How To Write An Art Criticism Essay

A formal analysis is quite simply an analysis of the forms utilized in the work of art. It is a close inspection of the artist’s use of aspects such as color, shape, line, mass, and space. The formal analysis moves beyond simple description in that it connects the elements of the work to the effects they have on the viewer.

--Undergraduate Writing Center, University of Texas at Austin

Formal Analysis

A formal analysis does NOT concentrate on subject matter, function, culture, etc., but it may consider them when they apply to decisions about formal element, things like color, line, size, etc. (See list at bottom of page.)  A clear, well-written formal analysis will contain three things: it will name the formal elements discussed, it will describe the use of the formal elements, and it will discuss the effects of that use of said formal element.  (This discussion of effect is the analysis part of the formal analysis.) 

Here’s an overly simple formal analysis:


Introductory paragraph:

If you are asked to write a formal analysis, I recommend including an introductory paragraph. This paragraph should 1) name the artist, artwork, and provide the date (if known). If this information is not available, then the culture and approximate dates should be provided. and 2) gives the reader an idea of where the paper is going. This can be naming the elements covered or noting their overall effect.

Paragraph from the body of the paper:

I recommend that your organize each paragraph of the paper's body around a formal element. This helps ensure that you 1) name the formal element, 2) describe it, and 3) discuss its effects. It also makes your paper easier for the reader (in most cases, me!) to follow. The box below contains a more professional formal element than the one above. It appears in the Applied Arts page of the AD website.

Compositional Sketch:

A compositional sketch is very helpful when doing formal analysis.  It is especially useful when covering aspects of composition.  (See the words under Composition on the list of formal elements below). 

For instance, in reference to pattern, the repeated lines of the folds and soutache are much more obvious in the compositional sketch to the left (especially since I made them pink) than in the photograph of the garment. 

To draw a compositional sketch:
1) Draw the outline of the object (for most paintings and drawings this is a rectangle).
2) Squint. Yes, you will have to squint. The idea is to blur your vision.
3) Add the most obvious elements to the interior of the outline. For instance, you may not see every nostril on a painting, but you will most like see some outlines and color changes.

I require a compositional sketch be included with formal analysis papers because the help students distance themselves from subject matter, which often distracts from formal elements.


List of Formal (and Design) Elements:

COMPOSITION (The elements below are known as design elements or principles)
Pattern (repetition and rhythm)
Unity and Variety
Emphasis and Subordination
Directional Force

Special categories and terms
For Sculpture:
Mass and Volume

Use the pre-writing questions below to help you analyze your images and start writing notes that will help you develop your paper ideas.

1. Claims: What claims does the image make? What type of claim is it?

  • Fact Claim: Is it real?
  • Definition Claim: What does it mean?
  • Cause Claim: What is the Cause? What are the effects? How are these related?
  • Value Claim: How important is this? How should we evaluate it?
  • Policy Claim: What is the solution? What should we do about it?

2. Visual Composition: How is the image arranged or composed? Which of the following aspects of composition help makes the claim? Examine:

  • Layout: where images are placed and what catches your attention. How visual lines draw your attention to or away from the focal point.
  • Balance: size of images and how they compare with one another. Is the focal point centered or offset?
  • Color: how color (or lack of color) draws your attention or creates a mood
  • Key figures: what is the main focus? How does this contribute to meaning?
  • Symbols: are there cultural symbols in the image? What do these mean?
  • Stereotypes : how does image support stereotypes or challenge them?
  • Exclusions: is there anything left out of the image that you expect to be there?

3. Genre: What is the genre of this image? (examples: fine art, movie, advertisement, poster, pamphlet, news photograph, graphic art etc.). How does it follow the rules of that genre or break away from them? How does that affect the meaning of the image for the audience?

4. Text: How does any text or caption work to provide meaning to the visual?

5. Appeals: How does it appeal to the audience to believe the claims? Are appeals to logic? Emotion? Character? Authority? Are any of these appeals false or deceiving?

6. Selling: Does the claim move into a sales pitch? Does it use a cultural value or common cultural symbol in a way that exploits that image?

7. Story: What story does this image convey? How does this story help the claim or appeal to the audience?

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