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 formal analysis moves beyond simple description in that it connects the elements of the work to the effects they have on the viewer.
--Undergraduate Writing Center, University of Texas at Austin
A formal analysis does NOT concentrate on subject matter, function, culture, etc., but it may consider them when they apply to decisions about formal element, things like color, line, size, etc. (See list at bottom of page.) A clear, well-written formal analysis will contain three things: it will name the formal elements discussed, it will describe the use of the formal elements, and it will discuss the effects of that use of said formal element. (This discussion of effect is the analysis part of the formal analysis.)
Here’s an overly simple formal analysis:
If you are asked to write a formal analysis, I recommend including an introductory paragraph. This paragraph should 1) name the artist, artwork, and provide the date (if known). If this information is not available, then the culture and approximate dates should be provided. and 2) gives the reader an idea of where the paper is going. This can be naming the elements covered or noting their overall effect.
Paragraph from the body of the paper:
I recommend that your organize each paragraph of the paper's body around a formal element. This helps ensure that you 1) name the formal element, 2) describe it, and 3) discuss its effects. It also makes your paper easier for the reader (in most cases, me!) to follow. The box below contains a more professional formal element than the one above. It appears in the Applied Arts page of the AD website.
A compositional sketch is very helpful when doing formal analysis. It is especially useful when covering aspects of composition. (See the words under Composition on the list of formal elements below).
For instance, in reference to pattern, the repeated lines of the folds and soutache are much more obvious in the compositional sketch to the left (especially since I made them pink) than in the photograph of the garment.
To draw a compositional sketch:
1) Draw the outline of the object (for most paintings and drawings this is a rectangle).
2) Squint. Yes, you will have to squint. The idea is to blur your vision.
3) Add the most obvious elements to the interior of the outline. For instance, you may not see every nostril on a painting, but you will most like see some outlines and color changes.
I require a compositional sketch be included with formal analysis papers because the help students distance themselves from subject matter, which often distracts from formal elements.
List of Formal (and Design) Elements:
COMPOSITION (The elements below are known as design elements or principles)
Pattern (repetition and rhythm)
Unity and Variety
Emphasis and Subordination
Special categories and terms
Mass and Volume
Art History Writing Guide
II. Writing Assignments
III. Discipline-Specific Strategies
IV. Keep in Mind
At the heart of every art history paper is a close visual analysis of at least one work of art. In art history you are building an argument about something visual. Depending on the assignment, this analysis may be the basis for an assignment or incorporated into a paper as support to contextualize an argument. To guide students in how to write an art history paper, the Art History Department suggests that you begin with a visual observation that leads to the development of an interpretive thesis/argument. The writing uses visual observations as evidence to support an argument about the art that is being analyzed.
You will be expected to write several different kinds of art history papers. They include:
- Close Visual Analysis Essays
- Close Visual Analysis in dialogue with scholarly essays
- Research Papers
Close Visual Analysis pieces are the most commonly written papers in an introductory art history course. You will have to look at a work of art and analyze it in its entirety. The analysis and discussion should provide a clearly articulated interpretation of the object. Your argument for this paper should be backed up with careful description and analysis of the visual evidence that led you to your conclusion.
Close Visual Analysis in dialogue with scholarly essays combines formal analysis with close textual analysis.
Research papers range from theoretic studies to critical histories. Based on library research, students are asked to synthesize analyses of the scholarship in relation to the work upon which it is based.
As with all writing assignment, a close visual analysis is a process. The work you do before you actually start writing can be just as important as what you consider when writing up your analysis.
Conducting the analysis:
- Ask questions as you are studying the artwork. Consider, for example, how does each element of the artwork contribute to the work's overall meaning. How do you know? How do elements relate to each other? What effect is produced by their juxtaposition
- Use the criteria provided by your professor to complete your analysis. This criteria may include forms, space, composition, line, color, light, texture, physical characteristics, and expressive content.
Writing the analysis:
- Develop a strong interpretive thesis about what you think is the overall effect or meaning of the image.
- Ground your argument in direct and specific references to the work of art itself.
- Describe the image in specific terms and with the criteria that you used for the analysis. For example, a stray diagonal from the upper left corner leads the eye to...
- Create an introduction that sets the stage for your paper by briefly describing the image you are analyzing and by stating your thesis.
- Explain how the elements work together to create an overall effect. Try not to just list the elements, but rather explain how they lead to or support your analysis.
- Contextualize the image within a historical and cultural framework only when required for an assignment. Some assignments actually prefer that you do not do this. Remember not to rely on secondary sources for formal analysis. The goal is to see what in the image led to your analysis; therefore, you will not need secondary sources in this analysis. Be certain to show how each detail supports your argument.
- Include only the elements needed to explain and support your analysis. You do not need to include everything you saw since this excess information may detract from your main argument.
Keep in Mind
- An art history paper has an argument that needs to be supported with elements from the image being analyzed.
- Avoid making grand claims. For example, saying "The artist wanted..." is different from "The warm palette evokes..." The first phrasing necessitates proof of the artist's intent, as opposed to the effect of the image.
- Make sure that your paper isn't just description. You should choose details that illustrate your central ideas and further the purpose of your paper.
If you find you are still having trouble writing your art history paper, please speak to your professor, and feel free to make an appointment at the Writing Center. For further reading, see Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing about Art, 5th edition.