How do you write an art history paper? Visual analysis, Step II: The principles of design

Debra Thimmesch
4 min readJul 6, 2021

You’re eager to begin writing your art history visual analysis paper but there are some critical first steps you must take first. As I emphasized in my last entry, Step I, you must understand how to look at a work of art before you can write about that process and draw any conclusions.

You’ve learned how to identify the formal elements of an artwork, which we will consider the individual building blocks of the object, whatever it is. The next step is to analyze how those blocks are arranged and you do that by discussing the principles of design, which are the choices an artist (or architect or artisan/craftsperson) makes when they are making decisions about the formal elements of the work.

Before we begin, let’s first define a very important term: composition. In the visual arts, composition is the arrangement of all of the formal elements within (and, in some cases, around) the artwork. The formal elements and design principles are distinct from the subject of the artwork in that they work together to produce meaning. This may seem confusing now, but it will make sense to you very soon!

In order to take a closer look at the principles of design, we’ll refer to a work of art by the French Post-Impressionist artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Specifically, we will look at his well-known color lithograph titled, Moulin Rouge, La Goulue.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, 1891, color lithograph

The Principles of Design

The three important components of design, which are applied differently from artist to artist and work to work, are balance, emphasis, and movement.

balance is the distribution of the visual weight of objects, colors, textures, and space. The artist decides how best to distribute the formal elements throughout a composition in order to provide visual stability to the overall design. Of course, it probably goes without saying that stability is a relative concept and depends on many things, not least of which is the artist’s aims for the artwork.

symmetrical balance describes the equal distribution around the composition of the most important formal elements of a work of art. That doesn’t mean that, for instance, one side of the work is exactly like the other but it does suggest that right and left, and/or top and bottom (or all of the above) are evenly weighted visually.

asymmetrical balance implies imbalance but, if you will, purposeful imbalance. Asymmetry can lend a work a sense of movement because the important formal elements are unbalanced or unequally distributed and therefore the viewer’s eye does not rest and contemplate stability or stasis; instead, it moves around the composition from one area of interest to another.

emphasis is the part of the composition that captures and potentially holds the viewer’s attention. In such instances, the artist will make certain areas stand out by contrasting them with other areas. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways such as making forms different in size, color, texture, shape, and so forth. For instance, one technique artists of the Renaissance period used was to place the most important element of a painting — the focal point — in the center like a bullseye in the middle of the target.

movement is the path the viewer’s eye takes through the work of art, often to focal points or areas. Movement (of the eye) within the artwork can be directed in any number of ways such as along lines, to edges, from shape to shape, from similar color to similar color, and so forth.

Sample analysis of the design principles: balance emphasis, and movement: Toulouse-Lautrec’s color lithograph of the famous Parisian cancan dancer known as La Goulue and the silhouettes of her top-hatted partner, the audience, and the intruding musical instruments to the left, adamantly eschews symmetry. Instead, the artist distributes forms here and there throughout the composition to create a liveliness and sense of rapid movement that mimics that of the frenetic energy and activity of the cabaret and the two performers. Rather than centering La Goulue to emphasize her importance, Toulouse-Lautrec places her in the middle ground but off to the left. While she’s well in front of her dance partner, between him and the audience, we get the impression she is kicking him in the head! Meanwhile, the bright yellow forms of the brass instruments push inward from the left side and create a counterweight to the black triangular form created by the clump of male audience members in their top hats on the upper right. Emphatically asymmetrical, this composition conveys great movement and energy.

The artist also creates a sense of movement through his use of line and color. The sinuous contour lines of the figures flow downward alongside the lines of the wooden floorboards of the stage. The latter lines give the composition a radically tilted feeling as though the people and objects will come sliding forward and out of the front of the picture plane straight at us, the viewers. What an ingenious way of drawing in your audience! Meanwhile, the eye jumps from one bright field of red or yellow to the next, halts on brown and black, and then gets moving again through a composition that is anything but static.

In my next article, Step III, I will explain how to organize the different parts of your visual analysis.

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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.