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.
Definition Essay: Art Appreciation
Abraham Maslow, a famous psychologist of the humanistic perspective of psychology, presented a model for the hierarchy of human needs during his academic career. He described that the basic needs that a person has to fulfill are: (i) Biological, (e.g.: food, sleep) (ii) Security, (e.g.: house, wealth) and (iii) Social (e.g.: friends, arts) in nature. According to his model, the need for humans to acquire, or even appreciate art can only come after they have satisfied their primary needs. Forthright then, it can be very easy for us to argue that we have fulfilled our basic needs, (we, as belonging to a stable class of citizens) but in all reality it is very hard to convince the poor of the fact that art is an important part of his or her life. A closer look at our history would also contend that art has been the domain of the extremely rich. It were the rich who built most of the ancient art forms that have been found around the world; the sphinx in Egypt and the sculptors of Buddha. By 'rich' it is meant 'those in power'. The pharaohs of Egypt ordered the erection of the city and the priests of Burma made monuments and temples to Buddha. Art has always been a whim of the 'rich' to enhance their own worth, and the artists who made them have mostly been drowned in obscurity.
In Europe, most of the art and artists had been neglected for centuries before the Enlightenment revolution in the 18th century. It was only after this period that artists and their art began to be recognized by the common man. Michelangelo Lodovico Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci, two of the most famous artists of the previous centuries, were poor men working to create the beautiful pieces of art for their noblemen and their priests. Although many of the commons then had started realizing the beauty of art, most of them still put it away as a waste of time. These artists would spend most of their time in trying to create art that was required by the ones higher in power and they would work hours just to fulfill their own satisfaction, even if their contentment did not mean a half-cent to their employers. The art for the artist was of utmost value but the person who needed it only desired it and lusted after it for its extrinsic value. It is this exact extrinsic value that we, at least most of us, yearn for today.
That value being the appreciation of art for its worth; a value that is believed only befitting for the eccentrics. Everyone can appreciate beauty, but not everyone can find the art beautiful. The nuances that are presented in a portrait or a piece of ensemble, an orchestration, are normally led to waste because a majority of the observers fail to notice them. Only those who have an eye (or a couple of ears) for art can truly appreciate the presentations. Many people actually have to be trained for years before they can begin to understand the concepts of art and start enjoying them. But most of the 'rich' people, today or then, are either pretentious enough or socially inclined enough to accept and cater to the art as not them, but their peers, seem deem fit. Many might argue that this has been the case for previous centuries, but then if that is so then we are also doomed just like those who went and lived before us.
Of course, this is not to discount the fact that there are many people present in this world who have not been trained in the art forms and yet they can find something beautiful in them. The argument is that they would miss out on the finer details of the art if they do not know about them. If you were to look at this from an artist's perspective: imagine the amount of work that he or she puts in to create a piece of what you would like to call 'art'. We, being observers, could only guess the effort, sweat, blood (if you may) that has been put in to it. The rest is lost to the mind of the artist who thought of and created the lines that we see or the notes that we hear. To appreciate all that, we need to be 'educated' in order for us to understand and realize what the artist is trying to say. Then, for a layman to become an art connoisseur, one needs extensive training and schooling to be able to understand what the artist is really trying to convey. This need for training makes art exclusive for its patron in the sense that art requires its appreciators to truly be aware of its value.
To exemplify: ask a poor man anywhere in the world if he would rather have a painting by Van Gogh, or a three course dinner, (assuming that the painting shown to him is unmarked and the poor man is unaware of its value, while he can see the dinner sitting in front of him). Chances are that the man would eat the chicken. True, in our current world model, one would feel that a fine looking painting in one's house would elevate his or her status in the eyes of his or her peers, but the point here is that social status, according to Maslow mentioned afore, comes after the biological needs have been fulfilled. Even if the man was not so poor and not so hungry, and was an averagely unappreciative person, he would hardly go for the painting because chances are that he would not be aware of the value of the painting, most definitely not of the underlying beauty in the painting. Such a person would then disregard it as being unimportant to his/her needs. Only the people who are satisfied about their basic needs in life and those who have time to think and learn more about the nature of art (that is, luxurious enough) would be able to actually appreciate the paintings worth and opt for it.
Many people would argue that art has a place in our history and our culture and that it plays a very important role in defining a nation or a group of people. This is all true and there is no disputing that. However, the question is, what good is all that art to the people if they do not have any idea of its value? It is only in the more developed countries that we find people who care about their national art treasures and treat them with reverence. In most of the developing countries, people do not care much about the art. When they found the ancient tombs inside the pyramids of Egypt, many archaeologists were killed by their Egyptian guides so that the local people may steal all the treasure. This was because the locals were poor and they saw an opportunity to steal and sell the gold, which the local goldsmiths probably melted to make other things. This just shows that these people did not care about the true worth of these artifacts, which was that they were thousands of years old and all they cared about was its value to them.
This analysis of art in the context of its worth to the different classes of people is of course based on my natural observation of this world. Life, its fine distinctions, and its intricacies mean different meanings to all of our unique selves. Art is what means to us, what it wants to mean to us, what it can mean to us, what it is today, what it could have become and surely, what it can become for each of us. But we can only base our interpretation of art on what it brings to us and our world. And, art only brings with it the despair of the artist at the hand of the mostly false appreciation of the luxuriant. How can art not be a luxury if it employs the poor to work off the whims of the rich? It is then of my opinion that art is a luxury for those who desire it and who want to acquire it, and a source of austerity for those who design it, because only the artist can truly appreciate his or her own art to the fullest. The rest may praise him as much as they want, they would never be able to satisfy the craving of the perfect artist; the artist is hardly ever able to satisfy his or her own whims. Art is a passion for the artist, and a lust for the 'rich.'