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AP®︎/College Art History

Unit 1: lesson 5.

How to do visual (formal) analysis in art history

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Video transcript

How to analyze an artwork: a step-by-step guide

Last Updated on May 27, 2021

This article has been written for high school art students who are working upon a critical study of art, sketchbook annotation or an essay-based artist study. It contains a list of questions to guide students through the process of analyzing visual material of any kind, including drawing, painting, mixed media, graphic design, sculpture, printmaking, architecture, photography, textiles, fashion and so on (the word ‘artwork’ in this article is all-encompassing). The questions include a wide range of specialist art terms, prompting students to use subject-specific vocabulary in their responses. It combines advice from art analysis textbooks as well as from high school art teachers who have first-hand experience teaching these concepts to students.

COPYRIGHT NOTE: This material is available as a printable art analysis PDF handout . This may be used free of charge in a classroom situation. To share this material with others, please use the social media buttons at the bottom of this page. Copying, sharing, uploading or distributing this article (or the PDF) in any other way is not permitted.

visual analysis of a painting

Why do we study art?

Almost all high school art students carry out critical analysis of artist work, in conjunction with creating practical work. Looking critically at the work of others allows students to understand compositional devices and then explore these in their own art. This is one of the best ways for students to learn.

Instructors who assign formal analyses want you to look—and look carefully. Think of the object as a series of decisions that an artist made. Your job is to figure out and describe, explain, and interpret those decisions and why the artist may have made them. – The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  10

Art analysis tips

Although description is an important part of a formal analysis, description is not enough on its own. You must introduce and contextualize your descriptions of the formal elements of the work so the reader understands how each element influences the work’s overall effect on the viewer. – Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art 2
Making sketches or drawings from works of art is the traditional, centuries-old way that artists have learned from each other. In doing this, you will engage with a work and an artist’s approach even if you previously knew nothing about it. If possible do this whenever you can, not from a postcard, the internet or a picture in a book, but from the actual work itself. This is useful because it forces you to look closely at the work and to consider elements you might not have noticed before. – Susie Hodge, How to Look at Art 7

Finally, when writing about art, students should communicate with clarity; demonstrate subject-specific knowledge; use correct terminology; generate personal responses; and reference all content and ideas sourced from others. This is explained in more detail in our article about high school sketchbooks .

What should students write about?

Although each aspect of composition is treated separately in the questions below, students should consider the relationship between visual elements (line, shape, form, value/tone, color/hue, texture/surface, space) and how these interact to form design principles (such as unity, variety, emphasis, dominance, balance, symmetry, harmony, movement, contrast, rhythm, pattern, scale, proportion) to communicate meaning.

As complex as works of art typically are, there are really only three general categories of statements one can make about them. A statement addresses form, content or context (or their various interrelations). – Dr. Robert J. Belton, Art History: A Preliminary Handbook, The University of British Columbia 5
…a formal analysis – the result of looking closely – is an analysis of the form that the artist produces; that is, an analysis of the work of art, which is made up of such things as line, shape, color, texture, mass, composition. These things give the stone or canvas its form, its expression, its content, its meaning. – Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art 2

This video by Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Naraelle Hohensee provides an excellent example of how to analyse a piece of art (it is important to note that this video is an example of ‘formal analysis’ and doesn’t include contextual analysis, which is also required by many high school art examination boards, in addition to the formal analysis illustrated here):

Composition analysis: a list of questions

The questions below are designed to facilitate direct engagement with an artwork and to encourage a breadth and depth of understanding of the artwork studied. They are intended to prompt higher order thinking and to help students arrive at well-reasoned analysis.

It is not expected that students answer every question (doing so would result in responses that are excessively long, repetitious or formulaic); rather, students should focus upon areas that are most helpful and relevant for the artwork studied (for example, some questions are appropriate for analyzing a painting, but not a sculpture). The words provided as examples are intended to help students think about appropriate vocabulary to use when discussing a particular topic. Definitions of more complex words have been provided.

Students should not attempt to copy out questions and then answer them; rather the questions should be considered a starting point for writing bullet pointed annotation or sentences in paragraph form.

How to write art analysis


Subject matter / themes / issues / narratives / stories / ideas.

There can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same artwork. An artwork is not necessarily about what the artist wanted it to be about. – Terry Barrett, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary 6
Our interest in the painting grows only when we forget its title and take an interest in the things that it does not mention…” – Françoise Barbe-Gall, How to Look at a Painting 8
What do the clothing, furnishings, accessories (horses, swords, dogs, clocks, business ledgers and so forth), background, angle of the head or posture of the head and body, direction of the gaze, and facial expression contribute to our sense of the figure’s social identity (monarch, clergyman, trophy wife) and personality (intense, cool, inviting)? – Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art 2
If a waiter served you a whole fish and a scoop of chocolate ice cream on the same plate, your surprise might be caused by the juxtaposition , or the side-by-side contrast, of the two foods. – Vocabulary.com
A motif is an element in a composition or design that can be used repeatedly for decorative, structural, or iconographic purposes. A motif can be representational or abstract, and it can be endowed with symbolic meaning. Motifs can be repeated in multiple artworks and often recur throughout the life’s work of an individual artist. – John A. Parks, Universal Principles of Art 11
Parody: mimicking the appearance and/or manner of something or someone, but with a twist for comic effect or critical comment, as in Saturday Night Live’s political satires – Dr. Robert J. Belton, Art History: A Preliminary Handbook, The University of British Columbia 5
Allegory is a device whereby abstract ideas can be communicated using images of the concrete world. Elements, whether figures or objects, in a painting or sculpture are endowed with symbolic meaning. Their relationships and interactions combine to create more complex meanings. – John A. Parks, Universal Principles of Art 11
An iconography is a particular range or system of types of image used by an artist or artists to convey particular meanings. For example in Christian religious painting there is an iconography of images such as the lamb which represents Christ, or the dove which represents the Holy Spirit. – Tate.org.uk

Wider contexts

All art is in part about the world in which it emerged. – Terry Barrett, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary 6


Structure / layout

leading lines - composition

Shape and form

All shapes have silhouettes, and vision research has shown that one of the first tasks of perception is to be able to sort out the silhouette shapes of each of the elements in a scene. – James Gurney, Imaginative Realism 9
Ergonomics: an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely – Merriam-webster.com

Value / tone / light

One of the most important ways in which artists can use light to achieve particular effects is in making strong contrasts between light and dark. This contrast is often described as chiaroscuro . – Matthew Treherne, Analysing Paintings, University of Leeds 3

Color / hue

It is often said that warm colors (red, orange, yellow) come forward and produce a sense of excitement (yellow is said to suggest warmth and happiness, as in the smiley face), whereas cool colors (blue, green) recede and have a calming effect. Experiments, however, have proved inconclusive; the response to color – despite clichés about seeing red or feeling blue – is highly personal, highly cultural, highly varied. – Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art 2

Texture / surface / pattern

Use of media / materials

Finally, remember that these questions are a guide only and are intended to make you start to think critically about the art you are studying and creating.

How to analyse your own artwork

Further Reading

If you enjoyed this article you may also like our article about high school sketchbooks (which includes a section about sketchbook annotation). If you are looking for more assistance with how to write an art analysis essay you may like our series about writing an artist study .


Amiria Gale

Amiria has been an Art & Design teacher and a Curriculum Co-ordinator for seven years, responsible for the course design and assessment of student work in two high-achieving Auckland schools. She has a Bachelor of Architectural Studies, Bachelor of Architecture (First Class Honours) and a Graduate Diploma of Teaching. Amiria is a CIE Accredited Art & Design Coursework Assessor.

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Thursday 30 April 2020

Art Skills – Visual Analysis

Following on from our Collection Focus articles , our volunteer Madeleine has written a guide to visual analysis, so you can learn how to analyse the components of an artwork and gain a greater understanding of the artist’s ideas and perspective.

A Beginner’s Guide to Visual Analysis: What Are You Looking At?

What is Visual Analysis?

Visual analysis, also called ‘formal analysis’, is the analysis of a work of art, sculpture or piece of architecture. It is the foundation of any art historical writing and makes up the backbone of art history. Visual analysis is the thorough observation of the formal elements (‘formal’ referring to the visual elements that make up the whole form of the artwork in question) and characteristics of a piece of artwork. The formal elements which need to be considered when performing a visual analysis of an artwork include; line, colour (light and tone), scale, composition and space,  medium, techniques, and size of the artwork and lastly, function. To further the analysis, historical context and interpretations of meaning can also be welcomed into the discussion.

What is the Purpose of Visual Analysis?

The core purpose of visual analysis is to recognise and understand the visual choices the artist made in creating the artwork. The result of a close visual analysis is the better understanding what exactly the viewer is looking at and what the artist intended to convey. Ultimately, by noting down separate parts of the entirety of the work, the aim of the exercise is to better understand the work as a whole. Undertaking visual analyses regularly can also help to understand visual advertising, such as billboards and adverts in magazines. You can start to pick apart what makes the advert effective and what hinders its efficacy.

Never Underestimate the Basics

For the purpose of this guide, I will be illustrating how to perform a visual analysis on paintings, the most common medium for the formal art historical analysis. However, the discussed elements can be practised and applied to any medium of artwork.

Now, this may sound obvious, but a great starting point for your visual analysis always lies within the sheer basics of the piece of artwork; the painter, the subject and the contemporary audience. You can learn a lot from the information readily available to you and this general information can serve as a perfect introduction to a formal analysis paper and is equally important in creating a better understanding of the artist and his/her work in question to a detailed analysis of the piece’s formal elements.

Personally, I believe it is key to initially propose and answer these six questions before conducting the detailed process of analysing a piece of art.

Initially familiarising yourself with these six essential points will give you all the basic information you need to begin a full detailed visual analysis of a piece of artwork. Using the above questions as starting points for your discussion, you will find other questions are proposed which can be answered when you move onto the detailed analysis. It is important to understand that without your introductory ‘basic’ knowledge, a full visual analysis of the relationship between image and viewer, how and why the image and its creation affects the viewer, cannot be achieved. For example, without knowing the date and provenance of an artwork, it becomes a much longer  process in placing the piece within a genre of art.

Performing a Visual Analysis: What to Look For

visual analysis of a painting

As previously touched upon, the elements that comprise a visual analysis are materials, techniques, processes and form and style. It is crucial to understand these formal elements in order to respond and analyse them. To help me explain a handful of the formal elements you should consider when conducting your visual analysis, I will be referring to a beautiful painting in the Richmond Borough Art Collection by Mrs A. Perodean, Sister Agnes in the garden of St. John’s Hospital Twickenham , 1917.

Line – The most basic formal element, ‘line’ corresponds to how figures and shapes are defined. ‘Line’ is often used and manipulated to convey motion or emotion. As you can see from Perodean’s work, the shapes, objects and even the figure of the nurse, who is the focal point of the painting, are not clearly defined. Whilst they are not blurred, they gently diffuse into the canvas.

visual analysis of a painting

Colour (Light and Tone) – This is a self-explanatory element, the primary question here should be what colours do you see on the canvas? Some other questions included; are the colours bright or subdued? Is there a dominant colour within the artwork? Are the complementary colours juxtaposed? However, to push your analysis further you need to be asking yourself how the artist has manipulated the light. Is there a light source? Is the source inside or outside the frame? Are there contrasts of light (‘chiaroscuro’) and is there a purpose to this? Using Sister Agnes in the garden of St. John’s Hospital , the colours are muted and the dominant colours are dark greys, greens and blues. The figure in Perodean’s work is highlighted as the focal point through the white on her nursing apron. Perodean’s choice of colours here alongside the diffusing lines help to create a hazy atmosphere, as if the fog or the storm has just begun to clear.

visual analysis of a painting

Scale – Here, scale relates to the scale of figures or objects in relation to the total subject matter. A key question here would be: does the scale of the figures suggest their lesser or more significant importance within the artwork? In the case of St Agnes in the garden of St. John’s Hospital , the figure, Sister Agnes, is incredibly minute in relation to the objects around her. However, I would argue that her significance is not measured by her size. As the title suggests, she is the focal point of the piece simply by being Sister Agnes. The white on her apron also helps to draw the viewer’s eye towards her.

Composition – ‘Composition’ is the arrangement of every element within the work of art. These are carefully arranged by the artist with the aim of creating a relationship between the forms depicted and the viewer. Thus, the central questions here are; how is the artwork organised? Does the overall composition help to direct viewers’ attention and how? Interestingly within Perodean’s painting, there are multiple frames which are depicted through the arched trellis’ and consequently centre the figure of Sister Agnes within the viewer’s eye. Thus, the composition is orderly and harmonised. There is an overall sense of peace to the piece.

visual analysis of a painting

Space – In addressing ‘space’ within a piece of visual artwork, a good starting-point is ‘is the piece two or three-dimensional? From here, it is easier to delve further. Is the work shallow or deep? Open or framed? What kind of perspective is used? How does the artist’s handling of space affect the relationship of the image to viewers? Sister Agnes in the garden of St. John’s Hospital , is incredibly spatial and three-dimensional. Perodean has depicted the garden’s flowers as tall, robust, and completely full of life. They tower over Sister Agnes, who is set back into the composition. The foreground is left quite bare and Perodean creates the illusion of a long, winding pathway towards Sister Agnes through this. In the background, the viewer is able to see a couple of buildings which stand assertively against the sky. However, it is the framing of Sister Agnes which really creates the feel of a spacious and luscious garden.

Medium, Techniques, Size – What materials are used by the artist (what is the medium of the artwork)? Does this affect the style of the artwork? What techniques are used? Is the brushstroke tight or free? Does the brushstroke define boundaries or blur them? What effect does this have on the image? What are the dimensions of the work? Is it minute or large, and does this affect your understanding of the overall work?

Function – By researching a work of arts function, you can consider the relationship between the purpose of the piece and its appearance. How has the image been shaped by its function/purpose? Additionally, you may be able to come to conclusions surrounding the function of the artwork as you work your way through the formal elements of a visual analysis. Looking at the size of the work and its entire subject matter are both key in forming your own interpretation surrounding the function of the piece.


Following the points mentioned in this guide will assure a thorough and detailed visual (formal) analysis of any medium of artwork whether that be paintings, sculptures or architecture. It is important when performing a visual analysis to ultimately keep in mind how the artist is shaping the relationship between image and viewer and why he/she has done so. Visual art will readily give you your answers if you just ask yourself the right questions and look closely!

As part of our Collection Focus, there are examples of visual analyses on our website. The first being a visual analysis of George Hilditch’s Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge , c.1846. Hilditch’s work is absolutely fascinating when you are able to pick apart each formal element and is a great example of how visual analysis can unveil the artist’s intention and means of execution. You can read the article here and I encourage you all to find an artwork you like from our collection and have a go yourself!

If you would like to know more about art history and visual analysis, check out Dana Arnold’s ‘Art History: A Very Short Introduction’ and, of course, ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger, which is one of the most influential books on art of our time and was adapted from the BBC television series with the same name during the 1970s. The series is available to watch on YouTube.

Madeleine Luxton

Madeleine Luxton, Gallery Volunteer at Orleans House Gallery.

I have recently graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in History and History of Art. I am thoroughly enjoying my time exploring the art world and have already become enamoured with one of London’s hidden gems – Orleans House Gallery! Volunteering at Orleans House Gallery has allowed me to meet fellow art enthusiasts and to broaden my passion in helping the art world become much more accessible. My favourite artists are Edouard Manet, Diego Rivera, Robert Rauschenberg and Tracey Emin.

If you’ve enjoyed putting these techniques to use and want to write your own Collection Focus article, why not volunteer with us?

We’ve got a variety of roles, and a wide of range of tasks that support the gallery.

Find out more information and apply here .

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Composition in Red Yellow Blue and Black by Piet Mondriaan

Formal Visual Analysis: The Elements & Principles of Composition Help students build techniques to interpret what they see into written words using art.

Lesson content.

Formal analysis is an important technique for organizing visual information. In other words, it is a strategy used to translate what you see into written words. This strategy can be applied to any work of art, from any period in history, whether a photograph, sculpture, painting or cultural artifact.

The Elements

The elements of formal analysis are building blocks that can be combined to create a larger structure.

Line  is the most basic building block of formal analysis. Line can be used to create more complex shapes or to lead your eye from one area in the composition to another.

Value  is the degree of light and dark in a design. It is the contrast between black and white and all the tones in between. Value can be used with color as well as black and white. Contrast is the extreme changes between values.

Shapes  are created when lines are combined to form a square, triangle, or circle. Shapes can be organic (irregular shapes found in nature) or geometric (shapes with strong lines and angles such as circles, triangles, and squares).

Forms  are three-dimensional shapes with length, width, and depth. Balls, cylinders, boxes and pyramids are forms.

Space  is the area between and around objects. Increasing or decreasing the amount of space around an object affects the way we view that object.

Color  differentiates and defines lines, shapes, forms, and space. Even black and white images have a huge number of different shades of gray.

Texture  is the surface quality that can be seen and felt. Textures can be rough or smooth, soft or hard. Textures are often implied. For instance, a drawing of a rock might appear to have a rough and hard surface, but in reality is as smooth as the paper on which it is drawn.

The Principles

Notice how the following principles integrate the elements of formal analysis and build on one another.  Note: Each principle below refers to the photograph of paddlers below to illustrate key concepts. Right-click and select "Open Image in New Tab" to view a larger version of the photo. 

Article-Formal Visual Analysis-IMG_1921.png

Balance  is created in a work of art when textures, colors, forms, or shapes are combined harmoniously. In this image, notice how the photographer achieves a sense of balance by dividing the image into two sections: one half occupied by trees, and the other half by the water.

Contrast  is the use of several elements of design to hold the viewer's attention and to guide the viewer's eye through the artwork. In this image, the texture of the trees contrasts with the texture of the water.

Movement  is the way a viewer's eye is directed to move through a composition, often to areas of emphasis. Movement can be directed by lines, contrasting shapes, or colors within the artwork. In this work of art, our eye moves up through the pattern in the rippling surface of the water to the two paddlers. From there, our eye moves to the contrasting textures and colors of the foliage in the top half of the image.

Emphasis  is created in a work of art when the artist contrasts colors, textures, or shapes to direct your viewing towards a particular part of the image. In this image, the colors of the paddlers' kayaks contrasts with the muted tones of the background. Our attention is immediately drawn to the paddlers, even though they are relatively small in scale.

Pattern  is the repetition of a shape, form, or texture across a work of art. The light reflecting off of the waves in the water creates a pattern in the bottom half of the image.

Proportion  is created when the sizes of elements in a work of art are combined harmoniously. In this image, all of the proportions appear exactly as one would expect; the human figures are much smaller in scale than the natural world that surrounds them.

Unity  is created when the principles of analysis are present in a composition and in harmony. Some images have a complete sense of unity, while some artists deliberately avoid formal unity to create feelings of tension and anxiety. In this image, the large areas of contrasting textures, patterns and colors create a sense of balance and unity within the composition.

Once students have an understanding of formal analysis, they will be well prepared to put this theory into practice by making their own images based on the elements and principles of design. Whether in photography, sculpture, or painting, the theory of formal analysis will help students to compose their works of art as professional artists would.

Print Vocabulary

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Joanna McKee

December 9, 2019 

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  1. How to do visual (formal) analysis in art history

    How to do visual (formal) analysis in art history Google Classroom About Transcript Giovanni Bellini, Madonna of the Meadow, c. 1500, oil and egg on synthetic panel, transferred from wood, 67.3 x 86.4 cm (The National Gallery) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Sort by: Top Voted Questions Tips & Thanks Want to join the conversation?


    What is visual analysis? Visual analysis is a method of understanding art that focuses on an artwork’s visual elements, such as color, line, texture, and scale. In its strictest definition, it is a description and explanation of visual structure for its own sake. Yet the purpose of visual analysis can also recognize the

  3. How to analyze an artwork: a step-by-step guide for students

    …a formal analysis – the result of looking closely – is an analysis of the form that the artist produces; that is, an analysis of the work of art, which is made up of such things as line, shape, color, texture, mass, composition. These things give the stone or canvas its form, its expression, its content, its meaning.

  4. Art Skills

    The core purpose of visual analysis is to recognise and understand the visual choices the artist made in creating the artwork. The result of a close visual analysis is the better understanding what exactly the viewer is looking at and what the artist intended to convey.

  5. Formal Visual Analysis: The Elements & Principles of Composition

    Formal analysis is an important technique for organizing visual information. In other words, it is a strategy used to translate what you see into written words. This strategy can be applied to any work of art, from any period in history, whether a photograph, sculpture, painting or cultural artifact. The Elements