How to Analyze Art – Formal Art Analysis Guide and Example

Man Analyzing Art

What is this Guide Helpful for?

Every work of art is a complex system and a pattern of intentions. Learning to observe and analyze artworks’ most distinctive features is a task that requires time but primarily training. Even the eye must be trained to art -whether paintings, photography, architecture, drawing, sculptures, or mixed-media installations. The eyes, as when one passes from darkness to light, need time to adapt to the visual and sensory stimuli of artworks.

This brief compendium aims to provide helpful tools and suggestions to analyze art. It can be useful to guide students who are facing a critical analysis of a particular artwork, as in the case of a paper assigned to high school art students. But it can also be helpful when the assignment concerns the creation of practical work, as it helps to reflect on the artistic practice of experienced artists and inspire their own work. However, that’s not all. These concise prompts can also assist those interested in taking a closer look at the art exhibited by museums, galleries, and cultural institutions. They are general suggestions that can be applied to art objects of any era or style since they are those suggested by the history of art criticism.

Knowing exactly what an artist wanted to communicate through his or her artwork is an impossible task, but not even relevant in critical analysis. What matters is to personally interpret and understand it, always wondering what ideas its features suggest. The viewer’s attention can fall on different aspects of a painting, and different observers can even give contradictory interpretations of the same artwork. Yet the starting point is the same setlist of questions. Here are the most common and effective ones.

How to Write a Successful Art Analysis

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1911, via Wikiart
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1911, via Wikiart

Composition and Formal Analysis: What Can I See?

The first question to ask in front of an artwork is: what do I see? What is it made of? And how is it realized? Let’s limit ourselves to an objective, accurate pure description of the object; from this preliminary formal analysis, other questions (and answers!) will arise.

  • You can ask yourself what kind of object it is, what genre; if it represents something figuratively or abstractly, observing its overall style.
  • You can investigate the composition and the form: shape (e.g. geometric, curvilinear, angular, decorative, tridimensional, human), size (is it small or large size? is it a choice forced by the limits of the display or not?), orientation (horizontally or vertically oriented)
  • the use of the space: the system of arrangement (is it symmetrical? Is there a focal point or emphasis on specific parts ?), perspective (linear perspective, aerial perspective, atmospheric perspective), space viewpoint, sense of full and voids, and rhythm.
  • You can observe its colors: palette and hues (cool, warm), intensity (bright, pure, dull, glossy, or grainy…), transparency or opacity, value, colors effects, and choices (e.g. complementary colors)
  • Observe the texture (is it flat or tactile? Has it other surface qualities?)
  • You can analyze the study of light (chiaroscuro, tonal modeling, light sourcing, atmosphere)
    • or the type of lines (horizontal, vertical, implied lines, chaotic, underdrawing, contour, or leading lines)

After completing this observation, it is important to ask yourself what are the effects of these chromatic, compositional, and formal choices. Are they the result of randomness, limitations of the site, display, or material? Or perhaps they are meant to convey a specific idea or overall mood? Does the artwork support your insights?

Media and Materials: How the Artist Create?

  • First of all, the medium must be investigated. What are these objects? Architecture, drawing, film, installation, painting, performing art, photography, printmaking, sculpture, sound art, textiles, and more.
  • What materials and tools did the artists use to create their work? Oil paint, acrylic paint, charcoal, pastel, tempera, fresco, marble, bronze, but also concrete, glass, stone, wood, ceramics, lithography…The list of materials is potentially endless, especially in contemporary arts, but it is also among the easiest information to find! A valid catalog or museum label will always list materials and techniques used by artists.
  • What techniques, methods, and processes are used by the artist? The same goes for materials, techniques are numerous and often related to the overall feeling or style that the artist has set out to achieve. In a critical analysis, it is important to reflect on what this technique entails. Do not overdo with a verbose technical explanation.

Why did the artist choose to make the work this way and with such features (materials and techniques)? Are they traditional, academic techniques and materials or, on the contrary, innovative and experimental? What idea does the artist communicate with the choice of these media? Try to reflect, for example, on their preciousness, or cultural significance, or even durability, fragility, heaviness, or lightness.

Context, Biography, Purpose: What’s Outside the Artwork?

Through formal analysis, it is possible to obtain a precise description of the artistic object. However, artworks are also documents, which attest to facts that happen or have happened outside the frame! The artwork relates to themes, stories, specific ideas, which belong to the artist and to the society in which he or she is immersed. To analyze art in a relevant way, we also must consider the context.

  • What are the intentions of the artist to create this work? The purpose? Art may be commissioned, commemorative, educational, of practical use, for the public or for private individuals, realized to communicate something. Let’s ask ourselves why the artist created it, and why at that particular time.
  • The artist’s life also cannot be overlooked. We always look at the work in the light of his biography: in what moment of life was it made? Where was the artist? What other artworks had he/she done in close temporal proximity? Biographical sources are invaluable.
  • In what context (historical, social, political, cultural) was the artwork made? Artwork supports (or may even deliberately oppose) the climate in which it is immersed. Find out about the political, natural, historical event; the economic, religious, cultural situation of its period.
  • Of paramount importance is the cultural atmosphere. What artistic movements, currents, fashions, and styles were prevalent at the time? This allows us to make comparisons with other objects, to question the taste of the time. In other words, to open the horizons of our analysis.

Subject and Meaning: What does it Want to Communicate?

We observed artwork as an object, with visible material and formal characteristics; then we understood that it can be influenced by the context and intentions of the artist. Finally, it is essential to investigate what it wants to communicate. The content of the work passes through the subject matter, its stories, implicit or explicit symbolism.

  • You can preliminarily ask what genre of artwork it is, which is very helpful with paintings. Is it a realistic painting of a landscape, abstract, religious, historical-mythical, a portrait, a still life, or much else?
  • You can ask questions about the title if it is present. Or perhaps question its absence.
  • You can observe the figures. Ask yourself about their identity, age, rank, connections with the artist, or cultural relevance. Observe what their expression or pose communicates.
  • You can also observe the objects, places, or scenes that take place in the work. How are they depicted (realistic, abstract, impressionistic, expressionistic, primitive); what story do they tell?
  • Are there concepts that perhaps are conveyed implicitly, through symbols, allegories, signs, textual or iconographic elements? Do they have a precise meaning inserted there?
  • You can try to describe the overall feeling of the artwork, whether it is positive or negative, but also go deeper: does it communicate calmness, melancholy, tension, energy, or anger, shock? Try to listen to your own emotional reaction as well.

Subjective Interpretation: What does it Communicate to Me?

And finally, the crucial question, what did this work spark in me?

We can talk about aesthetic taste and feeling, but not only. A critical judgment also involves the degree of effectiveness of the work. Has the artist succeeded, through his formal, technical, stylistic choices, in communicating a specific idea? What did the critics think at the time and ask yourself what you think today? Are there any temporal or personal biases that may affect your judgment? Significative artworks are capable of speaking, of telling a story in every era. Whether nice or bad.

A Brief History of Art Criticism

Erwin Panofsky reading, via Institute for Advanced Study Princeton
Erwin Panofsky reading, via Institute for Advanced Study Princeton

The stimulus questions collected here are the result of the experience of different methods of analysis developed by art critics throughout history. Art criticism has developed different analytical methodologies, placing the focus of research on different aspects of art. We can trace three major macro-trends and all of them can be used to develop a personal critical method:

The Formal Art Analysis

Formal art analysis is conducted primarily by connoisseurs, experts in attributing paintings or sculptures to the hand of specific artists. Formal analysis adheres strictly to the object-artwork by providing a pure description of it. It focuses on its visual, most distinctive features: on the subject, composition, material, technique, and other elements. Famous formalists and purovisibilists were Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, Roberto Longhi, Roger Fry, and Heinrich Wölfflin, who elaborated different categories of formal principles.

The Iconological Method

In the iconological method, the content of the work, its meaning, and cultural implications begin to take on relevancy. Aby Warburg and later the Warburg Institute opened up to the analysis of art as an interdisciplinary subject, questioning the correlations between art, philosophy, culture. The fortune of the iconological method, however, is due to Erwin Panofsky, who observed the artwork integrally, through three levels of interpretation. A first, formal, superficial level; the second level of observation of the iconographic elements, and a third called iconological, in which the analysis finally becomes deep, trying to grasp the meaning of the elements.

Social Art History and Beyond

Then, in the 1950s, a third trend began, which placed the focus primarily on the social context of the artwork. With Arnold Hauser, Francis Klingender, and Frederick Antal, the social history of art was born. Social art historians conceive the work of art as a structural system that conveys specific ideologies, whose aspects related to the time period of the artists must also be investigated. Analyses on commissioning, institutionalization, production mechanisms, and the role and function of the artist in society began to spread. It also opens art criticism to researches on taste, fruition, and the study of art in psychoanalytic, pedagogical, anthropological terms.

10 Art Analysis Tips

via Unsplash

We defined the questions you need to ask yourself to write a meaningful artwork analysis. Then, we identified the main approaches used by art historians while criticizing art: formal analysis, iconographic interpretation, and study of the social context. However, art interpretation is always open to new stimuli and insights, and it is a work of continuous training.

Here are 10 aspects to keep in mind when observing a good artwork (or a bad one!):

  1. Any feeling towards a work of art is legitimate -whether it is a painting, picture, sculpture, or contemporary installation. What do you like or dislike about it? You could write about the shapes and colors, how the artist used them, their technique. You can analyze the museum setting or its original location; the ideas, or the cultural context to which the artist belongs. You can think about the feelings or memories it evokes. The important thing is that your judgment is justified with relevant arguments that strictly relate to the artwork and its elements.
  2. Analyzing does not mean describing. A precise description of the work and its distinctive features is essential, but we must go beyond that. Consider also what is outside the frame.
  3. Strive to use an inquiry-based approach. Ask yourself questions, start with objective observation and then go deeper. Wonder what features suggest. Notice a color…well, why that color, and why there?
  4. Observe a wide range of visual elements. Artworks are complex systems, so try to look at them in all their components. Not just color, shapes, or technique, but also rhythm, compositional devices, emphasis, style, texture…and much more!
  5. To get a visual analysis as accurate as possible, it might be very useful to have a comprehensive glossary. Here is MoMA’s one: https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/learn/courses/Vocabulary_for_Discussing_Art.pdf and Artlex: https://www.artlex.com/art-terms/
  6. Less is more. Do you want to write about an entire artistic movement or a particularly prolific artist? Focus on the most significant works, the ones you can really say something personal and effective about. Similarly, choose only relevant and productive information; it should aid better understanding of the objects, not take the reader away from it.
  7. Support what you write with images! Accompany your text with sketches or high-quality photographs. Choose black and white pictures if you want to highlight forms or lights, details or evidence inside the artwork to support your personal interpretations, objects placed in the art room if you analyze also curatorial choices.
  8. See as much live artwork as possible. Whenever you can, attend temporary exhibitions, museums, galleries… the richer your visual background will be, the more attentive and receptive your eye will be! Connections and comparisons are what make an art criticism truly rich and open-minding.
  9. Be inspired by the words of artists, art experts, and creatives. Listen as a beloved artwork relates to their art practice or personal artistic vision, to build your personal one. Here are other helpful links: https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/154?=MOOC
  10. And finally, trust your intuition! As you noticed in this decalogue, numerous aspects require study and rational analysis but don’t forget to formalize your instinctive impressions as well. Art is made for that, too.