Visual Art paper

The Basics

A formal analysis is a written account of a close examination of an art object. One of the most important skills of an art historian is translating what one see into words. Describing an object fully via formal analysis allows an intimate knowledge of that work, which assists in ultimately saying something of importance. Simply put, formal analysis involves observing the “form” of a work of art.

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Many students struggle with this step because this translation is difficult to do. It involves using words to describe what you see, something that we do not do every day, but it is very important because the language of formal analysis IS the language of art history. Furthermore, the close examination of an art object required for a formal analysis helps you to more fully see and appreciate a work of art, which will hopefully help you to gain a greater appreciation of its artistry. It will also get you to begin thinking of an art object as the result of a series of decisions made by an artist. Nothing just “happens” in art making; the way a particular work appears is the result of conscious thought and decision making. Looking at those aesthetic choices can help us decipher the meaning and perhaps reconstruct the function of a particular work.


Now that you’ve selected your artwork, look at the work. Study its form and content. Really spend some time just looking and thinking why things are the way they are.

Next, take out a sheet of paper and take note of the formal qualities of the work—the individual design elements, such as composition (arrangement of the parts of or in the work), color, line, texture, scale, proportion, balance, contrast, or rhythm. Look at the content of the work as well. Where is it situated? What is its subject? What emotion does it evoke?

Some questions to consider: What medium is it (oil on canvas, pastel, marble, a lithograph, a photograph, etc.)? Is it two-dimensional or three? What is happening in the work? Is it representational or nonrepresentational? Does it have a recognizable subject? What is it that interests you? Is it the colors? The lack of color? The size? The subject? The expression of the figures in the work? The shapes? Most importantly, what do these formal qualities suggest about the meaning or function of the work? The more notes you take, the easier it will be to write your paper.

Digging Deeper

Now start to look for overall themes. How do the elements of the work function together to communicate some larger message? Think about how the individual aspects of the piece (things like color, line, setting, or a certain figure) all contribute to that message.

Once you’ve worked that out, formulate a tentative thesis statement and some topic sentences. (It might be helpful to come up with an outline from which you can work.)


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