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.
Writing a thesis is always a tricky enterprise and a real challenge. For art history students, this venture is made even more complex. In their theses, they not only have to translate visual information into the verbal form, but also analyze one’s perception of their study object in the broad cultural and historical context. Moreover, you should do all that in accordance with specific requirements for the art history thesis. Let’s inspect these elements one by one.
1. Formal Analysis
For art students, “formal” refers to the visual aspects of the researched subject, generally speaking, its form. Thus, when you conduct formal analysis, you “write what you see” describing the object, the medium and techniques which the artist used to create it, palette, lighting, composition and its elements, and more. You can also dwell on the symbolism of the elements and emotions they evoke in the viewer separately and as an ensemble. For example, when writing about The Dance by Henri Matisse, you can explain how the colors and minimalism convey the movement.
2. Historical Research
Just as the name suggests, you should conduct a research which will allow you to place the inspected work of art into the historical context and analyze its historical references, even the subtle ones. For example, when writing about Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, you can attribute it to the Art Nouveau style, which was used at the time of the painting, as well as Arts and Crafts. You can also suggest that the play with the dimensionality in the painting is reminiscent of works by the modernists. On the other hand, the painting refers the viewer to the medieval times with some of its elements, and further to the Bronze Age with other elements used for decorative purposes. You can dwell on Klimt’s historical expansion deeper, as you’ll find a lot of noteworthy information during your research.
3. Theory and Criticism
In your thesis paper, you can view the piece of art through the framework of a particular theory. You can choose the one which appeals to you the most, whether it is social constructionism, psychoanalysis, or post-modernism. While it is often convenient to use psychoanalysis when analyzing works by Salvador Dali, can try to avoid such clichés.
4. Comparison and Contrast
Here, you can compare two or more works of art by the same artist, or by different artists who worked in the similar style, or the two works that share the same subject although created with a significant time difference. For example, you could compare Salvador Dali’s The Architectural Angelus of Millet with the original painting The Angelus (L’Angelus) by Jean-François Millet. Expand on how the two paintings, despite sharing the same topic, have different symbolic meanings and evoke different emotions in the viewer. Here, you could also write about Dali’s perception of the original painting which made him create an entirely new interpretation.
5. Good Introduction
Before you start making your notes on the selected work of art, you should write your thesis statement. The latter is the most important part of your thesis, around which you will build your paper. Your thesis statement might be an answer to your research question that will be expanded in your thesis, or your key argument. In case of Klimt, you might state that his art is inspired by the early forms of art as much as it reflects the current trends and falls into the frameworks of the current artistic movements. Don’t also forget that your introduction is where you should make a proper reference to the piece of art by including its name, author, and year.
While some might think that an art history thesis is a “feel it and write it” paper, there are certain aspects of it that should be considered during the writing process. We have used such terms as formal analysis, historical research, theory and criticism, and comparison and contrast, to give you ideas on what to write in your thesis’ body. Remember that one of the key features of a brilliant art history paper is a good introduction which contains your thesis statement that serves as an axis for your art history thesis.
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Posted by Ruth Jennings inHow to Write. Tags: thesis writing