How do you write an art history paper? Visual analysis, Step III: Analyzing an artwork

Debra Thimmesch
8 min readJul 7, 2021


Creating a compelling visual analysis of an artwork is like an investigation. You, the art history sleuth, search for clues that can tell you about how a work of art was made, who made it, what they made it with, what it might have meant to them and their culture, and a lot more.

Rather than starting from scratch, you can begin your visual analysis by filling in some important blanks on your investigation dossier. Begin by identifying the art work. A thorough caption in your art history textbook will tell you what information is needed: 1) the name of the artist; 2) the title of the artwork, which will always be italicized unless it is a work of architecture; 3) the date the artwork was produced; 4) the materials used to make the work such as “oil on canvas” or “marble”; 5) the dimensions of the artwork; 6) the present location of the artwork.

In Step I, you learned how to identify and discuss the formal elements — the individual building blocks of the object, whatever it is. In Step II, you learned how to analyze the way in which the artist or architect arranged those “building blocks” in his or her composition using the principles of design. With Step III, I will demonstrate how you pull all of these ideas together to analyze a sculpture.

Remember that the visual analysis is the first major step any art historian takes in their exploration of a work of art; therefore, without a thorough visual analysis, any discussion of a work of art is incomplete. Before you can even begin talking about meaning, interpreting the artwork, you need to know these crucial basics.

As we did with Steps I and II, we will look at specific artworks and discuss the formal elements and the principles of design relevant to each. We’ll look specifically at sculpture with Step III and architecture in Step IV.

Unknown artist, Buddha, Probably Amitabha (Amituofo), hollow dry lacquer with traces of gilt and polychrome pigment and gilding, early 7th cen., Tang dynasty (618–907), China

This elegant representation of Buddha (probably Amitabha) from early 7th century China is over a thousand years old! Through several centuries, its colors have faded, its hands and parts of its back as well as the robes near the figure’s buttocks have broken off. However, it is still possible to deduce what it must have looked like when it was new, as scholars who specialize in Buddhist art have done.

Working with what we see now yet speculating about a whole, undamaged figure, we may construct a visual analysis that could form the core of a more extensive discussion of this artwork involving its history and meaning. Keep in mind that, with older works of art, we often know very little about their creation. One way to shed some light on the history of an object is to compare it to other works with which it shares multiple features. Such a comparison helps us to narrow down things like production date and place, for instance.

We’ll begin our visual analysis of this sculpture by describing what we see without delving much into interpretation (meaning).

Even before you state in the introductory portion of your paper what your thesis (core argument) is, you will give your reader a description of the general appearance of the object (artwork). You will want to refer to high quality images of the artwork, including alternate views and details if applicable. You will also need to familiarize yourself with common vocabulary terms pertaining to art history and specifically to sculpture.

Now, let’s see what a thorough introduction to a visual analysis should say! Here’s an example:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 7th century Chinese statue of Buddha (probably Amitabha), is a life-size representation of the founder of Buddhism. The figure sits in a cross-legged pose with its arms resting in the bowl of the lap. The hands, which are missing, would have been depicted in a gesture specific to meditation. While the sculpture shows signs of considerable damage and loss, it has retained a strong sense of stability and serenity. In the course of this analysis, I will discuss how various formal elements and design principles have, among other things, contributed to the overall peaceful and contemplative feel of this sculpture.

The last sentence of the introduction is my thesis statement. It is the argument or assertion I am presenting to my reader(s) regarding this sculpture. It is pretty basic, which is more than acceptable for a paper of this nature. As I progress through the paper, I will be supporting my thesis with observations about the artwork and will restate it a little bit differently as part of my short conclusion.

In our next paragraph, we begin our visual analysis by providing crucial information about the medium or materials of the artwork. I explain this step in detail in my article, How do you write an art history paper: Part I. Example:

The artist who made this sculpture used the dry-lacquer method. With this particular additive sculptural technique, a core, frequently made from wood, is covered with a layer of clay. Layers of cloth soaked in lacquer, a kind of tree resin that hardens once exposed to air, are wrapped around the clay and wood core. It is standard for artists to apply multiple layers (the average is about seven) to a sculpture.

Now that we’ve established how and from what materials the artwork was produced, we may move on to our discussion of the formal elements and design principles. Remember that, while you should be attentive and thorough, not all of the formal elements or design principles will apply equally (if at all) to every single work of art. Furthermore, avoid proceeding through your visual analysis as though you were crossing items off of a list. Instead, try to impose both a sense of organization and a logical flow.

We’ll begin this portion of the essay with an examination of the formal elements of line, shape, form, and space. Example:

This depiction of Buddha is a sculpture in the round, although the most compelling vantage point is directly in front of the figure where its face, with its peaceful composure, may be seen. There is a sharp linearity to the representation of the facial features, hair, and garments. Rather than appearing overtly lifelike, features such as the eyebrows are adamantly linear and symmetrical. Rather than resembling a specific human and his distinct appearance, the sculpture is stylized — standardized, in a way — to reflect artistic conventions in China at the time. The smooth modeling of the figure provides a sense of perfection and youthfulness. It is not surprising to see an artist depicting a divine figure in an idealizing manner.

Moving on to color and texture, here’s an example:

When it was new, the sculpture must have been dazzling to look at, especially in the bright sunlight. The body was once covered in gold leaf to signal the importance — the divinity — of Buddha. The garment has a wide border with a red background and simple circular forms in green and yellow, which stand out in contrast to the gold. Past the wide, dark green stripe of the fabric is an expanse colored in red and dark red stripes, which would have been quite vibrant originally.

Now, where do the principles of design fit in? Read on and identify aspects of the next paragraph that relate to specific design principles.

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

Here’s an example:

As observed previously, the facial features of the figure are symmetrical, which resolves the asymmetry of the body. This is an asymmetry of mass: the drapery on the right functions as a solid shape that is counterbalanced by the negative space — a tall, slender pyramid — created between the bent right arm and the outer edge of the torso. This shape reiterates the stable, balanced, pyramidal form of the overall figure. Where asymmetry creates visual interest and line and color emphasize movement on the lower portion of the sculpture, the symmetrical face draws the eye upward smoothly toward the culmination of this serene pyramid — the wide, low knot of hair atop Buddha’s head.

Now that you’ve completed your visual analysis, it’s time to summarize what you’ve written and provide a conclusion. A summary may be utilized to suggest a preliminary interpretation of meaning based only on your visual analysis. Your summary can also function as a sort of bridge leading you and your reader to a place of further inquiry and research culminating in a subsequent discussion of greater depth and interpretive possibilities.

Keep in mind that attributing meaning to an artwork involves far more than merely looking at it and ascribing subjective feelings or ideas (to it). Rather, it involves trying as much as we are able to understand the artwork as it would have been perceived in its original context, a far more complex undertaking than we are involved in with basic visual analysis.

Now, let’s see how a brief summary and conclusion can synthesize the work you’ve done in the course of your investigation:

The key elements of this exquisite sculpture — the rich, vivid colors and gold leaf, the smooth surfaces, the interaction of symmetrical and asymmetrical aspects, and the overall stable, pyramidal composition together promote a sense of harmony and timelessness. It is as if this sublime being has been seated in this contented pose for an eternity and welcomes the viewer to join him in this act of blissful meditation. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Amitabha is a “celestial Buddha who presides over his Western Paradise,” a place where one might achieve the ultimate goal of “spiritual understanding.” It is easy to envision this Buddha in a place of such enlightenment.

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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.