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.
What is a Curatorial Rationale?
The Curatorial Rationale is similar to an artists’ statement, but refers specifically to the work selected for this exhibition rather than the general artistic output. Writing the Rationale is part of the process of self- reflection, decision making, and of understanding of the relationship between artist and audience.Break it down into 3 parts:
- Overview, concepts, and ideas
- Selection of works
- Viewer Relationships
Overview, concepts, and ideas (theme):
- How did your theme come about?
- What are the concepts, issues or ideas you have explored here and how are they linked in your work?
- What experiences have contributed to the making of this work?
The second paragraph can be a general discussion of the works in the show, or you may choose to list and discuss each piece individually, making connections among them. Maybe there is a particular piece that is pivotal to the rest of the show and you discuss this one in relation to the others.
- What materials and techniques have you used and why did you choose these?
- Do the materials have an impact on the meaning of the work?
- How do you justify your selection of works chosen?
- How does the way the work is displayed, hung, otherwise presented contribute to how it communicates with the viewer?
- How did you consider the arrangement of the works within the space that you have available?
- Do you have an overall vision for presenting this body of work?
- Be HONEST when writing about your work.
- Do not write fluff or make things up about your work.
- Refrain from using words such as beautiful, amazing, gorgeous, etc.
- Stick to the facts!
- Check your grammar and spelling.
- Cannot exceed 400 words.
- What media do you work with? What interests you about work of this type?
- What themes, concerns and ideas have you have explored in this work?
- Is there a relationship between the media you use and the ideas that you work with?
- What outside interests, artists, encounters or experiences have influenced your work?
- What ties your individual pieces of work together into a cohesive body of work?
- Is there an ‘intention' behind the work; what do you want the work to achieve?
- How do you want your audience to experience it?
- How have your methods of display (how the work is arranged and presented) contributed to the viewer's experience?
- What is your vision for presenting this body of work (imagine you could have any possible space or display method)?
- Formal requirements
My first piece, Flying Colors, was an attempt to explore some of my culture by painting a lady doing a traditional Mexican dance, and use color and shape to express the speed and joy of the dance. I used bright colors because I love them and because it is a very vibrant dance, with brightly colored costumes. The patterns in the background reflect traditional Mexican patterns. I think this piece is weak, but it was my first one and really helped me to explore the use of acrylic paint and combining colors.
My next piece, The Only Light, is another painting because I felt that my painting skills were stronger than my sculpting skills. The piece depicts a jar with a butterfly in it. The butterfly is stuck in the jar while all around it fireflies are escaping. It shows how we are surrounded by crazy and bad things and we can get stuck in the middle of them but we can get around that. In order to get across the pinpoints of light for the fireflies, I built a box behind the piece and put some battery operated lights into it. I made little holes in the canvas so that when the battery lights are switched on and the room lights are switched off, there are actually lights shining.
I think my two strongest pieces are Falling Leaves and Colored Leaves, sister pieces influenced by a trip to Yosemite National Park. I was intrigued by the size and beauty of the enormous old trees and wanted to communicate some of that with my art. I took photographs of the trees from different perspectives. I made my tree thin at the top and thicker at the bottom to make it look bigger. I used a dark background to emphasize the brightness of the Fall leaves and cold colors on the tree for contrast with the bright leaves. My wire and bead sculpture, Colored Leaves, uses warm and bright colors to express the brightness of leaves.
My work has been inspired by nature, the darkness that surrounds us has been used to surround my pieces in the exhibition.
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