How do you write an art history paper? Visual analysis, Step I: The formal elements

Debra Thimmesch
8 min readJul 6, 2021

Before you can begin writing about a work of art, you need to understand how to look at it. Likewise, before you begin looking, you need to know what to look for.

When you look at a work of art, you deconstruct it in a way by identifying and discussing its separate parts or elements. More specifically, they are the formal elements of a work of art. Note that, when we say “formal,” we don’t mean the opposite of “casual” or “informal.” Rather, we are referring to the word “form,” which constitutes the material and visual aspects of any work of art.

In addition to the formal elements of a work of art, there are some fundamental design principles with which artists organize the elements of a work, whether a painting, sculpture, drawing, photograph, or otherwise.

We when analyze a work of art based on an examination of both the formal elements and design principles, we are creating a visual analysis, which considers how the visual features of a work of art such as color, shape, line, mass, and space work together to affect the viewer and create meaning in the artwork, even if meaning is quite simple.

We’ll refer to a painting by the artist, Mark Rothko, as we identify the different formal elements. The passages in italics that follow each discussion of a formal element (or design principle) are examples of how to discuss these features of a work of art in a visual analysis essay.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1949, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

One mistake that students new to art history often make when writing a visual analysis is to create an essay that reads more like a list than a well-organized paper that flows smoothly and has specific parts.

line: A line is a discernible path created by a point moving in space. It is one-dimensional. A line can vary in length, width, and direction. Lines may be used to designate the edges of a form. Lines may be curved, straight, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, thick or thin. A line may lead the eye of the viewer around the composition or halt it in one place. Finally, a line can provide information to the viewer through its definition and character.

Sample written analysis of LINE: Rothko uses line to define the edges of the boxes he superimposes over the field of mustard yellow, which is itself layered on top of another area of muted mustard yellow. There are no hard edges in this painting. Instead, lines are blurred and softened. In some cases, the edges of the horizontal rectangular boxes are dabbed with white, giving them the appearance of torn paper. This is apparent with the green and brown rectangle on the bottom and the wine-colored and crimson strips above the larger blue-black rectangle in the center.

Note that, while we have focused on Rothko’s use of line, both real and implied, we also needed to refer to shape and color to make our analysis more cohesive. This emphasizes the interconnectedness of the various formal elements, which come together to form the composition.

shape and form define objects in space. Shapes have two dimensions: height and width. Shapes are most often defined by lines, although you can see with the Rothko painting that lines are not very distinct, although they are definitely there. Forms are three dimensional, with depth, height, and width. Three-dimensional forms are the basis of sculpture as well as the decorative arts. Three-dimensional forms can be seen from more than one side. A sculpture intended to be viewed from all sides is called a “sculpture in the round.”

In your study of a given work of art and, in this instance, of the Rothko picture, you may notice organic or geometric shapes and forms.

Geometric shapes and forms include mathematical shapes such as circles, squares, cubes, and rectangles. Organic shapes and forms are irregular and/or asymmetrical. They are generally found in nature, but man- or machine-made shapes can also resemble organic forms.

Sample analysis of SHAPE: Rothko creates and stacks up five rectangular, horizontally-oriented shapes. The shapes stretch nearly to the vertical edges of the picture frame — but not quite. Instead, he creates a visual tension and opposing vertical shapes using the negative space. None of the rectangular shapes is the same size. The yellow one on top, for instance, is twice as wide as the deep purple-red rectangle that is surmounted by a thin crimson strip. The edges of the shapes are soft as though eroded.

Space: Real space is three-dimensional. In an artwork, the term “space” refers to depth or three dimensions (height, width, depth). However, space can also be illusionistic (not real); instead, it can refer to the artist’s use of the area within the picture plane on the two-dimensional (height and width) surface. Negative space is the area around the main objects in an artwork. The space that is occupied by the main objects in an artwork is known as positive space.

During certain eras of art-making such as the Renaissance (roughly the early 15th century to the mid-16th century in Europe), artists have been interested in creating the illusion of three dimensions on flat surfaces like wood panel, paper, wall surfaces, ceilings, and eventually canvas. Systems of perspective often, combined with techniques of shading (modeling), were used with great success to create such illusions.

Sample analysis of SPACE: On a flat surface — the painted canvas — the artist stacked up horizontal, rectangular forms of different colors. There is no indication that Rothko intended to create the illusion of depth with this painting but there are two ways that he did so. The first is with the interaction of the colors, which react to one another, with darker colors seeming to recede and brighter ones appearing to jut out. The second way he created the illusion of depth is through his treatment of the edges of the shapes: because they are blurred and in some cases edged in white, they seem to overlap, which creates the illusion that they are stacked upon one another and on top of the yellow ground.

color: color is created when light is reflected off of objects. Color has three main characteristics:

hue: red, green, blue, orange, and so on.

value: the lightness or darkness of a color.

intensity: the brightness (or dullness) of a given color. Colors may be described as warm or cool. Warm colors are red, orange, or yellow (think fire). Cool colors are green, blue, gray, and so on (think snow and ice or the shade beneath a tree).

It probably goes without saying that color may be used for all sorts of reasons, from defining a deep blue sky to disturbing the viewer with the semblance of blood in a dramatic history painting, for instance.

Very important note: it is in their discussions of color that students most often become stuck in the vocabulary and make the process of visual analysis much more complicated — and awkward — than it needs to be. Remember this: you will rarely mention words like “hue,” “value,” and “intensity.” Instead, you will make indirect references to them as we do in the example below.

Sample analysis of COLOR: Rothko creates a field of warm, buttery yellow on the canvas and then superimposes various-sized and -colored rectangles, each with a different effect. The top rectangle, which is the color of an egg yolk, is barely distinct from the lighter yellow surface of the painting but it reads like a crust on top. Below it is a stripe of bright red that seems to hover over the thicker, purple-red band beneath it. Are these horizontal forms stacked one on top of the other or is something else happening? This uncertainty derives in part from the way the colors behave, with the warm colors jutting out towards the viewer and the cooler, darker ones receding. In this way, Rothko creates the illusion of depth where there really is none (remember that the canvas is a flat, two-dimensional surface). The nearly black form, widest of all, seems like a gap in the picture surface, at the edge of which are the forms above and below. While the other rectangles are mostly solid colors, something transforms at the bottom of the stack where the green shape is edged with ragged white and tinged here and there with an earthy brown. Indeed, this part of the painting seems like it could represent the earth in a strange geometrical and hierarchical landscape.

texture is the surface quality of an object. Generally speaking, we sense texture through touch and ALL objects have a physical texture, whether it is rough or smooth, for instance. In addition to REAL texture, artists may create the appearance of texture in two-dimensional works. Artists may use shading, color, and line to create the illusion of textures.

Gerard ter Borcht, The Letter, c. 1660–65, oil on canvas, Royal Collection Trust, UK

Returning to the painting by Gerard ter Borch discussed in a previous article, look at the way in which the artist has created the illusion of a variety of textures, from satin to velvet, hair, fur, wood, and so forth. The REAL texture is that of the weave of the canvas upon which the artist painted a layer of gesso (wet plaster) for a smoother surface. However, as the viewers, we see elegant satin, fur trim, coiled hair, the brass chandelier, and so forth.

Sample analysis of TEXTURE: Rothko does little to push the illusion of texture and instead allows the paint itself and its uneven application as well as the edges of the rectangular forms to deviate just slightly from each separate surface. Solid colors seem smoother whereas the uneven application of the thin red stripe and the mottling of the green with brown and the wispy edges of some of the forms create texture, both real and illusionistic.

The above passages have, I hope, demonstrated how to take what you see in a work of art and what you know about its different features or formal elements of art. In my next article, we’ll discuss the principles of design. Then we’ll pull it all together and make some general conclusions about content or meaning.

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Debra Thimmesch

Debra is an art historian with 20 years of experience teaching, tutoring, editing, and mentoring students and scholars in the history of art.