Principles of Art

Essay #1 Visual Analysis


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Impressionist painter Edgar Degas once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see” and spending time really looking at art carefully is an important component of art history. James Elkins explains what we can learn from slowing down and spending time with a single work of art in his essay, “How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?” Read it here (Links to an external site.), and then go to the “zoom views” section of Google Arts and Culture (Links to an external site.) and find a work of art that interests you. There is no substitute for seeing the color, surface, and texture of a work of art in person, but Google has a zoom capabilities so you can see details and a street view button for many works that allows you to see the objects in their museums, which gives you a sense of the scale and impact of the work. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can go to an art museum near you and choose a work there instead. The David Owsley Museum of Art (Links to an external site.) on the Ball State campus would be a terrific option for this assignment.


After you have chosen your work, aim to spend at least twenty minutes looking closely at it, examining its details, and seeing what it looks like in its current home (using the street view function in Google A&C or in person). Take notes about what you see, paying particular attention to the fundamental elements and principles of art, including: line, light, color, texture, shape, form, volume and mass, space, time and motion, value, emphasis, scale and proportion, balance, rhythm, unity and variety, and pattern. shape, space, composition, scale, light, color, and style. See below for more information on the elements and principles of art. Many of these terms are discussed in this video (Links to an external site.) of Steven Zucker and Beth Harris analyzing Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna of the Meadow (c. 1500) More information about how to write a good visual analysis is contained in this excerpt  download from Christina Maranci’s book A Survival Guide for Art History Students.


Write a visual analysis essay in which you explain why you wanted to look closely at this work, and what you learned from spending an extended time looking at it. What do you think the artist is trying to make you see? Which elements and principles did the artist use to compelling effect in the work of art? Which elements and principles stand out most to you? Describe at least six of the fundamental elements and principles listed above and put those six terms in bold when you explain how they are used in the artwork.



Please list the basic identifying information for the artwork at the top of your paper, including the artist’s name (or culture, if this work has not been attributed to a particular artist), title, date or era, medium, and the work’s location.


Insert a photo of the work of art you wrote about with a caption that lists the artist or culture that made the work, title, date, medium, and owner/location. Also include a hotlink to the artwork’s Google Art and Culture site that you used at the beginning of your document, too. If you visited the work in person please include a link to the museum you visited instead of the Google A&C link.


Your essay should be at least 500 words and uploaded as a Microsoft Word document (.doc or .docx) to Canvas by the deadline. Remember that even if you write your essay in a different word processing program, you must save it as a .doc or .docx file before you upload it to Canvas. If you experience a problem as you complete the paper or attempt to upload it, please follow the directions under the Troubleshooting tab on Canvas and email a detailed description of the problems you encountered, a screenshot of any error message you received, and a copy of your essay before the assignment deadline.


Your essays must be written by you and in your own words. You do not need to quote from any other sources or do any research beyond the readings listed in this assignment in order to write a successful visual analysis essay. I want to know what you see, not what others tell you to see in the work you chose. Plagiarism is when someone presents phrases, sentences, or ideas that someone else created as their own. Quoting from a text without citing the source and giving credit to the original author is plagiarism. You can avoid plagiarizing by writing in your own voice and communicating your own ideas. For a full explanation of the university’s policy on academic misconduct including plagiarism see the Academic Ethics section of the Student Code (Links to an external site.).


Elements of Art

Line: Do you see any outlines that define objects, shapes, or forms? Are lines used to emphasize a direction (vertical, horizontal, diagonal)? Describe the important lines: are they straight or curved, short or long, thick or thin? How do you think the artist utilized line to focus attention on certain objects, forms, or people? Are any invisible lines implied? For example, is a hand pointing, is the path of a figure’s gaze creating a psychological line, or is linear perspective used? Do the lines themselves have an expressive quality, as in Van Gogh’s Starry Night?

Light: If the work is a two-dimensional object, is a source of light depicted or implied? Is the light source natural or artificial? Do the shadows created by the light appear true to life, or has the artist distorted them? In what way does he or she depict such shadows—through line, or color? If the object shown is three-dimensional, how does it interact with the light in its setting? How do gradations of shadows and highlights create form or depth, emphasis or order in the composition?

Color: Which colors are predominantly used in this depiction? If the object is black and white, or shades of gray, did the artist choose to do this because of the media he or she was working in, or do such shades create a certain mood or effect? Color can best be described by its hue, tone, and intensity (the hue is its basic shade, for example blue or red). Does the artist’s choice of color create a certain mood? Does he or she make use of complementary colors—red/green, violet/yellow, blue/orange—or analogous ones (those next to each other on the color wheel)? Does the artist utilize colors that are “warm” or “cool”? In which parts of the work? Is atmospheric perspective—in which cool colors recede, creating a blurred background, and warm, clear colors fill the foreground—used? Do you notice any visual effects, such as optical color mixing?

Texture: What is the actual texture on the surface of the object? Is it rough or smooth? What is the implied texture? Are patterns created through the use of texture?

Shape: What shapes do you see? If the work has a flat surface, are the shapes shown on it two-dimensional, or are they made to appear (illusionistically) three-dimensional or volumetric? If the work is a three-dimensional object, how volumetric is its shape? Is it nearly flat, or does it have substantial mass? Is the shape organic (seemingly from nature) or geometric (composed of regular lines and curves)? Can you see any implied shapes? In representations of people, how does shape lend character to a figure? Are these figures proud or timid, strong or weak, beautiful or grotesque?

Form: Did the artist choose geometric or organic form, or a combination of both? Why do you think the artist made these choices?

Volume and mass: Has the artist used volume or mass to express any feelings or communicate any ideas? Is the work a closed or open volume?

Space: How does the form created by shape and line fill the space of the composition? Is there negative, or empty, space without objects in it? If the artwork is three-dimensional, how does it fill our space? Is it our size, or does it dwarf us? If the piece is two-dimensional, is the space flat, or does it visually project into ours? How does the artist create depth in the image (by means of layering figures/objects, linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, isometric perspective, foreshortening of figures)?

Time and motion: Does the artwork in some way communicate the passage of time? For example, it may tell a story or narrate a series of events. Consider whether the work involves motion (implied or actual) in any way. Remember that even a static artwork, such as a painting or a sculpture, can express motion.

Value: Are there any significant value changes (i.e. changes in the degrees of darkness or lightness) in the work? If so, why do you think the artist used value in this way?


Principles of Art

Artists utilize the elements of art to produce these design principles.

Emphasis: The emphasis of a work refers to a focal point in the image or object. What is your eye drawn to? Does the artist create tension or intrigue us by creating more than one area of interest? Or is the work of art afocal—that is, the viewer cannot find a particular place to rest the eye? Is there a psychological focus created through the elements of art?

Scale and proportion: What is the size of all the forms and how do they relate proportionally to one another? Did the artist create objects larger in scale in order to emphasize them? Or was scale used to create depth? Are objects located in the foreground, middle ground, or background? Look at the scale of the artwork itself. Is it larger or smaller than you expected?

Balance: Balance is produced by the visual weight of shapes and forms within a composition. Balance can be symmetrical—in which each side of an artwork is the same—or asymmetrical. Radial balance is when the elements appear to radiate from a central point. How are opposites—light/shadow, straight/curved lines, complementary colors—used?

Rhythm: Rhythm is created by repetition. What repeated elements do you see? Does the repetition create a subtle pattern, a decorative ornamentation? Or does it create an intensity, a tension? Identify the type of rhythm used: is it simple repetitive rhythm, progressive rhythm, or alternating rhythm? Does the rhythm unify the work, or does it, on the contrary, seem a group of disparate parts?

Unity and variety: Is the artwork unified and cohesive, or disordered and chaotic? How does the artist use the elements to achieve this? Consider the work in terms of both its composition and the concepts it explores, which can also unify an artwork. Is there diversity in the use of elements that creates variety? Consider value, texture, color, shape, and other elements of art. How does the artwork combine aspects of unity and variety?

Pattern: Can you identify any repetition of an element (such as shape, value, or color) in the artwork that creates a pattern? A design repeated as a unit is called a motif. Can you see any motifs in the work?

For more information on Principles of Art read this:

Salvador Late or Early

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