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Assignment: Writing a formal analysis based on an artwork

Due Date: Check the course syllabus


This assignment is geared toward helping you develop visual literacy. Visual literacy is essentially the ability to recognize and understand ideas conveyed through visible actions or images (such as pictures).


  • To articulate through writing what you see.
  • To use formal analysis vocabulary.
  • To analyze the visual ideas in an artwork.

Step 1: Finding the artwork

  • Visit any public work of art. You can find public art by going to the Arts Council for Long Beach site (https://artslb.org/public-art-map/) for a map to public works of art in the area. Choose a work of art that interests you.
  • Take enough paper to create a drawing and notes.
  • Write down the title of the artwork, date created, where it’s located, it’s size, materials, and the name of the artist/architect (if known).
  • Take a picture of yourself with the art.
  • Sketch the art in as much detail as possible. This exercise is to help you see the artwork reflectively, not to grade your art skills.
  • Describe the image in detail. This will be incorporated into the formal analysis of the image.
  • Discuss the content and possible meaning of the piece. Record directly as many details as possible. Do not rely on your memory.


Step 2: Formal Analysis

  • Write a formal analysis based on the notes you took at the site. A formal analysis provides the whole in which we see the parts of description and describes the effect of the art.
  • Describe the composition as a whole, then break down sections of the composition to describe the form. Analyze line, color, shape, texture, mass, space, volume, proportion, balance, scale, light & shading, etc.
  • If you need to review this information, go to Module 1 on Canvas for the Introduction pdf and Khan Academy essays.
  • Khan Academy video on formal or visual analysis – https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/start-here-apah/intro-art-history-apah/v/visual-analysis


What is the difference between description and formal analysis?

Description alone is an impersonal inventory of the form, for example, “Figures sit and stand in a landscape.” Much of formal analysis will consist of this kind of description and you should try to carefully observe the image to give an accurate description.  However, formal analysis also describes how the form takes on meaning.  In the case of the above statement, one might ask how the description of the figures sitting and standing in a landscape takes on meaning. A formal analysis might tell us that “Elegant figures dressed in fine pastel silks are placed strategically throughout a lush, green landscape which helps to draw the viewer’s eye from the foreground to the background. In the background, four figures appear to be boarding a small boat that floats on calm blue water.” The second example creates more of a visual impact.


Step 3: Putting the paper together (the final product)

  • The paper should begin with a thesis where you introduce the work of art and give whatever specific data there is about the work, for example, artist, date, size, location, and/or media.
  • The thesis statement for a formal analysis does not need to be original. Here’s an example of a thesis statement: “Prince Khunera as a Scribe, a free-standing Egyptian sculpture 12 inches tall, now in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, was found at Giza in a temple dedicated to the father of the prince, King Mycerinus. The limestone statue may have been a tribute to that Fourth Dynasty king. The prince, sitting cross-legged with a scribal tablet on his lap rests his hands on his thighs. He wears only a short skirt or kilt.” [1]
  • Note: this is not a research paper. I inserted a footnote because I’m quoting from A Short Guide to Writing About Art by Sylvan Barnet.
  • Three full pages double spaced of detailed formal analysis (250 words/page).
  • Use 12 pt. font that’s easy to read like Times New Roman or Arial.
  • Indent paragraphs about ½”.
  • Number the pages.
  • Turn in (upload) your paper along with the sketch and notes on time (check the syllabus)!

Grading Rubric:

  • 30 points – Relevance – your paper should meet the assignment criteria including submitting the picture, sketch, and notes along with your paper.
  • 30 points – Detailed – your paper should go into detail regarding the following as they apply to the artwork: composition, line, space, proportion, texture, light & shadow, size, color, & mood.
  • 10 points – Cohesive – your paper should be cohesive in that you introduce the artwork, follow with complete formal analysis, and end with a conclusion.
  • 10 points – Organization – your paper should be organized and well-thought out. For example, when discussing the variations of texture, did you interject a sentence on mood that is out of place? Or, are you repeating statements without going further in depth?
  • 10 points – Terminology – use the terms that have been introduced in class whenever possible. For example, use the term ‘sculpture in the round’ instead of ‘statue’. Keep superlatives (words like amazing, beautiful, awesome) and to a minimum
  • 10 points – Grammar & spelling – your paper should be free of grammatical and spelling errors.

This paper is not:

  • A personal essay – limit your use of personal pronouns.
  • A research paper – do not include contextual information.
  • A personal critique of the art – while your observations of the artwork are important, keep your opinions to a minimum.
  • A biography about the artist.

Note: It seems to be the law of paper-writing that papers always take longer than expected! Give yourself plenty of time to write any of your papers. Students often procrastinate because they don’t clearly understand how to begin the assignment. If that describes you, please email me! 

[1] Sylvan Barnet. A Short Guide to Writing About Art, 10th edition. Prentice Hall, 2011, p.53.

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