Visual Analysis: What Is It?



  • Visual Analysis: what is it?
  • Who is engaged in doing a formal analysis of art?
  • Key points of conducting a formal analysis of art
  • Step by step guide to the formal analysis of art
  • The structure of visual analysis essay
  • Study other visual analysis examples
  • Conclusion

The process of looking at a painting, sculpture, photography, and other examples of visual art, providing insight into its mode of execution and meaning, is termed as visual analysis. The pieces of art can also be analyzed for their impact on art, culture, politics of the country, and historical significance. 

A lot of such mediums as writing, painting, photography, film, journalism, photo-journalism are mostly used for informative and entertainment purposes. But the process of visual analysis applies to them focusing on execution, themes, forms, and compositional elements of artworks. That is why, as a type of essay, visual analysis essays are mostly used by the students of Communications and Art History faculties.

Among the variety of art branches, the classical paintings remain the most popular topics for visual analysis essay due to their historical significance. For example, let’s analyze Transfiguration, the famous painting of Raphael. If we look at it the first time, we will just see a well-known biblical scene. But if we look deeper, we will be able to distinguish excellent painting techniques, relationships between characters, deep symbolism, and beautiful color choice. This deep insight into the piece of art calls the process of visual analysis. And in this article, we would like to give you instructions for performing a formal analysis of art pieces. 

Who is engaged in doing a formal analysis of art?

The students who’s major in Art History, English, and Communication are the most active users of visual analysis of art. With the help of visual analysis, Art History students systematically investigate and study the world of art. They look at pieces of art from different periods, analyze, and then discuss them in class.  

As the purpose of every writer is to give an image to reader’s head, English literature students are also engaged in visual analysis. Like any piece of art, this image can be clear, or it can be hidden under the characters. It can be factual or emotional. It can challenge you to analyze your emotions or just gives you facts and realities. 

Communication major is a giant major in using visual analysis. As its students explore as many mediums as photos and print media, news and films, theater, and music performances, visual analysis for them is the usual practice. 

Key points of conducting a formal analysis of art

Writing a visual analysis essay can be a challenge for students of all majors, no matter is it art or journalism. But there are some key principles which can be applied to any piece of art, whether it’s a famous painting or photo. 

Let’s take, as an example, the most common piece of art for formal analysis and analyze the painting.

There are some key points; we must take into account while analyzing the medium.

1.    Who is an artist, and what art period this painting belongs to? Depending on the era of art, we should use different standards of analysis. For example, the subject of the classical painting is, as a rule, a historical event, a scene from literature or Bible. On the other hand, modernists tend to sophisticate classical subjects and develop another approach to art. So using the same standards of analysis to both art forms would be unacceptable. 

2.    What was the purpose of the artist?

For example, sometimes, classical painters were hired by noble and rich families or the Vatican. That is why the subject of a painting was chosen by the paymaster. 

3.    What is the audience of this painting?

Some of the artists were interested in amazing masses. Others made their art just for other artists and just for their understanding.

4.    What historical context does this painting/artist have?

Before writing the essay, you should make brief research of analyzed painting or artist. Different historical periods have various types of art understanding. By pointing out the features and essence of a specific artistic movement, you will be able to have a better deep understanding of the painting. For example, the points of the Renaissance painter’s analysis will differ greatly from one of the Surrealist artists.

Taking into account all these key points, you’ll get all the needed information for writing an excellent visual analysis essay.

Analysis can also be deeper by exploring different interpretation points, combinations of colors, various reactions, and critics to this piece of art. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper.

Step by step guide to the formal analysis of art

Every Art History student is taught to perform a formal analysis of art at entry-level classes. This is a fundamental skill, which should be developed over the years. But you cannot apply the same types of analysis to every piece of art, because of its unicity.

Step 1. General information

First of all, specify the most important information about the artist and the piece of art.

  • Who is the artist of the work of art?
  • Who or what is the subject of this work?
  • What is the origin and date of this piece of art? Is it characteristic of the historical time and location it was made?
  • What are the initial and current locations of display?
  • Which painting technique and materials were used for this piece of art?

Step 2: Describing the piece of art

Secondly, you should describe in detail all the visible aspects of the painting. What are the subject and main characters of the artwork, and what image does it show in the viewer’s mind? The main points to pay attention to:

  • Characters of the painting: who are they, and what do they depict?
  • Specify the atmosphere of artwork.
  • Analyze the lighting of the painting.
  • If the painting is classical, specify its main topic.
  • If the painting is abstract, analyze its colors and shapes.

Step 3: In-depth analysis

The general part of your essay will be the visual analysis of the painting. This analysis depicts the description of the main art elements and design of work.

  • Not all patterns and shapes of the painting: they can be clear or hidden for unclosed view;
  • Analyze lines: they can range from straight ones to curved and even invisible;
  • Specify the colors of painting: cool or warm tones, which are the main and secondary colors;
  • Identify the lightening of the work: is the light flat, or is there a source of light? Does the painter use even or contrast colors and how this choice can be explained relating to painting?
  • What patterns does the painting have? They can be clear and distinct figures as well as hidden forms.
  • How the artist uses space in the painting? What kind of perspective is used, and how the depth of the painting is shown?
  • The motion and march of time.
  • Identify how art principles are designed to create an experience from a thematic perspective.
  • What is the emphasis or point of focus in the painting from an artistic and thematic perspective? Is it an element of architecture or color?
  • Which proportions are used? How the objects of the painting provide the volume or sense of scale to the whole art of work?
  • How, with the help of figures and techniques, the artist implies the rhythm of the painting?
  • Does the artist use the unity or variety of techniques to show the chaos or harmony of the painting?
  • How the principles of symmetry or asymmetry are used in their shapes, colors, or patterns.

Note that each piece of art is unique, and depending on that, various design principles and art elements can be discussed in your visual analysis essay.

The structure of visual analysis essay

It’s sufficient to have five paragraphs in a visual analysis essay to reflect the most important aspects of the painting and discuss them relating to your work.

  1. Introduction: give general information of the piece of art and summarize the points of analysis (name of the artist, year of creation, the purpose of the artwork, brief description of the painting, depicting general context of the painting by giving some facts about the artist, historical period or painting itself, interesting fact or attention grabber of the work).
  2. Thesis: stating points of analysis, which will be discussed.
  3. Body: analyze the piece of art in detail (refer to the section “Step by step guide to the formal analysis of art” for instruction).
  4. Conclusion: after giving a factual description of work, refer to your opinions and thoughts. Base yourself upon the main points of your essay. Underline how the art principles support your conclusions.
  5. Citation: use standard citation rules when you quote journal, website, book, or film, listing your sources. Give the name of the artwork you analyze in the essay’s introduction or body: for example, Transfiguration by Raphael.

Study other visual analysis examples

To have an idea about high-quality visual analysis, you can refer to examples on YouTube or on the internet. This is a great way to experience the basic principles and format of such type of work.


Visual analysis is an essential skill not only for students, major in art or communication, and who are aimed at building a career in these fields but also for all people who face digital media in everyday life and should be able to analyze its messages. 

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