How to Write a Visual Analysis Essay: Examples & Template

A visual analysis essay is an academic paper type that history and art students often deal with. It consists of a detailed description of an image or object. It can also include an interpretation or an argument that is supported by visual evidence.

The picture shows the definition of a visual analysis.

In this article, our custom writing experts will:

  • explain what a visual analysis is;
  • share useful tips on how to write a good visual analysis essay;
  • provide an essay sample.

🎨 What Is a Visual Analysis?

The primary objective of visual analysis is to understand an artwork better by examining the visual elements. There are two types of visual analysis: formal and contextual.

  • A formal analysis focuses on artwork elements such as texture, color, size, and line. It aims to organize visual information and translate it into words. A formal analysis doesn’t interpret the piece.
  • Unlike formal analysis, contextual analysis’ primary goal is to connect artwork to its purpose or meaning within a culture. A contextual analysis includes formal analysis. Additionally, it discusses an artwork’s social purpose and significance.

Usually, students deal with formal visual analysis. Before starting to work on your essay, make sure to ask your professor whether to include contextual analysis or not.

The Purpose of Analyzing Images

Why is visual analysis important? What does it help to learn? There are several things that visual analysis helps with:

  • It allows students to enhance their appreciation of art.
  • It enables students to develop the ability to synthesize information.
  • It encourages students to seek out answers instead of simply receiving them.
  • It prompts higher-order critical thinking and helps to create a well-reasoned analysis.
  • By conducting visual analysis, students learn how to support and explain their ideas by studying visual information.

What Is Formal Analysis: Art History

When we look at an artwork, we want to know why it was created, who made it, and what its function was. That’s why art historians and researchers pay special attention to the role of artworks within historical contexts.

Visual analysis is a helpful tool in exploring art. It focuses on the following aspects:

  • Interpretation of subject matter (iconography). An iconographic analysis is an explanation of the work’s meaning. Art historians try to understand what is shown and why it is depicted in a certain way.
  • The analysis of function. Many works of art were designed to serve a purpose that goes beyond aesthetics. Understanding that purpose by studying their historical use helps learn more about artworks. It also establishes a connection between function and appearance.

Formal Analysis: Art Glossary

Now, let’s look at some visual elements and principles and learn how to define them.

Visual Elements:

ElementDefinition
Line Lines can be obvious, or they can be formed by the placement of objects. They can vary in length, width, and direction.
Shape Shapes are two-dimensional. They can be geometric or organic. Familiar shapes help us focus on particular parts of an artwork.
Form Forms are three-dimensional. Such figures as cylinders, pyramids, and spheres are forms.
Color Color is light that reflects off of objects. Its main characteristics are hue, value, and intensity. Colors can also be warm or cool.
Texture A texture is a feel, appearance, or quality of a surface of an object. It can be used in two-dimensional and three-dimensional artworks.
Space Space is a feeling of depth. It also refers to the artist’s use of the area within the painting. Space can be positive or negative.

Visual Principles:

PrincipleDefinition
Balance Balance is the distribution of visual elements and weights of objects, colors, textures, and space. Balance can be symmetrical and asymmetrical.
Emphasis Emphasis defines the center of interest in a painting and catches the viewer’s attention. It’s usually different from the rest of the work.
Subordination Subordination supports the center of interest. It is a part of an artwork that is played down to let the emphasis stand out.
Rhythm Rhythm is the relationship between elements. It creates a visual tempo and establishes a sense of harmony by repeating certain features.
Movement Movement is the path the viewer’s eyes follow, coming to the focal points of a work. The movement is usually directed by the lines, shapes, and colors of an art piece.

🏺 How to Analyze Artworks: Different Types

Writing a formal analysis is a skill that requires practice. Being careful and attentive during the pre-writing stage is essential if you want to create a good and well-structured visual analysis. 

Visual analysis essay mainly consists of two components:

  • Description of the selected image or object,
  • Interpretation built on the visual evidence.

During the pre-writing stage:

  1. Collect general information about an artwork. Describe it briefly. Pay special attention to visual elements and principles:
✔️ Composition What do you notice first? Why?
✔️ Color What colors are used? How are they arranged?
✔️ Shapes Are the figures abstract or realistic?
  1. Develop an interpretation. Think critically. What does the information in your notes imply? How can it be interpreted?
  2. Support your ideas. To do it, refer to the visual elements directly. Avoid generalizing art and double-check your prompts. 

How to Analyze a Painting Using the Elements of Art

To write an excellent formal visual analysis, you need to consider as many visual principles and elements as you can apply. In the formal analysis part:

  • Target your description;
  • Address only those elements relevant to your essay;
  • Pay attention to visual elements and principles;
  • Introduce the subject of the painting and describe it;
  • Explain why you have decided to discuss specific elements;
  • Discuss the relationship between visual elements of the artwork;
  • Use the vocabulary terms.

If you are asked to do a contextual analysis, you may want to:

  • Focus on the historical importance of an artwork;
  • Explore the style or movement associated with an artwork;
  • Learn about the historical context and the public’s reaction to the artwork;
  • Learn about the author and how they’ve created the piece of art.

Painting Analysis Essay Example & Tips

Here is a template you can use for your essay.

Description Give a brief description of the painting. What do you see? What areas of the artwork grab your attention?
Analysis In the analysis part, pay attention to visual elements and principles. Describe them and say how they all come together.
Interpretation Look at the artwork from a cultural perspective. What does the author express? What does it mean to the viewer?
Evaluation Finally, state your personal opinion. What do you feel when you look at the art piece?

Now, let’s take a look at an essay example.

Description Starry Night (1889) is a Vincent van Gogh oil painting of a night landscape brimmed with whirling clouds, luminous stars, and a bright crescent moon. The artist uses a mix of warm, cold, and neutral colors. Yellows on top of blues create a clear contrast, making the stars and crescent moon stand out.
Analysis In Starry Night, van Gogh uses his unique thick brush strokes. The technique adds depth and rich texture to the painting. The use of whites and yellows draws more attention to the sky. Vertical lines in the form of a cypress tree and a church tower break up the composition.
Interpretation Through his painting, van Gogh contrasts life and death, brightly shining stars, and a gloomy yet peaceful village.
Evaluation Starry Night is a painting that reflects Vincent van Goh’s inner world. It embodies his unique style and personality. The piece has a major influence on modern art.

How to Analyze a Photograph

Analyzing photos has a lot in common with paintings. There are three methods on which photo visual analysis relies: description, reflection, and formal analysis. Historical analysis can be included as well, though it is optional.

  1. Description. It implies looking closely at the photo and considering all the details. The description needs to be objective and consists of basic statements that don’t express an opinion.
Good descriptionBad description
The girl in the middle is the tallest one. She wears a white linen dress. The girl in the middle is the most beautiful among the three.
  1. Reflection. For the next step, focus on the emotions that the photograph evokes. Here, every viewer will have a different opinion and feelings about the artwork. Knowing some historical context may be helpful to construct a thoughtful response.
  2. Formal analysis. Think of the visual elements and principles. How are they represented in the photograph?
  3. Historical analysis. For a contextual analysis, you need to pay attention to the external elements of the photograph. Make sure that you understand the environmental context in which the photo was taken. Under what historical circumstances was the picture made?

Photo Analysis Essay Tips

Now that we’ve talked about analyzing a photograph let’s look at some helpful tips that will help you write an essay.

✔️ Dos❌ Don’ts
  • Choose an image that has many lines, shapes, people, or interestingly positioned objects.
  • When discussing visual elements and principles, use terms such as “frame magnetism,” “line direction,” visual weight,” and “human figures.”
  • Avoid telling the story of the photograph or explaining its hidden meaning.
  • Don’t create lists of descriptions. Instead, use well-organized paragraphs.
  • Avoid spelling mistakes.

How to Analyze a Sculpture

Visual analysis of a sculpture is slightly different from the one of a painting or a photograph. However, it still uses similar concepts, relies on visual elements and principles. When you write about sculpture, consider:

Medium, size, and technique. What is the sculpture made of? Is it done in a negative or positive technique?
Color and lightning. Iа the sculpture is painted, describe its color. Did the sculptor consider the lighting of the sculpture’s initial location?
Human body and scale. If a human body is a part of an artwork, consider how it is depicted. Also, note the scale of the sculpture relative to the viewer.
Function. What was the sculpture’s purpose? For instance, you can mention if it represented a religious belief or honored someone.
Composition. Look at how the sculpture is organized and whether it has a focal point.

Visual Analysis Essay on a Sculpture: Writing Tips

A sculpture analysis consists of the following parts:

  1. Description. Include specific details, such as what the sculpture may represent. For instance, the human figure may be an athlete, an ancient God, a poet, etc. Consider their pose, body build, and attire.
  2. Formal analysis. Here, visual elements and principles become the focus. Discuss the color, shape, technique, and medium.
  3. Contextual analysis. If you decide to include a contextual analysis, you can talk about the sculpture’s function and how it conveysideas and sentiments of that period. Mention its historical and cultural importance.

When it comes to sculpture analysis, you may also want to collect technical data such as:

  • The size of the sculpture
  • Medium (the material)
  • The current condition (is it damaged, preserved as a fragment, or as a whole piece)
  • Display (Was a sculpture a part of an architectural setting, or was it an independent piece of work?)

For instance, if you were to do a visual analysis of Laocoön and His Sons, you could first look up such details:

Example:

  • Location: Discovered in a Roman vineyard in 1506
  • Current location: Vatican
  • Date: Hellenistic Period (323 BCE – 31 CE)
  • Size: Height 208 cm; Width 163 cm; Depth 112 cm
  • Material: Marble
  • Current condition: Missing several parts.

Visual Analysis Essay: Advertisement Analysis

Visuals are used in advertisements to attract attention or convince the public that they need what is being advertised. The purpose of a visual argument is to create interest. Advertisements use images to convey information and communicate with the audience.

When writing a visual analysis of an advertisement, pay attention to the following:

  • text elements,
  • font,
  • illustrations,
  • composition.

All of this influences how the viewer perceives the information and reacts to it.

When you write about an advertisement, you conduct a rhetorical analysis of its visual elements. Visual rhetoric is mainly directed at analyzing images and extracting information from them. It helps to understand the use of typography, imagery, and the arrangement of elements on the page.

Think of the famous visual rhetoric examples such as the We can do it! poster or a Chanel №5 commercial. Both examples demonstrate how persuasive imagery has been used throughout history.

How to Write a Visual Analysis Paper on an Advertisement

The presentation of visual elements in advertising is essential. It helps to convince the audience. When you analyze visual arguments, always keep the rhetorical situation in mind. Here are some crucial elements to focus on:

Audience Who is the advertisement targeted at?
Purpose What does the image try to convey to the audience?
Design How is the information presented? What colors are used? Are there any highlights or repetitions?
Strategies Does the image use any humor, celebrities, or cultural references to make the point?
Medium Is there any text within the picture? If so, how does it work together with the image to create an intended effect?
Context Who are the characters of an advertisement? Where are they?
Subtext What are the implications behind the words used in the picture?

✅ How to Write a Visual Analysis Paper: Step by Step

Now, we’ll focus on the paper itself and how to structure it. But first, check out the list of topics and choose what suits you best.

Visual Analysis Essay Topics

There are a lot of artworks and advertisements that can be analyzed and viewed from different perspectives. Here are some essay topics on visual analysis that you may find helpful:

Painting:

  1. Analyze Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-1908.)
  2. The theme of humanity and The Son of Man (1964) by René Magritte.
  3. The use of visual elements in Almond Blossom by Vincent van Gogh (1888-1890.)
  4. Identity and Seated Harlequin (1901) by Picasso.
  5. Explore the themes of Paul Klee’s The Tree of Houses, 1918.

Photography:

  1. The idea behind Lindsay Key (1985) by Robert Mapplethorpe.
  2. Explore the mythical appeal of Robert Capa’s photograph The Falling Soldier (Spain,1936) from Death in Making photobook.
  3. Describe Two Boys with Fish (2018) from Faith series by Mario Macilau.
  4. Kevin Carter’s Starving Child and Vulture (1993) as the representation of photojournalism.
  5. The story behind Philippe Halsman’s Dali Atomicus, 1948.

Sculpture:

  1. Modern art and Couple on Seat by Lynn Chadwick (1984.)
  2. Analyze the biblical context of Pieta (1498-1499) by Michelangelo.
  3. The use of shapes in Louise Bourgeois’ Spider (1996.)
  4. Analysis of the symbolism behind The Thinker (1880) by Rodin.
  5. The historical meaning of Fountain (1917) by Duchamp.

Advertisement:

  1. How Volkswagen: Think Small (1960) ad changed advertising.
  2. Analyze the use of figures in California Milk Processor Board: Got Milk? (1993) ad campaign.
  3. Analyze the use of colors in Coca-Cola — The Pause that Refreshes (1931.)
  4. Explore the historical context of We Can Do It! (1942) campaign.
  5. The importance of a slogan in 1947: A Diamond Is Forever by De Beers.

Visual Analysis Essay Outline

You can use this art analysis template to structure your essay:

The picture shows the main steps in writing a visual analysis essay: introduction, main body, conclusion.

How to Start an Art Essay

Every analysis starts with an introduction. In the first paragraph, make sure that:

  • the reader knows that this essay is a visual analysis;
  • you have provided all the necessary background information about an artwork.

It’s also important to know how to introduce an artwork. If you’re dealing with a panting or a photograph, it’s better to integrate them into the first page of your analysis. This way, the reader can see the piece and use it as a reference while reading your paper.

Art Thesis Statement Examples & Tips

Formulating a thesis is an essential step in every essay. Depending on the purpose of your paper, you can either focus your visual analysis thesis statement on formal elements or connect it with the contextual meaning. 

To create a strong thesis, you should relate it to an artwork’s meaning, significance, or effect. Your interpretation should put out an argument that someone could potentially disagree with. 

  • For instance, you can consider how formal elements or principles impact the meaning of an artwork. Here are some options you can consider:
Focus on interpreting how formal elements and principles give meaning to the artwork.  In Starry Night, the village is painted with dark colors, but the brightly lit windows create a sense of comfort.
Comment on the overall organization of an art piece. Van Gogh’s swirling sky directs the viewer’s eye around the painting.
Another option is to relate the painting to the other artworks you have studied or seen before. If we compare Munch’s The Scream to van Gogh’s Starry Night, we can see that a similar swirling technique was used to paint the sky.
  • If your focus is the contextual analysis, you can find the connection between the artwork and the artist’s personal life or a historical event.

How to Write Visual Analysis Body Paragraphs

Body paragraphs of formal analysis consist of two parts—the description and the analysis itself. Let’s take Klimt’s The Kiss as an example:

Description The painting shows an embracing couple concealed behind a large golden cloak. Two distinct parts constitute the image. First, the part of the cloak covering the man has a repeating geometric black and white motif. Meanwhile, the second part of the cloak, covering the woman, has flowers and circles on it.
Analysis The author uses predominantly warm shades such as gold and bronze brown. Spatial flatness using two-dimensional patterns was deliberately employed except at the couple’s exposed skin. Klimt was heavily influenced by the art of Japan, ancient Egypt, and Byzantine Ravenna, which preferred two-dimensional perspective styles to emphasize human subject matter.

The contextual analysis includes interpretation and evaluation.

Interpretation Gustav Klimt’sThe Kiss is the reflection of tenderness and passion. Klimt was working on The Kiss during his Golden Phase. Within the paintings of that period, Klimt treats the human figures as two-dimensional. They are also all surrounded by flat, brightly composed, and highly ornamental decorations.
Evaluation The Kiss is a very significant piece for several reasons. It represents the apex of Klimt’s Golden Period and shows his distinctive style. The piece is also a fantastic example of the Art Nouveau movement.

Visual Analysis Essay Conclusion

When you work on the conclusion, try to conclude your paper without restating the thesis. At the end of your essay, you can present an interesting fact. You can also try to:

  • Compare an artwork to similar ones;
  • Contrast your own ideas on the piece with the reaction people had when it was first revealed.
  • Talk about an artwork’s significance to the culture and art in general.

📑 Visual Analysis Essay Example & Citation Tips

In this section of the article, we will share some tips on how to reference an artwork in a paper. We will also provide an essay example.

How to Reference a Painting in an Essay

When you work on visual analysis, it is important to know how to write the title of an artwork properly. Citing a painting, a photograph, or any other visual source, will require a little more information than citing a book or an article. Here is what you will need:

  1. Size dimensions
  2. The medium
  3. Current location
  4. Name of the piece
  5. Artist’s name
  6. Date when artwork was created

If you want to cite a painting or an artwork you saw online, you will also need:

  1. The name of the website
  2. Website URL
  3. Page’s publication date
  4. Date of your access

How to Properly Credit an Artwork in APA

Works you see in personWorks you see online
  • Artist’s last name, artist’s first initial. (Year).
  • Title of painting [Description of material]. 
  • Museum, city, state abbreviation/country.

Example: Picasso, P. (1905). Au Lapin Agile [Oil canvas]. Metropolitan Museum Of Art, New York City, NY.
  • Artist’s last name, artist’s first initial. (Year). 
  • Title of painting [Description of material].
  • Museum, city, state abbreviation/country.
  • Name of source website (publication date or n.d. if no date is given).
  • Retrieved from: URL of the website.

Example: Picasso, P. (1905). Au Lapin Agile [Oil canvas]. Metropolitan Museum Of Art, New York City, NY. The Met (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.metmuseum.org

How to Properly Credit an Artwork in MLA

Works you see in personWorks you see online
  • Artist’s last name, artist’s first name. 
  • Title of artwork or description.
  • Year of creation, museum, city.

Example: Monet, Claud. Cliff Walk at Pourville. 1882, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
  • Artist’s last name, artist’s first name. 
  • Title of artwork or description.
  • Year of creation, museum, city. 
  • Title of the website, URL.

Example: Monet, Claud. Cliff Walk at Pourville. 1882, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. Artic.edu, https://www.artic.edu

How to Properly Credit an Artwork in Chicago Format

Works you see in personWorks you see online
  • Artist’s last name, artist’s first name. 
  • Title of painting. 
  • Year painting was created.
  • Description of materials.
  • Dimensions if relevant.
  • Museum, city.

Example: Bacon, Francis. Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. 1953. Oil on canvas. 153cm x 118cm. Des Moines Art Center, Iowa.
  • Artist’s last name, artist’s first name. 
  • Title of painting. 
  • Year painting was created.
  • Description of materials.
  • Dimensions.
  • Museum, city.
  • Accessed month, day, year.
  • URL.

Example: Bacon, Francis. Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. 1953. Oil on canvas. 153cm x 118cm. Des Moines Art Center, Iowa. Accessed July 24, 2020. https://www.francis-bacon.com

Finally, here’s a sample visual analysis of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker in APA format. Feel free to download it below.

Example:

Many people believe that works of art are bound to be immortal. Indeed, some remarkable masterpieces have outlived their artists by many years, gaining more and more popularity with time. Among them is The Thinker, a brilliant sculpture made by Auguste Rodin, depicting a young, athletic man, immersed deep into his thoughts.

Visual Analysis of Rodin's The Thinker
Download the free sample

Thanks for reading through our article! We hope you found it helpful. Don’t hesitate to share it with your friends.

Further reading:

❓ Visual Analysis FAQs

📌 How do you write a visual argument essay?

To write a visual argument essay, you need to use rhetorical analysis. Visual rhetoric is directed at analyzing images and extracting the information they contain. It helps to analyze the visuals and the arrangement of elements on the page.

📌 How do you write a contextual analysis of art?

A well-though contextual analysis will include:

1. formal analysis,
2. some information about the artist,
3. details on when and where the piece was created,
4. the social purpose of the work,
5. its cultural meaning.

📌 How do you include pictures in a research paper?

It is better to include pictures in the introduction part of your paper. Make sure to cite them correctly according to the format you’re using. Don’t forget to add the website name, the URL, and the access date.

📌 What does “analyze” mean in art?

To analyze means not only to describe but also to evaluate and synthesize visual information. To do that, you need to learn about visual elements and principles and see how and why they are used within artworks.

🔍 References

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