Visual Analysis: A Modern Take On Tradition

visual analysisHistorically, visual analysis has been reserved for those who study art history; it examines the formal elements of a piece of visual art, such as a painting or sculpture, and this is still the most common form of analysis in art history today. There have been recent tangents, however, branching off in the direction of the modern visual arts: graphic design, advertising, website layout, photography, etc.

Art history still receives all the credit for the creation and assembly of the elements of visual analysis, but it has had to make room for these modern additions that now fall under the definition of “art” (if you’re interested in a career in art, check out this blog post on modern art careers). Whatever medium you prefer, visual analyses are a great way to get at the technique that an artist employs, as well as the meaning that he or she is trying to communicate. I’ll walk you through the components of a visual analysis below, in such a way that it can be applied universally. If you’re more of a traditionalist, use your new-found knowledge to get the most out of this course on art history, from the Renaissance to the 2oth century.

Visual Analysis Explained

In an educational setting, the goal of a visual analysis is to demonstrate a student’s knowledge and understanding of a piece of art. Personal opinion is important in visual analysis, but it must be emphasized by historical and factual evidence (although there is definitely something to be said of initial impressions, especially in fields such as marketing and graphic design). This requires you to look at visual elements both individually and in unison; the fonts and graphics on a webpage, for example, and if they are appropriate to their purposes and context, and if they appropriate to each other, and how they interact as a whole to create, literally, the “bigger picture.”

While it is important to describe certain aspects of a work of art, the heart of a visual analysis naturally is found in the analytics; in other words, anyone can tell you what they see, but not everyone is able to understand it from a technical and artistic perspective. A formal visual analysis is not possible on instinct or emotion alone; acquired knowledge and experience are absolutely necessary.

The Basics

Even in a formal education setting, and especially in the modern arts, writing or speaking in the first person is totally acceptable, even preferred. This makes it easier to identify the author and the opinions that he or she does decide to offer. Using the third person, on the other hand, undermines the conviction of any opinions, and is therefore not recommended. If you’re considering publishing your analysis, you might benefit from this course on writing for publication.

Most visual analyses, especially in art history, begin with a prompt. Even a marketing meeting will have some sort of objective; “How does this relate to our target audience?” A successful analysis is one that keeps the prompt in mind throughout the entirety of its discourse.

The first thing you need to do is examine the subject (painting, website, pamphlet, etc.). Take detailed notes on your observations. These are the common elements that apply to visual analyses:

  • Time and Place (when and where was the subject made?)
  • Medium (what is the subject made of?)
  • Color (saturation, value, hue, etc.)
  • Texture
  • Space (how is space created and used? is there foreshortening? how about perspective?)
  • Composition (the arrangement of different elements; contrast, symmetry, balance, proportion, unity; is there a focal point? is it hectic? repetitive? etc.)
  • Size (self-explanatory)

It might help to sketch out your ideas. If elements relate to each other, map them out; this will prevent you from forgetting them and may also help further develop your ideas. Once you have the basics, you want to begin to formulate a claim, i.e. your own idea or angle for the analysis. This will require you to look deeper than medium and color.

Formulating A Claim, And Beyond

By the time you formulate a claim, you should already have collected all of your evidence. You do not want to make a claim before you are sure that you have something to say about it. You can learn more about preparatory techniques with this quality paragraph and essay writing lesson. Once you have the basic formal elements down, which I listed above, it is time to ask the questions that go for the heart of the matter. The answers to these questions will be your evidence:

  • How do the formal elements of the subject work to convey meaning?
  • Why did the artist use these elements?
  • Why is the artist representing his or her ideas in this way?
  • What feeling or emotion is invoked? Where does this originate?
  • Is there a meaning? How is this created? What is responsible?
  • Is there anything else that contributes to the subject? The title, perhaps? Historical or social relevance? Something personal within the artist?
  • How does this work relate to other artists or other works? From the same time period? From a different time period?
  • Finally, is the subject a success? Does the art succeed in what it is trying to do? If so, how and why?

Now you want to organize your evidence into something cohesive, in the form of a claim. This will inform the audience of the direction in which you are taking the analysis. Once your claim is exacted, the majority of your work is finished. You now are left with the task of writing your visual analysis. You can get further practice from this blog article that provides expository writing prompts and advice.

Structuring A Visual Analysis

The structure of a visual analysis is  simple and straightforward:

  • Introduction: This will include several things and can be composed of several paragraphs. You will provide a description of the object (see: “Getting Started”), historical background (of both subject and artist), and a brief overview of technique, if you would like. A thesis is not necessary at this point.
  • Thesis: Narrow the focus of your essay. The thesis should reflect the goal of both you, the analyst, and the work you are analyzing.
  • Analysis / Interpretation: This will be an elucidation of those ideas discussed in “Formulating A Claim, And Beyond.” Remember, all the hard work should be done already; you are simply structuring your ideas.
  • Evaluation: Does the subject succeed? Is your thesis satisfied? Again, you will have already answered these questions.

As you can see, a visual analysis is not your average paper or argument. The vast majority of the work takes place before the writing begins; the writing, in essence, is just a way to further organize, communicate and solidify your thoughts. If you want to gain an artist’s perspective, check out this course on visual artistry, which teaches artistic techniques through the field of photography.