Archive for the ‘Visual Arts Theory Analysis’ Category

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) School of Athens, is regarded as one of the greatest Renaissance paintings. The general theme of the picture, is the synthesis of worldly (Greek) and spiritual (Christian) thinking, and ranks alongside the finest examples of classically inspired Renaissance art.

 The following video gives a great analysis of the artwork.

Why have art?

The arts are being cut from schools and communities. The reasons for this vary but a common thread is that the arts aren’t important. This arises primarily from ignorance.  if people truly understood that the arts actually improve and enhance learning, and encourage creativity and new ideas, the arts would not be threatened.

Looking at Art is a Process of Observing and Thinking

The Visual Thinking Process teaches the ability to look carefully at a work of art and unlock its meaning and context.

In the 2012 Grade 12 Visual Arts final exam the following question was asked in the section of Art and the Spiritual Realm – Issues in Art Around Belief Systems and the Sacred.

During and after the devastation of the Second World War, two British Painters Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon, both created religious images that were tortured and brutal.

Discuss the two works (Sutherland 1A and Bacon 1B) by referring to the following:

  • The use of distortion in the images
  • The use of colour
  • Composition, space and use of structural/directional lines
  • Possible interpretations/meanings of these works in a world devastated by war.
The Crucifixion, 1946 (oil on hardboard) by Sutherland, Graham (1903-80); 243.8x228.5 cm; Saint Matthew's Church, Northampton, Northamptonshire, UK; English,  in copyright

The Crucifixion, 1946 (oil on hardboard) by Sutherland, Graham; Saint Matthew’s Church, Northampton, Northamptonshire, UK

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

Memorandum to the question:

FIGURE 1A. Graham Sutherland, Crucifixion 1, 1946.

Painted just after the horrors of World War 2, Sutherland portrays Christ on the cross in a distorted angst-ridden manner. The work was based on Grünewald’s Crucifixion in the Isenheim Altarpiece. It is the most tragic of themes – through death we have salvation – the hope of redemption.

Grünewald's Crucifixion in the Isenheim Altarpiece

Grünewald’s Crucifixion in the Isenheim Altarpiece

The image of the Crucifixion is placed firmly in the centre of the rectangular composition. In this work, Christ’s body is suspended in torment against a blue background. This figure becomes a powerful image of physical and spiritual suffering. A suggestion of a crown of thorns is visible around Christ’s head. These thorns, the curving barbed forms, served as symbols of human cruelty and suffering.

The use of distortion in terms of the outstretched arms nailed to the cross, with hands open and facing upwards, slumped head, ribs and sunken, emaciated torso, emphasises the suffering of Christ

In front of the crossed over feet of Christ, there is a single rope barrier separating the viewer from the image.
The use of colour is interesting. The strong orange rectangular shape at the base of the composition forms a dynamic contrast with the complimentary blue of the background. Touches of lilac are scumbled over the blue background in places. A more dominant lilac area is painted next to the right leg of Christ and helps to emphasise the verticality of the figure. The dark black shadows behind the white figure of Christ and parts of the cross, pushes the agonised figure forward. This, and the slight use of perspective seen at the top of the cross, gives the sense of limited space in the composition.

Strong structural/directional lines are evident on both the orange rectangle and blue background. These also tend to flatten the space. The figure is outlined boldly in black

FIGURE 1B: Francis Bacon, Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion, 1944.
Bacon began to paint images based on the Crucifixion in 1933.
Painted by Bacon in 1944, this is a triptych The work is based on the Greek Furies and his interpretations of the Crucifixion, and depicts three writhing anthropomorphic creatures set against a flat burnt orange background.
Three studies was done in oil paint and pastel on fibre board and completed within the space of two weeks. His intention was to paint a huge Crucifixion figure and place these figures at the foot of the cross. This was never done.
The Three studies triptych is generally considered Bacon’s first mature piece – he regarded the works he created before the triptych, as irrelevant, and throughout his life tried to suppress their appearance on the art market.

Use of distortion/colour
In this work he makes use of deliberately distorted, elongated, dislocated organic forms- half human, half animal. One feels that they could bite, probe, and suck, with their very long eel-like necks and open mouths – but strangely, they are sightless. Each panel shows a single taut sculptural form contrasted against a harsh red /orange background.
Perhaps it is this red /orange background that makes one think of entrails, of an anatomy or a vivisection. It makes us feel squeamish.
The flesh tones of the figures were achieved by overlaying grey and white brushstrokes, while the figures’ props were coloured using a variety of yellow, green, white, and purple tones.
It has been suggested that of the three figures, the one on the left most closely resembles a human form, and that it might represent a mourner at the cross.

Seated on a table-like structure, this limbless creature has an elongated neck, heavily rounded shoulders, and a thick mop of dark hair. Like its sister objects, the left-hand figure is portrayed with layers of white and grey paint.
The central figure’s mouth is positioned directly on its neck, rather than on a distinct face. It bares its teeth as if in a snarl, and is blindfolded by a drooping cloth bandage. This creature faces the viewer directly and is centralised by a series of converging lines radiating from the base of the pedestal.
Situated on an isolated patch of grass, the right-hand figure’s toothed mouth is stretched open as if screaming, or perhaps yawning. Its mouth is open to a degree impossible for a human skull.
The orange background of this panel is brighter than on the other two panels, and the figure’s neck opens up into a row of teeth, while a protruding ear juts out from behind its lower jaw.

Use of directional lines
Bacon made use of an interesting spatial dynamic of three lines radiating from the central figure. The other two panels suggest an interior space – a low-ceilinged, windowless and oddly proportioned space – other than that the space has been flattened due to the strong red background that jumps forward towards the viewer. One cannot ignore the demonic creatures thus creating a mood that is violent and foreboding.
These frightened, blind, raging figures are visceral in their impact, jolting one into sensations of fright, horror, isolation and angst. We react to them as self-conscious creatures, their postures and expressions revealing feelings of petrified isolation, searing horror, pain and blind confusion.
When the painting was first exhibited in 1945, it caused a sensation, and helped to establish him as one of the foremost post-war painters.

This a useful chart for alternative descriptive words when you are writing an analysis of an artwork. 

Other ways to say

analyzing Art - step by step

From Art Mash

Click here for more in depth guide

Here are great examples to illustrate how to analyse painting;

Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1889 (Art Institute of Chicago)

Claude Monet, Cliff Walk at Pourville, 1882

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884, 1884-86

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

 From Durantas’ A guide for for Analyzing Works of Art; Sculpture and Painting

Trojan Horse | Willie Bester

Identification: Recording the Sculpture Details

  • Name of Artist if known, or anonymous
  • Title or subject of  the Work
  • Where it was made
  • Date

Technical Data

1. Size of work; in giving dimensions, list height first
2. Medium; from what material(s) is it constructed?
Is it carved from stone? Wood – if so, what kind? Modelled in clay and then cast in bronze? or glazed? Welded metal? Other?
3. If Historical – what is the general condition; whole or undamged? a fragment? worn? etc.
4. Display; Was the work meant to be seen on its own or as part of a complex sculptural or architectural setting? Free-standing? Mounted on a pedestal or base? Standing on ground? Against a wall? In a niche? Altar piece?

Jackson Hlungwane – Man riding Fish – His sculptures were functional in that they served as iconography in his ‘church’ just like sculpture would in classical Roman cathedrals.

Subject Matter

What is shown? Abstract, or representational (depicting recognizable people, people, place, things)?

Take inventory of what is represented, beginning with major motifs. To which culture, and/or belief system did the subject belong (the cult or myths of a particular tribe, clan, or court; the Hebrew Bible or New Testament; classical literature; the lives of saints, Renaissance literature; history, everyday life etc.

If the Human figure is represented, to what category does the person belong; deity, athlete, warrior, states person  private person, poet, philosopher, mythological figure, etc.

Characterization; consider age, pose, movement, attire, body build, skin quality, facial expression; psychological focus; emphasis on an anatomical or other parts, relationship of drapery or other clothing to the body?

If a group of figures, also consider; physical and psychological relationships among figures, movement from figure to to figure – rhythmic, patterned, disjointed etc.

Jane Alexander - Butcher Boys - They sit together on the bench but there is no communication between them.

Jane Alexander – Butcher Boys – They sit together on the bench but there is no communication between them. “The deformed and stunted relations between human beings that were created under colonialism and exacerbated under what is loosely called apartheid have their psychic representation in a deformed and stunted inner life.“ -J. M. Coetzee

Formal Analysis

Prevailing Axis; Vertical, horizontal, diagonal, spiral?

Volumes; What kind of three-dimensional forms are basic to the sculpture? Geometric (conic, cubic, pyramidal, etc.)? Irregular (organic – lifelike; jagged; smooth)? A particular combination of the irregular and geometric? How are these forms organized (including relative scale or proportion)?

What kind of three-dimensional forms are basic to the sculpture? Geometric (conic, cubic, pyramidal, etc.)?

Space; To what degree does the sculpture displace space? Do forms and surrounding space interpenetrates? Is it a relief that creates an illusion of space within it?  Is the sculpture frontal Does it turn in space? Was it meant to be seen from one point of view only, or from many?

Line; How is line used in the sculpture? Contour; does the work have an open or closed silhouette? Are the dominant linear elements seen in the forms themselves, or are they incised onto the surface? What is the relationship between the linear and volumetric elements?

Colour: Is colour or gilding added to the sculpture? Is the colour of the material of special importance? Does the colour have a thematic significance? Does it have a descriptive or expressive function?

Sculpture at Mynydd Mawr Woodland Park – head of gilded driftwood and painted wood-and-tyre

Light; Has the artist considered the effect of light upon his work? Are the forms arranged so that a particular effect of light and shade will be attained? Do part s of the sculpture cast shadows? Are there sharp protrusions that catch the light? Deep pockets of shadows?

Relation of Technique and Material to form; Are some of the forms inherent to the carving or modelling or assembling process? Has the surface been polished? Is there a pattern on the surface?

Further Iconographic analysis; (i.e., historical analysis of subject matter) Is the subject treated in the same way in contemporary works? Has this been a constant tradition, or has the theme varied over the centuries? Is it a new subject altogether? Has a radically new interpretation been given to an old subject?

Function; Was the work intended for public or private viewing? Was its function primarily sepulchral (tomb, grave), votive ( votive offering is object(s) displayed or deposited, in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes),  Was it made as a copy of an admired work, or inspired by another work?

Ancient Greek votive relief, 400 BCE. Asclepios is sitting on an omphalos between his wife Epione and a man clad in himation, Acropolis Museum, Athens

Content; 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?