Writing about Art

Writing about Art

Art is a provocative medium, and your challenge in writing about art may often be

to define and evaluate the artist’s choices and techniques, which, according to your

intellect and perception, arouse interest and convey meaning. In most cases, then, you

will be translating the visual (what you see, or observe) into language (what you write).

In order to do this, you will have to be extremely attentive to the characteristics of the work—your observations.

This means that your description will incorporate a large portion of your essay.  Remember

to be attentive to the vocabulary of the discipline of Art.  I f you do not know what a word means, better not to use it.

You must also be able to develop a thesis statement with a detailed analysis and argument about the artwork you have chosen.

Therefore, you must consider what it is you want to say, and use description to make that

point. In many ways, writing an Art History essay is similar to writing other types of

essays in the Humanities. It requires a clear and focused topic, an arguable thesis, an

organized format and structure, clear and coherent paragraphs, and a command of

grammar and style.

Comparison and Contrast

In many beginning Art History courses, and in more advanced ones as well, you

will be asked to write a paper in which you make a comparison and contrast between two

works of art. This type of essay usually requires a substantial comparative judgment of the two works, which will function as your thesis statement.

One option for a thesis statement for this kind of comparative essay could be based on how you see the two works in relation to each other and to some aspect of the human condition, or culture, or history. It could be, for example, that both artists painted peasants working in a field, but one painting suggests the oneness of humans and nature, perhaps because the figures appear to be an integral part of the field in which they are working, while the other painting emphasizes the separation between humans and nature. The evidence you provide for your thesis will include your interpretation, analysis, and description of the characteristics of both works, and must at all times relate to your thesis. For example, if you are discussing horizontality or verticality, you need to first accurately and clearly describe these elements in both works and then evaluate how these visual orientations demonstrate the validity of your thesis concerning humans as a part of nature or separate from it.

Unless the assignment specifies a work-by-work approach, it is usually best that

you do not divide the paper into two discrete sections: a discussion of one work of art

followed by a discussion of the other. Instead, each paragraph can include discussion of

both works in relation to a particular element or a well thought-out combination of

elements, such as color and texture.  The point of comparison or contrast that each paragraph makes must, remember, support the point of your paper, your thesis.

Thesis Statement- In this writing assignment I am giving you the thesis statement.

Most academic essays seek to persuade readers to understand a specific issue in a

specific way—the writer’s way. The writer’s thesis statement offers this substantial but

concise assertion of her/his understanding (usually in one to two sentences in the

introduction or near the beginning of the essay), thereby providing an essay with its

judgmental focus.  Perhaps, though, in writing about art you might want to offer a well thought-out central idea rather than an overtly argumentative statement. For example, “African art was a major influence on the work of Pablo Picasso” states a well-documented and widely shared opinion that is interesting but uncontroversial. Of course, a paper on this

topic would have to fully elaborate on that relationship and offer examples of it.

The difference between an idea and a thesis statement is in their degree of

contention. The above example of a central idea could be debatable, but mainly the

disagreement would arise if the writer does not adequately explain and illustrate the idea

through detailed description, intelligent criticism, and analysis, and not because of the

idea itself.   However, in a thesis statement—such as, “Picasso’s treatment of women in his art mirrors the distorted vision he had of women in general”—it is more obvious that readers will either strongly disagree or agree, by the very nature of the claim itself. Moreover, even if the writer advances a stimulating argument with impressive evidence in defense of the thesis, because the claim is so contentious, a reader may still disagree.

Using Sources

A good research paper often includes evidence from both

Primary and secondary sources . Whether you are using primary or secondary sources, remember to explain and analyze the passages that you have chosen from the texts (or elements you have chosen from the works), and what those passages (or elements) mean in relation to your argument. You must also prepare your reader before using passages (direct or paraphrased) by providing at least a brief background.

Primary Sources

Primary sources refer to the original materials (not what another author says about

them). In the case of art, primary sources will most likely be the art (paintings, sculptures,

installations) itself, or interviews with artists. Your most Primary Source is you looking at the work.

Secondary Sources

Interpreting and commenting on primary sources, secondary sources include

books and articles in scholarly journals. These texts are extremely helpful as they deepen

our knowledge of art and inform us of the many critical approaches to art that scholars

and other specialists in the field have taken. Even though these sources are of great value,

an art paper is usually not comprised entirely of secondary sources.


You will be required to document all of your sources, including ideas,

paraphrases, quotations, and references to a complete text. We will be using

the MLA (The Modern Language Association) for source documentation.

Formal Analysis

Although this is a type of writing about art it is also the way art historians look and understand art. The formal analysis is a technique you can use to observe a painting sculpture or building.  If you get into the habit of looking at art work this way you will be observing completely. A Formal Analysis considers all the formal parts (e.g., framing, symmetry, perspective, etc.) of a work of art and their relationship to each other to create new and interesting ways of observing and understanding the work in question as a whole.   Please use the guide below to help you focus on how to look at art work.

[The following questions have been adapted from a guide written by J.S. Held, Professor

Emeritus, Barnard College.]


1. Identification

–Who is the artist?

–What is the subject or title?

–Where and when was the work painted?

2. Subject Matter

–What type of painting is it?

a. religious

b. historical

c. allegorical

d. genre (scene of everyday life)

e. still life

f. portrait

g. landscape

h. architectural view

–If the painting seems to belong to two or more categories, does one dominate?

3. Frame and Pictorial Area

–What is the relationship of the shapes to the frame? Are they harmonious or


–What is the actual size of the picture (height x width)?

–Does the frame cut the shapes?

4. Technique

–What materials are used for support: wood, canvas, cardboard, paper?

–What kinds of colors are used: oil, tempura, watercolor, pastel?

–How is the paint applied: thickly or thinly, with a fine or coarse brush, or by

other means?

–Are colors transparent or opaque?

–Have other materials been used, as in a collage?

5. Composition (arrangement of the parts that form the whole)

–Organization: Is it simple or complex? Geometrically ordered or free and

seemingly accidental? Do some forms dominate others? Is there symmetry?

Is the painting crowded or spacious? Do the shapes vary or do they repeat?

–Individual units: Are there many or few? Are they large or small (in relation to

both the outside world and to the picture area)? What kinds of patterns do they form? What are the proportions of solid and broken areas? Is the emphasis on central or marginal areas? Are forms multi-dimensional or flat?

–Lines: Are lines clear or obscure? Angular or curved?

–Colors: Are they bright or subdued (‘saturated’ or ‘low-key’)? Are there many

colors or few (is the palette ‘wide’ or ‘limited’)? Are the dominant colors

warm (reds, oranges, yellows) or cool (blues, grays, greens)? Are there

moderate or extreme contrasts? Large areas or small patches? Repetitions or


–Light: Is there a consistent source? Is the source inside or outside the picture? Is

light used to emphasize parts of the picture, to create mood?

–Space: Is the space shallow or deep, open or screened? Is the emphasis on

solids or voids (intervals)? What kind of perspective is used (linear or aerial)? Is the main interest near or far? Is space suggested by in-depth or recessed planes? Is there any overlap? What is the degree of illusion?

Considerations for Different Types of Subject Matter

1. Landscape

–What is the size of the area shown?

–What is the spectator’s viewpoint?

–How far can we see into the picture?

–What kind of place is shown: cultivated fields, woods, riverbank?

–Can the season or time of day be determined?

–What kind of human activity is shown, if any?

–What kind of architectural elements appear and what are their thematic and

spatial relationships to the site?

–What is the proportion of cloud to sky? Plane to elevation? Water to land?

–What is the general character of the scene: attractive, forbidding, calm,

turbulent, spectacular, intimate? What elements determine the effect: lighting, color scheme, spatial organization?

2. General Observations

–Does the work seem spontaneous or calculated?

–How do the formal elements convey theme, mood, visual interest?

–What was the original function of the picture? Was it done for a public or

private place?

–Is it possible to make a reasoned statement about the artist’s aim? Does the artist

wish to elevate the spirit, instruct, moralize, entertain, or satisfy her/his own

need for expression?

For this Journal you are asked to write a comparison between two works.  The first one is the Stone Breakers by Courbet. It is figure 31-12 in your text.

A boy and a middle-aged man work in the ditch along the side of a road, breaking stones with hammers and pickaxes, then moving the fresh gavel in baskets. A satchel and a cooking pot sit to the side, on a blanket.

The second image is by John Constable, The Hay Wain, from chapter 3, figure 30-61.

Two farmers ride a horse-drawn cart across a shallow brook that flows past a cottage. A dog watches the men as they head toward a green field, surrounded by tall trees.

Both paintings are landscapes with people.  Your thesis statement is: “How do Realism and the avant-garde in art represent the rejection of academic taste and practice?”  The painting that is a Realist avant-garde piece is the Courbet,  the paiting by Constable represents the past academic taste and practice.

Requirements for Journal:

Follow all directions, rogue journals will recieve a grade of 0.

1. Formal analysis of both pieces should include observations from each of the five areas listed above.

2. Use the “Considerations of subject matter” to help you to compare the paintings and draw conclusions about the thesis statement.

3. Use a mimimum of secondary sources and cite them correctly.

4. Mainly use primary sources, you looking at the work.

5. Journals should be long enough to completely answer the thesis statement.