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 the following: HOW and WHY is this a significant work of art?
Part I – General Information
- In many cases, this information can be found on a label or in a gallery guidebook. There may be an artist’s statement available in the gallery. If so, indicate in your text or by a footnote or endnote to your paper where you got the information.
- Subject Matter (Who or What is Represented?)
- Artist or Architect (What person or group made it? Often this is not known. If there is a name, refer to this person as the artist or architect, not “author.” Refer to this person by their last name, not familiarly by their first name.)
- Date (When was it made? Is it a copy of something older? Was it made before or after other similar works?)
- Provenance (Where was it made? For whom? Is it typical of the art of a geographical area?)
- Location (Where is the work of art now? Where was it originally located? Does the viewer look up at it, or down at it? If it is not in its original location, does the viewer see it as the artist intended? Can it be seen on all sides, or just on one?)
- Technique and Medium (What materials is it made of? How was it executed? How big or small is it?)
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.
- Line (straight, curved, angular, flowing, horizontal, vertical, diagonal, contour, thick, thin, implied etc.)
- Shape (what shapes are created and how)
- Light and Value (source, flat, strong, contrasting, even, values, emphasis, shadows)
- Color (primary, secondary, mixed, complimentary, warm, cool, decorative, values)
- Texture and Pattern (real, implied, repeating)
- Space (depth, overlapping, kinds of perspective)
- Time and Motion
Principles of Design
- Unity and Variety
- Balance (symmetry, asymmetry)
- Emphasis and Subordination
- Scale and Proportion (weight, how objects or figures relate to each other and the setting)
- Mass/Volume (three-dimensional art)
- Function/Setting (architecture)
- Interior/Exterior Relationship (architecture)
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.
- In this section, discuss how and why the key elements and principles of art used by the artist create meaning.
- Support your discussion of content with facts about the work.
- Pay attention to the date the paper is due.
- Your instructor may have a list of “approved works” for you to write about, and you must be aware of when the UALR Galleries, or the Arkansas Arts Center Galleries, or other exhibition areas, are open to the public.
- You should allow time to view the work you plan to write about and take notes.
- Always italicize or underline titles of works of art. If the title is long, you must use the full title the first time you mention it, but may shorten the title for subsequent listings.
- Use the present tense in describing works of art.
- Be specific: don’t refer to a “picture” or “artwork” if “drawing” or “painting” or “photograph” is more exact.
- Remember that any information you use from another source, whether it be your textbook, a wall panel, a museum catalogue, a dictionary of art, the internet, must be documented with a footnote. Failure to do so is considered plagiarism, and violates the behavioral standards of the university. If you do not understand what plagiarism is, refer to this link at the UALR Copyright Central web site: http://www.ualr.edu/copyright/articles/?ID=4
- For proper footnote form, refer to the UALR Department of Art website, or to Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art, which is based on the Chicago Manual of Style. MLA style is not acceptable for papers in art history.
- Allow time to proofread your paper. Read it out loud and see if it makes sense. If you need help on the technical aspects of writing, use the University Writing Center (569-8343) or On-Line Writing Lab. http://ualr.edu/writingcenter/
- Ask your instructor for help if needed.
For further information and more discussions about writing a formal analysis, see the following. Some of these sources also give a lot of information about writing a research paper in art history, that is, 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 Handbookhttp://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.
Why the fear of writing essays:
Once students have produced an art and design essay they usually appreciate the effort they have made to really understand an artist and designer or a particular piece of work, but there are a few issues to consider before starting.
There are many reasons why art and design students may prefer not to write essays. Some compare the practice of writing with practical production and find that written work looks physically smaller and less significant. Others might not be able to see the impact and relevance to their practical work.
Most students focus on the length of the work and are daunted by the scale, such as 1,000+ words for a personal study in an art and design GCE. At the outset they find it difficult to break up the essay into manageable pieces and confront each as a bite size component. Being able to do this is a particular kind of study skill, which a lot of students haven’t had the chance to develop.
Breaking up the task into components:
Essays in art and design education can have different expectations, so the first thing you need to do is identify the components the essay is expected to cover. A typical essay for a GCE Art & Design Special Study is frequently set in order to provide students with an in depth view into an artist or designer’s work. Below is an outline of components that would support in depth analysis and articulation of viewpoints for an art and design essay on a single artist or designer:
- Details of the artist’s life and career
- A Picture of the work and other relevant pictures
- Reason for choosing the work
- Social/Cultural influences on the work
- Political influences on the work
- How a specific development in art may have affected the work
- Artistic influences on the work
- Quotations about the work by other writers and your opinions of them
- Visual analysis of the work
- Personal interpretation of the work
Variation in art and design essays:
It is important to realise that not all of the above elements will always have an impact on an art and design essay. It clearly depends on the artist or subject area.
For example, some artists and art movements are clearly impacted greatly by world politics. As such, you need to look at political influences on the work. Yet other artists are more affected by the economy and will need more exploration in relation to social and economic impacts on the work.
The outline provided, of components for essay writing, is flexible, which means that you need to have an overview of the components and be able to decide which elements should be included. If you go through the different sections above and reflect on how important they are, you will quickly be able to identify which ones you will need to include.
You could do this in mind-map form or just making a simple list. Try researching each of the sections in the library and online. Some will give much more information than others. This will help you determine the weight to give to each section.
Some essay topics will be set as a hypothesis, which is essentially a question format. The beauty of this kind of essay structure is there will be no right or wrong answer. The hypothesis will also enable you to steer the essay more clearly and be more selective about the kinds of research you do.
Remember to keep going back to the original question. Ask yourself: “am I sticking with the point.” As it is easy to get engrossed in information, especially if you are really passionate about the artist’s work and want to know more about it.
Having a hypothesis within an essay can actually really help you progress, so you may consider putting a hypothesis whenever you write about an artist’s work.
This is one of the easiest kinds of written pieces to undertake. Essentially, take two artists and compare their work. You can be quite critical about each, but do need to remember to have a balanced argument. Keep your own personal opinions to the end and justify them in the conclusion.
A simple way of structuring the comparison is to keep it quite logical. You could almost have a paragraph covering each artist one after the other.
This is the first thing people will read, it sets up the scene and helps determine if the reader is clear or not as to the content of the rest of the essay. Getting it right can be tricky, many students find it really useful to write a draft introduction and then go back to it at the end of the essay and re-write it. You may have changed your opinions or found something really new that you want to include in the introduction.
A good introduction sets out exactly what you are going to cover. It does this by explaining the aim or purpose of the essay. There is no harm in including a sentence like: “The aim of this essay is to…” Moreover, because there will be different methods of interpreting any kind of art, it is really useful to indicate the kinds of methods you will use. Will you be looking at the cultural impact on the work or comparing the art to another artist?
While the conclusion is your opportunity to put in your own opinions, it is really easy to forget about the essay and jump to something completely new. The essay as a whole should be aimed at finding out something, discovering and clarifying your thoughts. It should serve a purpose for you personally, giving you a new insight or helping you to answer questions about the art you have investigated. It is these very answers that you should be including in the conclusion.
Don’t think you have to make a formal black and white document. Adding personality to your writing makes it even more interesting. It is not uncommon for art and design students to write their essays in Word to get all of the spelling correct and then have a printed copy and a creative copy. The images above represent essays that have tried to break the mould, but still have critical content.