How to Analyse Paintings

Posted: January 21, 2013 in Visual Arts Theory Analysis
Tags: , ,

From Duke University – Visual Analysis

The purpose of a visual analysis is to recognize and understand the visual choices the artist made in creating the artwork. By observing and writing about separate parts of the art object, you will come to a better understanding of the art object as a whole.

What are Visual Rhetoric and Visual Literacy?

The simplest definition for visual rhetoric is how/why visual images communicate meaning. Visual literacy is also about how culture and meaning are reflected, communicated, and altered by images. Visual literacy involves all the processes of knowing and responding to a visual image, as well as all the thought that might go into constructing or manipulating an image.

A visual analysis addresses an artwork’s formal elements—visual attributes such as colour, line, texture, and size. It also includes historical context or interpretations of meaning.

  • Read the assignment or questions carefully to decide which elements of visual analysis needs to be included, as not all the aspects are suitable to comment on for every painting. Select the aspects that seem most appropriate. Some questions or assignments will require that you either do a comparative analysis – (comparing artworks, or artists from a different social, or historical context) or will expect you to frame your formal description in terms of historical or social context. information.
  • All observations must be justified e.g  “Paul Cézanne‟s Mont Sainte-Victoire is composed of a number of repeated shapes and lines that serve to unify the composition. So,  if you make an observation about a formal element, also state what visual effect it has in your opinion.


Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire (1885-7)

1.   Recording the painting details  (your notes should always state painter, title and date)
Note; for exams each section has two questions, in the first question, you will be given the images and these details, you can then refer to the works as they are numbered in the paper e.g fig 1b.

Name of Painter:  (e.g. Monet)

Title of the Work: (e.g. Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight)

Date it was painted: (e.g. 1874)
It’s more than just dating the piece — once you have the date down, you can take a look at what was going on during that time period that would make the artist want to depict his subject the way he has.

Size :  (e.g. 84 x 63 cm)

Medium :  (e.g. oil on canvas)

Stylistic Period: (e.g. Impressionism)
Note – If your assignment or question asks you to identify the style or movement associated with the artwork, compare the artwork’s formal elements to the stylistic characteristics of the style/or movement. For example: “Robert Adam‟s library at Kenwood is quite classical, not just because of the Corinthian columns and barrel vaults, but also because it is symmetrical, geometric, and carefully balanced .”

2. Subject and Theme

  • Describe the subject: (e.g. the artist Courbet meets his patron Monsieur )
  • and/or  Describe the content: (e.g. the stone facade of a Gothic Cathedral)
  • and/or  Explain any ideas that the painting is expressing (political, social, personal) : (e.g.Courbet depicts himself as of equal status to his wealthy patron)
  • Identify underlying themes: (e.g. self-sacrifice, loyalty to nation in David’s Brutus receiving the Bodies of his Sons)
  • Explain any background known about the work (using research to find out): (e.g. the format derives from a popular print called The Wandering Jew)
  • “What’s the mood like?” In other words: what overall feeling do you get from the piece? Do the colour choices the artist used make you feel a certain way? Does the composition give you a mood?

3. Composition (means the organization of objects and/or figures within the painting) (select only the most relevant of these), how does the artist piece together the different parts of the canvas? How does the artist make your eye move around the canvas? Is there one place where your eye always ends up? What does this movement and organization make you think about the figures or objects depicted?

  • Focal Point:
  • Geometrical shapes:
  • Symmetry?/Asymmetry?:
  • Methods used to lead the eye around the work:
  • Effects created by compositional devices: (e.g. stability, order, randomness, effect of drawing attention to particular parts of the work)

4. Space/Depth (how is the illusion of depth created?)

Camille Pissarro, Hyde Park, London 1890

  • Linear perspective: (e.g. Pissarro uses a row of trees which recede and lead the eye into the distance. The trees vanish at a point on the horizon)
  • Aerial perspective: (the gradual lightening, haziness and bluish tinge that appears towards the horizon)
  • Overlapping of objects:
  • Distance from the picture plane : (sense of distance from the actual surface of the painting)

5.  Colour

  • Main Colours used :
  • Cool and Warm Colours:
  • Range of the palette : (means the number of colours used – a wide range or a limited palette)
  • Effects colour creates:

Emil Nolde, Dance Around the Golden Calf

  • Example: Attention is drawn to the central figure that is painted in strong shades of purple and blue – a striking contrast to the complimentary yellow of the other two figures. Although Nolde worked with warm and cool colours, these seem to be more discordant and disturbing.

6. Light

  • Direction of the Light :
  • Chiaroscuro (contrasts of light and shadow) or Even Lighting :
  • Atmospheric Light (to create mood):Example: “Rembrandt‟s use of chiaroscuro heightens the sense of drama in The Night Watch

Rembrandt’s Night Watch

7. Form and Effects

  • Use of outline to define form: (Are outlines clear?)
  • Use of tonal modeling (shading of form) to create 3-d forms:
  • Does the forms appear static (not moving) or appear to be in movement?
  • What feeling does the use of line create?

Example: Fauvists used expressive line – they did not use line to imitate the real, but like their use of colours, used line to express a feeling or the emphasize a form, or a shape that contributed to the feeling of a painting.  Thick black Line, which often outlined forms were filled in with intense colours. Line was also often use as a decorative means as is seen in Andre Derain’s Dance or in Matisse’s Harmony in Red.

Matisse – Harmony in Red 1908-9

8. Technique

  • Smooth finish:
  • or Thickly applied paint (impasto):
  • Effects: (e.g. implies texture of objects and garments such as marble, satin)
  • Do you feel natural texture in the painting, like softness of a fruit
  • What art movement, does the technique remind you of

Example: The pure and unmixed colours were intensified further by applying thick daubs and smears. In Matisse’s Open Window at Collioure, for example, brush strokes also takes on a symbolic meaning; each level of space is characterized by a different type of brush-stroke. In this painting the brush stroke becomes a metaphor for the quality of time associated with the type of space.  Flat areas of paint are used for the interior and architectonic spaces which have static time; curved short strokes for the plants around the window, and horizontal and vertical dashed lines for the ships at sea.

Matisse – Open Window at Collioure, 1905

In the Mountains at Collioure by Andre Derain you can see the repetitive brush strokes which which gave the Fauves’ paintings a very rough, unfinished look compared to the other artwork at that time. You can also clearly see the infleunce of van Gogh’s brush stroke.

Mountains at Collioure by André Derain

 9. Context (known through research and knowledge of style)

Social/Historical/Artistic: e.g. Fits the artists’ personal styleFits the style of the art period: How did the subject, theme, and form convey ideas, values, sentiments, beliefs, perceptions? What may the work of art say about the period and culture in which the work was created?

Example of a Question

Write an essay in which you make specific reference to at least TWO artworks of any local or international artist(s) you have studied,  who you feel has/have investigated the issue of identity in his/her/their work. 

Your answer should include the following information:
• Inspiration/Influences on the work
• Formal elements used in the work
• Themes and messages in the work that gives a sense of the
artist’s/artists’ identity.

Your answers should have an introduction to the specific question, and a conclusion.

Finally here’s some great advise by Chelsea Emelie Kelly and Alexander J. Noelle

The Two Most Important Questions.

There are only two questions that you really need to look at art, and those are: “What’s going on in this picture/sculpture/building?” and “What do I see that makes me say that?”

LOOK at the picture and figure out what you’re seeing, even if it seems incomprehensible; then FIND evidence in the painting that backs up what you see.

For example, let’s look at Edvard Munch’s famous The Scream (1893). What do we see? You might answer, that’s easy: a man who is scared and overwhelmed. OK, definitely — but how do we know it’s a man? Why is he scared and overwhelmed? What in the painting makes us able to say these things about it?

You might counter with: it’s a man because he’s bald and has a male body type. He’s scared because of the expression on his face — his mouth is open, his eyes are wide, he’s clutching his face with his hands. And maybe he’s overwhelmed by everything around him in the painting — this sharply tilted bridge, bright swirling sky, and the strange blue shapes behind him. Even his body is all twisted, like everything around him.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself, not to worry. It’ll take a little bit of pushing yourself to get to the point where you feel comfortable jumping into a painting and exploring it, but practice makes perfect. Try visiting a museum with a friend and talking through a painting with them — you’ll both see things the other one didn’t, and talking about art out loud can really help you understand a piece.

Also, remember that every choice the artist makes is a conscious one. There’s a reason why you think the guy is scared and overwhelmed: because Munch himself decided to paint him with such an expression, decided to create a swirling, upsetting landscape around him, in those specific reds and blues. Figuring out the way an artist manipulates your interpretation of a piece is key to getting into the artist’s head.

Once you master getting yourself to answer those two basic questions, you’ve probably figured out what art historians call the “subject” of the painting — you know, what’s on the canvas. From there, you can easily start to explore the piece even further by asking yourself some other, more detailed questions.

Also look at this link for an example of Analysis of  The Scream

Helpful Links – loads of examples of artworks analysed

 Duke University – Visual Analysis

Writing in the Disciplines: Art History:

 Overview: Visual Rhetoric /Visual Literacy:

Visual Rhetoric/Visual Literacy: Writing about Paintings 
Visual Rhetoric/Visual Literacy: Writing about Photographs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s