study art?

Almost all high school art students carry out critical analysis of artist work, in conjunction with creating practical work. Looking critically at the work of others allows students to understand compositional devices and then explore these in their own art. This is one of the best ways for students to learn.

Instructors who assign formal analyses want you to look—and look carefully. Think of the object as a series of decisions that an artist made. Your job is to figure out and describe, explain, and interpret those decisions and why the artist may have made them. – The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  10

Art analysis tips

Although description is an important part of a formal analysis, description is not enough on its own. You must introduce and contextualize your descriptions of the formal elements of the work so the reader understands how each element influences the work’s overall effect on the viewer. – Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art 2
Making sketches or drawings from works of art is the traditional, centuries-old way that artists have learned from each other. In doing this, you will engage with a work and an artist’s approach even if you previously knew nothing about it. If possible do this whenever you can, not from a postcard, the internet or a picture in a book, but from the actual work itself. This is useful because it forces you to look closely at the work and to consider elements you might not have noticed before. – Susie Hodge, How to Look at Art 7

Finally, when writing about art, students should communicate with clarity; demonstrate subject-specific knowledge; use correct terminology; generate personal responses; and reference all content and ideas sourced from others. This is explained in more detail in our article about high school sketchbooks .

What should students write about?

Although each aspect of composition is treated separately in the questions below, students should consider the relationship between visual elements (line, shape, form, value/tone, color/hue, texture/surface, space) and how these interact to form design principles (such as unity, variety, emphasis, dominance, balance, symmetry, harmony, movement, contrast, rhythm, pattern, scale, proportion) to communicate meaning.

As complex as works of art typically are, there are really only three general categories of statements one can make about them. A statement addresses form, content or context (or their various interrelations). – Dr. Robert J. Belton, Art History: A Preliminary Handbook, The University of British Columbia 5
…a formal analysis – the result of looking closely – is an analysis of the form that the artist produces; that is, an analysis of the work of art, which is made up of such things as line, shape, color, texture, mass, composition. These things give the stone or canvas its form, its expression, its content, its meaning. – Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art 2

This video by Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Naraelle Hohensee provides an excellent example of how to analyse a piece of art (it is important to note that this video is an example of ‘formal analysis’ and doesn’t include contextual analysis, which is also required by many high school art examination boards, in addition to the formal analysis illustrated here):

Composition analysis: a list of questions

The questions below are designed to facilitate direct engagement with an artwork and to encourage a breadth and depth of understanding of the artwork studied. They are intended to prompt higher order thinking and to help students arrive at well-reasoned analysis.

It is not expected that students answer every question (doing so would result in responses that are excessively long, repetitious or formulaic); rather, students should focus upon areas that are most helpful and relevant for the artwork studied (for example, some questions are appropriate for analyzing a painting, but not a sculpture). The words provided as examples are intended to help students think about appropriate vocabulary to use when discussing a particular topic. Definitions of more complex words have been provided.

Students should not attempt to copy out questions and then answer them; rather the questions should be considered a starting point for writing bullet pointed annotation or sentences in paragraph form.

How to write art analysis


Subject matter / themes / issues / narratives / stories / ideas.

There can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same artwork. An artwork is not necessarily about what the artist wanted it to be about. – Terry Barrett, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary 6
Our interest in the painting grows only when we forget its title and take an interest in the things that it does not mention…” – Françoise Barbe-Gall, How to Look at a Painting 8
What do the clothing, furnishings, accessories (horses, swords, dogs, clocks, business ledgers and so forth), background, angle of the head or posture of the head and body, direction of the gaze, and facial expression contribute to our sense of the figure’s social identity (monarch, clergyman, trophy wife) and personality (intense, cool, inviting)? – Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art 2
If a waiter served you a whole fish and a scoop of chocolate ice cream on the same plate, your surprise might be caused by the juxtaposition , or the side-by-side contrast, of the two foods. – Vocabulary.com
A motif is an element in a composition or design that can be used repeatedly for decorative, structural, or iconographic purposes. A motif can be representational or abstract, and it can be endowed with symbolic meaning. Motifs can be repeated in multiple artworks and often recur throughout the life’s work of an individual artist. – John A. Parks, Universal Principles of Art 11
Parody: mimicking the appearance and/or manner of something or someone, but with a twist for comic effect or critical comment, as in Saturday Night Live’s political satires – Dr. Robert J. Belton, Art History: A Preliminary Handbook, The University of British Columbia 5
Allegory is a device whereby abstract ideas can be communicated using images of the concrete world. Elements, whether figures or objects, in a painting or sculpture are endowed with symbolic meaning. Their relationships and interactions combine to create more complex meanings. – John A. Parks, Universal Principles of Art 11
An iconography is a particular range or system of types of image used by an artist or artists to convey particular meanings. For example in Christian religious painting there is an iconography of images such as the lamb which represents Christ, or the dove which represents the Holy Spirit. – Tate.org.uk

Wider contexts

All art is in part about the world in which it emerged. – Terry Barrett, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary 6


Structure / layout

leading lines - composition

Shape and form

All shapes have silhouettes, and vision research has shown that one of the first tasks of perception is to be able to sort out the silhouette shapes of each of the elements in a scene. – James Gurney, Imaginative Realism 9
Ergonomics: an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely – Merriam-webster.com

Value / tone / light

One of the most important ways in which artists can use light to achieve particular effects is in making strong contrasts between light and dark. This contrast is often described as chiaroscuro . – Matthew Treherne, Analysing Paintings, University of Leeds 3

Color / hue

It is often said that warm colors (red, orange, yellow) come forward and produce a sense of excitement (yellow is said to suggest warmth and happiness, as in the smiley face), whereas cool colors (blue, green) recede and have a calming effect. Experiments, however, have proved inconclusive; the response to color – despite clichés about seeing red or feeling blue – is highly personal, highly cultural, highly varied. – Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art 2

Texture / surface / pattern

Use of media / materials

Finally, remember that these questions are a guide only and are intended to make you start to think critically about the art you are studying and creating.

How to analyse your own artwork

Further Reading

If you enjoyed this article you may also like our article about high school sketchbooks (which includes a section about sketchbook annotation). If you are looking for more assistance with how to write an art analysis essay you may like our series about writing an artist study .


Amiria Gale

Amiria has been an Art & Design teacher and a Curriculum Co-ordinator for seven years, responsible for the course design and assessment of student work in two high-achieving Auckland schools. She has a Bachelor of Architectural Studies, Bachelor of Architecture (First Class Honours) and a Graduate Diploma of Teaching. Amiria is a CIE Accredited Art & Design Coursework Assessor.

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