Art History Analysis Paper

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Formal Analysis Paper è

Select a few works of art that appeals to you from the Yale University Art Gallery, please note that the Yale Center for British Art, which is located across Chapel Street is also an option, as are any number of local locations to view works of art and architecture. We will discuss some of these options in class.


Speak to me about your selection before you begin your assignment.

Have a few pieces in mind….remember to look for clear points of description and discussion.

Look for attributes that you will be able to develop and discuss. The purpose of this brief consultation is to help ensure that the student has selected a reasonably accessible work.

  • Identify the work and artist; begin by describing the piece generally. Consult the descriptive information typically located on a card near the work in the museum.
  • Then use our Elements of Art and the Principles of Design information from handouts and the text or other sources to very specifically formally analyze the object and lastly include a short but thoughtful reaction to the work.


  • A modification to the paper assignment noted above is an option which requires you to formally analyze two works and then to write a compare and contrast format paper of your selections.


Photo if permitted è  Non-flash Permanent Collection….Ask if uncertain.

  • The paper is to be 5 pages, double spaced; in general follow the MLA paper format.


In order to help ensure the quality of your paper it is may be necessary that you go to the writing center and work with one of the writing center associates.  Take the time to have one of the staff members look over your paper.  This step is important because it can help you organize and clarify your thoughts.


Please note the pages from the Student Handbook regarding student conduct attached to the syllabus.  Beginning on page109 of the Student Handbook the Policy on Student Conduct is thoroughly discussed. Section 3 of the policy focuses on the Expectations for Student Conduct, the focus is on Academic integrity, test taking, paper submissions and plagiarism.

These college policies must be adhered to; plagiarism or cheating will result in an “F” and potential dismissal.


Yale University Art Gallery

Free and Open to the Public
1111 Chapel Street (between York & High Streets)
Tuesday–Friday 10:00 am–5:00 pm

Thursday (Sept.–June) 10:00 am–8:00 pm

Saturday–Sunday 11:00 am–5:00 pm

Closed Mondays and major holidays


Museum Information
General and program information 203.432.0600

Traveling by Car
From I-95 take Exit 47 Downtown New Haven. Stay on Rt 34 to the third and final exit and turn right on York Street at the first intersection. The Gallery entrance is at the corner of Chapel and York Streets. From I-91 take Exit 1 Downtown New Haven.
In addition to the metered spaces on nearby streets, there is a conveniently located garage at 150 York Street



Formal analysis is an important technique for organizing visual information. In other words, it is a strategy used to translate what you see into written words. This strategy can be applied to any work of art, from any period in history, whether a photograph, sculpture, painting or cultural artifact.

A formal analysis is an analysis of the form that the artist has produced. Color, line, light, shape, texture, space, composition, etc. are some of the elements of a formal analysis. These elements create the form, content, expression, and meaning of the work.   It may be helpful to think about it like this: letters make up words, words make sentences, and sentences make up paragraphs, which convey meaning to the reader. Art elements are like the letters and words. When they are used in a work of art, they translate into meaning and content for the viewer.

The elements are the clues you use in order to decode the information in the work of art. Your essay should convey how the artist uses the elements to convey meaning.  Formal analysis is directly related to description. In fact, one can’t exist without the other. Description requires close and careful observation of the work of art.

Formal analysis is what you can read from the work, based on the description.  Think of it as cause and effect. This is what one means by supporting evidence. If you make an assumption, back it up with evidence that you have gathered from the description.


Begin by asking questions about the work. Remember, careful analysis begins with good description. Description can come from asking a series of questions:  What is my first response to the work?  Why do I feel this way? How do the elements, such as color, light, line, directional force, form, shape, volume, shading, mass, size, scale, texture, space, and composition, function in this work? Describe each element. What is the effect of each element?   What do they suggest? When and where was the art work made?  By whom?  For whom?

Can you tell for what space the work was intended? What purpose does the work serve? In what condition has the work survived?  Is it a fragment?  Has it been restored? What is the material used? What is its effect? What is the size? What is the effect of the size? What is the scale? What is its effect? What colors are used?  Are the colors naturalistic, symbolic, expressive, etc? What is the effect? How is the space in the work organized? Is it deep, shallow, or flat?  What is the effect? Is there linear perspective?


The Elements

The elements of formal analysis are building blocks that can be combined to create a larger structure.

Line is the most basic building block of formal analysis. Line can be used to create more complex shapes or to lead your eye from one area in the composition to another.

Value is the degree of light and dark in a design. It is the contrast between black and white and all the tones in between. Value can be used with color as well as black and white. Contrast is the extreme changes between values.

Shapes are created when lines are combined to form a square, triangle, or circle. Shapes can be organic (irregular shapes found in nature) or geometric (shapes with strong lines and angles such as circles, triangles, and squares).

Forms are three-dimensional shapes with length, width, and depth. Balls, cylinders, boxes and pyramids are forms.

Space is the area between and around objects. Increasing or decreasing the amount of space around an object affects the way we view that object.

Color differentiates and defines lines, shapes, forms, and space. Even black and white images have a huge number of different shades of gray.

Texture is the surface quality that can be seen and felt. Textures can be rough or smooth, soft or hard. Textures are often implied. For instance, a drawing of a rock might appear to have a rough and hard surface, but in reality is as smooth as the paper on which it is drawn.













Three levels of formal analysis, which you can use to explain a work of art:

Barrett’s Principles of Interpretation

FORMAL ANALYSIS-3 levels of formal analysis, which you can use to explain a work of art: Description, Analysis and interpretation

  1. Description= pure description of the object without value judgments, analysis or interpretation.
  • It answers the question, “What do you see?”
  • The various elements that constitute a description include:
  1. Form of art whether architecture, sculpture, painting or one of the minor arts
  2. Medium of work whether clay, stone, steel, paint, etc., and technique (tools used)
  3. Size and scale of work (relationship to person and/or frame and/or context)
  4. Elements or general shapes (architectural structural system) within the composition, including building of post-lintel construction or painting with several figures lined up in a row; identification of objects
  5. Description of axis whether vertical, diagonal, horizontal, etc.
  6. Description of line, including contour as soft, planar, jagged, etc.
  7. Description of how line describes shape and space (volume); distinguish between lines of objects and lines of composition, e.g., thick, thin, variable, irregular, intermittent, indistinct, etc.
  8. Relationships between shapes, e.g., large and small, overlapping, etc.
  9. Description of color and color scheme = palette
  10. Texture of surface or other comments about execution of work
  11. Context of object: original location and date
  12. Analysis = determining what the features suggest and deciding why the artist used such features to convey specific ideas.
  • It answers the question, “How did the artist do it?”
  • The various elements that constitute analysis include:
  1. Determination of subject matter through naming iconographic elements, e.g., historical event, allegory, mythology, etc.
  2. Selection of most distinctive features or characteristics whether line, shape, color, texture, etc.
  3. Analysis of the principles of design or composition, e.g., stable, repetitious, rhythmic, unified, symmetrical, harmonious, geometric, varied, chaotic, horizontal or vertically oriented, etc.
  4. Discussion of how elements or structural system contribute to appearance of image or function
  5. Analysis of use of light and role of color, e.g., contrast, shadowy, illogical, warm, cool, symbolic, etc.
  6. Treatment of space and landscape, both real and illusionary (including use of perspective), e.g., compact, deep, shallow, naturalistic, random
  7. Portrayal of movement and how it is achieved
  8. Effect of particular medium(s) used
  9. Your perceptions of balance, proportion and scale (relationships of each part of the composition to the whole and to each other part) and your emotional reaction to object or monument
  10. Interpretation = establishing the broader context for this type of art.
  • It answers the question, “Why did the artist create it and what does it mean
  • The various elements that constitute interpretation include:
  1. Main idea, overall meaning of the work.
  2. Interpretive Statement: Can I express what I think the artwork is about in one sentence?
  3. Evidence: What evidence inside or outside the artwork supports my interpretation?

Barrett’s Principles of Interpretation

  1. Artworks have “aboutness” and demand interpretation.
  2. Interpretations are persuasive arguments.
  3. Some interpretations are better than others.
  4. Good interpretations of art tell more about the artwork than they tell about the critic.
  5. Feelings are guides to interpretations.
  6. There can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same artwork.
  7. Interpretations are often based on a worldview.
  8. Interpretations are not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative.
  9. Interpretations can be judged by coherence, correspondence, and inclusiveness.
  10. An artwork is not necessarily about what the artist wanted it to be about.
  11. A critic ought not to be the spokesperson for the artist.
  12. Interpretations ought to present the work in its best rather than its weakest light.
  13. The objects of interpretation are artworks, not artists.
  14. All art is in part about the world in which it emerged.
  15. All art is in part about other art.
  16. No single interpretation is exhaustive of the meaning of an artwork.
  17. The meanings of an artwork may be different from its significance to the viewer. Interpretation is ultimately a communal endeavor, and the community is ultimately self- corrective.
  18. Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and to continue on our own.

Barrett, Terry. (1994) Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company.