How to Analyze Art – Formal Art Analysis Guide and Example – Artlex (2023)

How to Analyze Art – Formal Art Analysis Guide and Example – Artlex (1)

What is this Guide Helpful for?

Every work of art is a complex system and a pattern of intentions. Learning to observe and analyze artworks’ most distinctive features is a task that requires time but primarily training. Even the eye must be trained to art -whether paintings, photography, architecture, drawing, sculptures, or mixed-media installations. The eyes, as when one passes from darkness to light, need time to adapt to the visual and sensory stimuli of artworks.

This brief compendium aims to provide helpful tools and suggestions to analyze art. It can be useful to guide students who are facing a critical analysis of a particular artwork, as in the case of a paper assigned to high school art students. But it can also be helpful when the assignment concerns the creation of practical work, as it helps to reflect on the artistic practice of experienced artists and inspire their own work. However, that’s not all. These concise prompts can also assist those interested in taking a closer look at the art exhibited by museums, galleries, and cultural institutions. They are general suggestions that can be applied to art objects of any era or style since they are those suggested by the history of art criticism.

Knowing exactly what an artist wanted to communicate through his or her artwork is an impossible task, but not even relevant in critical analysis. What matters is to personally interpret and understand it, always wondering what ideas its features suggest. The viewer’s attention can fall on different aspects of a painting, and different observers can even give contradictory interpretations of the same artwork. Yet the starting point is the same setlist of questions. Here are the most common and effective ones.

How to Write a Successful Art Analysis

How to Analyze Art – Formal Art Analysis Guide and Example – Artlex (2)

Composition and Formal Analysis: What Can I See?

The first question to ask in front of an artwork is: what do I see? What is it made of? And how is it realized? Let’s limit ourselves to an objective, accurate pure description of the object; from this preliminary formal analysis, other questions (and answers!) will arise.

  • You can ask yourself what kind of object it is, what genre; if it represents something figuratively or abstractly, observing its overall style.
  • You can investigate the composition and the form: shape (e.g. geometric, curvilinear, angular, decorative, tridimensional, human), size (is it small or large size? is it a choice forced by the limits of the display or not?), orientation (horizontally or vertically oriented)
  • the use of the space: the system of arrangement (is it symmetrical? Is there a focal point or emphasis on specific parts ?), perspective (linear perspective, aerial perspective, atmospheric perspective), space viewpoint, sense of full and voids, and rhythm.
  • You can observe its colors: palette and hues (cool, warm), intensity (bright, pure, dull, glossy, or grainy…), transparency or opacity, value, colors effects, and choices (e.g. complementary colors)
  • Observe the texture (is it flat or tactile? Has it other surface qualities?)
  • You can analyze the study of light (chiaroscuro, tonal modeling, light sourcing, atmosphere)
    • or the type of lines (horizontal, vertical, implied lines, chaotic, underdrawing, contour, or leading lines)

After completing this observation, it is important to ask yourself what are the effects of these chromatic, compositional, and formal choices. Are they the result of randomness, limitations of the site, display, or material? Or perhaps they are meant to convey a specific idea or overall mood? Does the artwork support your insights?

Media and Materials: How the Artist Create?

  • First of all, the medium must be investigated. What are these objects? Architecture, drawing, film, installation, painting, performing art, photography, printmaking, sculpture, sound art, textiles, and more.
  • What materials and tools did the artists use to create their work? Oil paint, acrylic paint, charcoal, pastel, tempera, fresco, marble, bronze, but also concrete, glass, stone, wood, ceramics, lithography…The list of materials is potentially endless, especially in contemporary arts, but it is also among the easiest information to find! A valid catalog or museum label will always list materials and techniques used by artists.
  • What techniques, methods, and processes are used by the artist? The same goes for materials, techniques are numerous and often related to the overall feeling or style that the artist has set out to achieve. In a critical analysis, it is important to reflect on what this technique entails. Do not overdo with a verbose technical explanation.

Why did the artist choose to make the work this way and with such features (materials and techniques)? Are they traditional, academic techniques and materials or, on the contrary, innovative and experimental? What idea does the artist communicate with the choice of these media? Try to reflect, for example, on their preciousness, or cultural significance, or even durability, fragility, heaviness, or lightness.

Context, Biography, Purpose: What’s Outside the Artwork?

Through formal analysis, it is possible to obtain a precise description of the artistic object. However, artworks are also documents, which attest to facts that happen or have happened outside the frame! The artwork relates to themes, stories, specific ideas, which belong to the artist and to the society in which he or she is immersed. To analyze art in a relevant way, we also must consider the context.

  • What are the intentions of the artist to create this work? The purpose? Art may be commissioned, commemorative, educational, of practical use, for the public or for private individuals, realized to communicate something. Let’s ask ourselves why the artist created it, and why at that particular time.
  • The artist’s life also cannot be overlooked. We always look at the work in the light of his biography: in what moment of life was it made? Where was the artist? What other artworks had he/she done in close temporal proximity? Biographical sources are invaluable.
  • In what context (historical, social, political, cultural) was the artwork made? Artwork supports (or may even deliberately oppose) the climate in which it is immersed. Find out about the political, natural, historical event; the economic, religious, cultural situation of its period.
  • Of paramount importance is the cultural atmosphere. What artistic movements, currents, fashions, and styles were prevalent at the time? This allows us to make comparisons with other objects, to question the taste of the time. In other words, to open the horizons of our analysis.

Subject and Meaning: What does it Want to Communicate?

We observed artwork as an object, with visible material and formal characteristics; then we understood that it can be influenced by the context and intentions of the artist. Finally, it is essential to investigate what it wants to communicate. The content of the work passes through the subject matter, its stories, implicit or explicit symbolism.

  • You can preliminarily ask what genre of artwork it is, which is very helpful with paintings. Is it a realistic painting of a landscape, abstract, religious, historical-mythical, a portrait, a still life, or much else?
  • You can ask questions about the title if it is present. Or perhaps question its absence.
  • You can observe the figures. Ask yourself about their identity, age, rank, connections with the artist, or cultural relevance. Observe what their expression or pose communicates.
  • You can also observe the objects, places, or scenes that take place in the work. How are they depicted (realistic, abstract, impressionistic, expressionistic, primitive); what story do they tell?
  • Are there concepts that perhaps are conveyed implicitly, through symbols, allegories, signs, textual or iconographic elements? Do they have a precise meaning inserted there?
  • You can try to describe the overall feeling of the artwork, whether it is positive or negative, but also go deeper: does it communicate calmness, melancholy, tension, energy, or anger, shock? Try to listen to your own emotional reaction as well.

Subjective Interpretation: What does it Communicate to Me?

And finally, the crucial question, what did this work spark in me?

We can talk about aesthetic taste and feeling, but not only. A critical judgment also involves the degree of effectiveness of the work. Has the artist succeeded, through his formal, technical, stylistic choices, in communicating a specific idea? What did the critics think at the time and ask yourself what you think today? Are there any temporal or personal biases that may affect your judgment? Significative artworks are capable of speaking, of telling a story in every era. Whether nice or bad.

A Brief History of Art Criticism

How to Analyze Art – Formal Art Analysis Guide and Example – Artlex (3)

The stimulus questions collected here are the result of the experience of different methods of analysis developed by art critics throughout history. Art criticism has developed different analytical methodologies, placing the focus of research on different aspects of art. We can trace three major macro-trends and all of them can be used to develop a personal critical method:

The Formal Art Analysis

Formal art analysis is conducted primarily by connoisseurs, experts in attributing paintings or sculptures to the hand of specific artists. Formal analysis adheres strictly to the object-artwork by providing a pure description of it. It focuses on its visual, most distinctive features: on the subject, composition, material, technique, and other elements. Famous formalists and purovisibilists were Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, Roberto Longhi, Roger Fry, and Heinrich Wölfflin, who elaborated different categories of formal principles.

The Iconological Method

In the iconological method, the content of the work, its meaning, and cultural implications begin to take on relevancy. Aby Warburg and later the Warburg Institute opened up to the analysis of art as an interdisciplinary subject, questioning the correlations between art, philosophy, culture. The fortune of the iconological method, however, is due to Erwin Panofsky, who observed the artwork integrally, through three levels of interpretation. A first, formal, superficial level; the second level of observation of the iconographic elements, and a third called iconological, in which the analysis finally becomes deep, trying to grasp the meaning of the elements.

Social Art History and Beyond

Then, in the 1950s, a third trend began, which placed the focus primarily on the social context of the artwork. With Arnold Hauser, Francis Klingender, and Frederick Antal, the social history of art was born. Social art historians conceive the work of art as a structural system that conveys specific ideologies, whose aspects related to the time period of the artists must also be investigated. Analyses on commissioning, institutionalization, production mechanisms, and the role and function of the artist in society began to spread. It also opens art criticism to researches on taste, fruition, and the study of art in psychoanalytic, pedagogical, anthropological terms.

10 Art Analysis Tips

How to Analyze Art – Formal Art Analysis Guide and Example – Artlex (4)

We defined the questions you need to ask yourself to write a meaningful artwork analysis. Then, we identified the main approaches used by art historians while criticizing art: formal analysis, iconographic interpretation, and study of the social context. However, art interpretation is always open to new stimuli and insights, and it is a work of continuous training.

Here are 10 aspects to keep in mind when observing a good artwork (or a bad one!):

  1. Any feeling towards a work of art is legitimate -whether it is a painting, picture, sculpture, or contemporary installation. What do you like or dislike about it? You could write about the shapes and colors, how the artist used them, their technique. You can analyze the museum setting or its original location; the ideas, or the cultural context to which the artist belongs. You can think about the feelings or memories it evokes. The important thing is that your judgment is justified with relevant arguments that strictly relate to the artwork and its elements.
  2. Analyzing does not mean describing. A precise description of the work and its distinctive features is essential, but we must go beyond that. Consider also what is outside the frame.
  3. Strive to use an inquiry-based approach. Ask yourself questions, start with objective observation and then go deeper. Wonder what features suggest. Notice a color…well, why that color, and why there?
  4. Observe a wide range of visual elements. Artworks are complex systems, so try to look at them in all their components. Not just color, shapes, or technique, but also rhythm, compositional devices, emphasis, style, texture…and much more!
  5. To get a visual analysis as accurate as possible, it might be very useful to have a comprehensive glossary. Here is MoMA’s one: and Artlex:
  6. Less is more. Do you want to write about an entire artistic movement or a particularly prolific artist? Focus on the most significant works, the ones you can really say something personal and effective about. Similarly, choose only relevant and productive information; it should aid better understanding of the objects, not take the reader away from it.
  7. Support what you write with images! Accompany your text with sketches or high-quality photographs. Choose black and white pictures if you want to highlight forms or lights, details or evidence inside the artwork to support your personal interpretations, objects placed in the art room if you analyze also curatorial choices.
  8. See as much live artwork as possible. Whenever you can, attend temporary exhibitions, museums, galleries… the richer your visual background will be, the more attentive and receptive your eye will be! Connections and comparisons are what make an art criticism truly rich and open-minding.
  9. Be inspired by the words of artists, art experts, and creatives. Listen as a beloved artwork relates to their art practice or personal artistic vision, to build your personal one. Here are other helpful links:
  10. And finally, trust your intuition! As you noticed in this decalogue, numerous aspects require study and rational analysis but don’t forget to formalize your instinctive impressions as well. Art is made for that, too.

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How do you analyze an artwork example? ›

The first thing you should do when analyzing an artwork is to break it down in terms of the visual elements. What do you see in terms of lines, shapes, colors and textures? By doing this, you will be able to objectively analyze what you are seeing.

What is formal analysis in art example? ›

The Formal Art Analysis

Formal analysis adheres strictly to the object-artwork by providing a pure description of it. It focuses on its visual, most distinctive features: on the subject, composition, material, technique, and other elements.

How do you analyze formal elements in art? ›

The elements of formal analysis are building blocks that can be combined to create a larger structure.
  1. Line is the most basic building block of formal analysis. ...
  2. Value is the degree of light and dark in a design. ...
  3. Shapes are created when lines are combined to form a square, triangle, or circle.

What are the four steps in art analysis formal analysis? ›

There are four aspects of a formal analysis: description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation.

What is an example of analysis? ›

An analysis is just the process of breaking something down and figuring out how it works. For example, examining the way a poem uses metaphor to evoke emotion in the reader would be a type of analysis.

What are the 3 main parts of an art analysis? ›

Subject, form, and content have always been the three basic components of a work of art, and they are wed in a way that is inseparable.

How do you formal analysis a picture? ›

The 4 Main Steps of the Analysis of a Photograph
  1. Visually describe the different elements you see. ...
  2. Perform a technical analysis of each element you see.
  3. Contextualize the photograph or series in a narrative way with all the elements of which you are aware. ...
  4. Interpret the photograph or series based on how you feel.

What are examples of formal elements in art? ›

The Formal Elements are the parts used to make a piece of artwork. The art elements are line, shape, space, form, tone, texture, pattern, colour and composition.

What are the 7 formal elements of art? ›

ELEMENTS OF ART: The visual components of color, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value.

How do you write a formal visual analysis? ›

To write a visual analysis, you must look closely at an art object—or at a photograph of an art object— and translate your visual observations into written text. However, a visual analysis does not simply record your observations. It also makes a claim about the work of art.

What is the first step in a formal analysis art? ›

The first step in a formal analysis of an artwork is: Identifying the regional or cultural style of the artwork.

What does formal analysis mean in art? ›

A formal analysis is quite simply an analysis of the forms utilized in the work of art. It is a close inspection of the artist's use of aspects such as color, shape, line, mass, and space. The purpose of the paper is to analyze the formal elements of an artwork; it is not meant to be an interpretation.

What is formal analysis in art appreciation? ›

Formal analysis is a close and analytical way of looking at and discussing a work of art. It includes describing the work in terms of various design elements, such as color, shape, texture, line, lighting, mass, and space, as well as a discussion of how those elements have been used (the design principles).

What are the step by step guides in analyzing artwork? ›

Analyzing Artwork (Art Criticism)
  • Description (It answers the question, "What do you see?") ...
  • Analyze (It answers the question, "How did the artist do it?") ...
  • Interpretation (It answers the question, "What is the artist trying to say? ...
  • Evaluation (What do I think about this artwork?

What are the types of analysis in art? ›

Terms in this set (9)
  • Iconographic Analysis. ...
  • Formal Analysis. analyzing an art piece through the elements and principles of art.
  • Stylistic Analysis. characterized by a group in a time or place.
  • Iconographic Analysis. ...
  • Example of Iconographic Analysis. ...
  • Example of Contextual Analysis. ...
  • Contextual Analysis. ...
  • Feminist Analysis.

What makes a good art analysis? ›

Art analysis tips

Personal opinions must be supported with explanation, evidence or justification. 'Analysis of artwork' does not mean 'description of artwork'. To gain high marks, students must move beyond stating the obvious and add perceptive, personal insight.

How do you write an analysis example? ›

How to write an analysis
  1. Choose your argument.
  2. Define your thesis.
  3. Write the introduction.
  4. Write the body paragraphs.
  5. Add a conclusion.

What are the 5 rules of formal writing? ›

The following guidelines should help you maintain a formal writing voice in your essays.
  • Do not use first-person pronouns ("I," "me," "my," "we," "us," etc.). ...
  • Avoid addressing readers as "you." ...
  • Avoid the use of contractions. ...
  • Avoid colloquialism and slang expressions. ...
  • Avoid nonstandard diction.

What are the 5 types of analysis? ›

5 Types of analytics: Prescriptive, Predictive, Diagnostic, Descriptive and Cognitive Analytics - WeirdGeek | Data analytics, Data analysis tools, Data science.

What is an example of analyze in a sentence? ›

Analyze sentence example. The goal is to analyze more data, from a wider variety of sources, in a shorter amount of time. I really don't know what sort of girl she is; I can't analyze her at all. I need for you to analyze the dynamics of the controlled reverse flow reactor.

How do you answer an analysis question? ›

Examine a subject critically, analysing and commenting on the main points. Present the main points in brief, clear sequence. Give the main points or facts in condensed form. Consider both sides, make a judgment and defend it.

What are the 7 most important elements of art? ›

There are seven elements of art that are considered the building blocks of art as a whole. The seven elements are line, color, value, shape, form, space, and texture.

What 3 basic questions do we ask when looking at and analyzing art? ›

Questions to ask yourself when looking at art. When was the piece created? What events were happening in the world at the time the piece was created? Where is the piece located?

Why are the 7 elements important in art? ›

They are the building blocks used to create a work of art. Students who can identify the elements and evaluate their role in the composition of a work of art will be better able to understand an artist's choices. They will be equipped to address whether a work of art is successful, and why.

What should a formal analysis of a painting include? ›

Principles of Design
  1. Unity and Variety.
  2. Balance (symmetry, asymmetry)
  3. Emphasis and Subordination.
  4. Scale and Proportion (weight, how objects or figures relate to each other and the setting)
  5. Mass/Volume (three-dimensional art)
  6. Rhythm.
  7. Function/Setting (architecture)
  8. Interior/Exterior Relationship (architecture)

What is the first step in analyzing a picture? ›

How to Analyze a Photograph
  1. Step 1: Find an Image to Analyze. ...
  2. Step 2: Observe Your Image. ...
  3. Step 3: Analyzing People. ...
  4. Step 4: Analyzing Setting. ...
  5. Step 5: Looking at Generics Vs. ...
  6. Step 6: Looking at Colour. ...
  7. Step 7: Looking at Viewer's Positioning.

How many steps are there in analyzing an image? ›

The four steps of image analysis (raw data measurement, background subtraction, data correction, and normalization) are illustrated for a FRAP (photobleaching case) and a FLIP experiment.

What is the most important formal elements of art? ›

Composition is the arrangement of visual elements of art in any painting or drawing. There are many elements of art, but the 7 visual elements of art that are the most important ones to understand are; color, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value.

Which are important properties of formal analysis? ›

Visual (formal) analysis

These include characteristics such as format, scale, composition, and viewpoint; treatment of the human figure and space; and the use of form, line, color, light, and texture.

What are the 6 formal elements of performing arts? ›

In Performance art, the six formal elements are time, space, the artist's presence, the artist's body, the interplay between the audience and the artist, and sound.

What does formal mean in art? ›

Formalism describes the critical position that the most important aspect of a work of art is its form – the way it is made and its purely visual aspects – rather than its narrative content or its relationship to the visible world.

What are the 4 most important elements in art? ›

The Elements of Art that we have discussed are all important in what makes a work of art interesting. Line, Color, Shape, and Texture can be used individually, or combined together to create more impact.

What are formal elements and principles of art? ›

The elements of art are color, form, line, shape, space, and texture. The principles of art are scale, proportion, unity, variety, rhythm, mass, shape, space, balance, volume, perspective, and depth.

How do you write an art visual analysis essay? ›

Sample Outline of Visual Analysis Essay
  1. Describe the image vividly so the reader can see it.
  2. Tell about how the image was created.
  3. Explain the purpose of the artist.
  4. Give interesting facts about the art or artist.
  5. Talk about a controversy or misunderstanding about the art.
20 Jul 2022

What is a formal analysis in writing? ›

What is a formal analysis? A formal analysis is more than just a description of a work of art. It is an argument based on your own visual evidence that takes a stance and creates an interesting discussion from the formal elements of the work.

What is formal analysis focus? ›

Formal analysis, says Dr. Jordan, focuses on what the eye perceives when it examines an object: “the colours, the shapes, the light, composition, texture. This type of writing is the building block of art historical analysis.

What is formal analysis in English? ›

Formal analysis involves a close reading of the literary elements of a text. A formal analysis examines elements such as setting, imagery, characters, tone, form/structure, and language. The goal of a formal analysis is to create meaning by exploring how these elements work together in any given text.

How do you analyze value in art? ›

Values are best understood when visualized as a scale or gradient, from dark to light. The more tonal variants in an image, the lower the contrast. When shades of similar value are used together, they also create a low contrast image.

How do you write an analysis of an image? ›

Get the reader interested in the image by using one of the following methods:
  1. Describe the image vividly so the reader can see it.
  2. Tell about how the image was created.
  3. Explain the purpose of the artist.
  4. Give interesting facts about the art or artist.
  5. Talk about a controversy or misunderstanding about the art.
20 Jul 2022

What do you mean by analysis of an artwork? ›

Analysis = determining what the features suggest and deciding why the artist used such features to convey specific ideas. · It answers the question, "How did the artist do it?"

What are the 4 formal elements of art? ›

The Formal Elements are the parts used to make a piece of artwork. The art elements are line, shape, space, form, tone, texture, pattern, colour and composition. They are often used together, and how they are organised in a piece of art determines what the finished piece will look like.

What is a formal analysis of an image? ›

Formal analysis focuses on an artwork's “formal” qualities, or those visual elements that give it form. These include: shape, size, texture, line, space, etc. Formal analysis provides a basic common language in the visual arts. However, a description of a photograph based only on formal analysis would be incomplete.

Why is it important to analyze art? ›

Practicing visual analysis sharpens critical judgment skills and helps people seek out answers for themselves instead of passively receiving information. This is especially important when exposing hidden ideologies that may motivate seemingly neutral images.

What are some examples of value in art? ›

Value is how light or darkness of a color. For example: If you took a black and white photograph of your painting, the shades of grey would be the different values or tones within the painting. Value is the lightness or darkness a color or hue.

What is an example of form in art? ›

Sculpture is the most obvious place to see form, or three-dimensional shape, in art. This work of art by Alexander Calder includes both geometric and biomorphic forms.

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