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Visual Analysis Essay: 5 Ways To Analyze A Painting

Life doesn’t always go the way you planned it. This proverb is old as hills, but people learn nothing. The same goes for students. Especially for art learners who expect the studying process excludes essay writing. The truth is all college specializations include academic writing assignments. Therefore, writing visual analysis essay will be common practice if you’re an art student. Check the article below to learn the basic lens one can use to analyze the painting.

What is a Visual Analysis Essay?

A visual analysis essay is an academic assignment that implies the analysis of the visual elements of an artistic object. To analyze a visual object means dissecting the object into elements and exploring each one. You define the elements and explore their meaning both separately and in relation to each other.

Writing a visual analysis essay is not that challenging. The whole process is less complex than searching for paper writing help by PaperWriter for a college research paper. Everything will depend on the lens you choose to analyze your object through.

What to focus on while analyzing an artistic object?

  • Form. Is it a painting, film, photo, or print media?
  • Components. Which elements did the artist use in their masterpiece?
  • Composition. How are the elements located?
  • Colors. Which are the colors? Why did the artist choose them?
  • Medium and artistic techniques. How was the object created?
  • Shapes, space, and patterns. Is there a repetition of the elements in the painting? Which shapes dominate the masterpiece?

Below you’ll find the ways of analyzing a painting depending on the core purpose of your academic task.

Cultural Lens

If the professor asked you to focus on the way a particular painting represents the culture, use the cultural lens. For instance, Frida Kahlo is famous for using cultural elements in her paintings. How do we know it? Most of Kahlo’s self-portraits include traditional Mexican clothes. Along with animalistic and floral symbolism, the paintings are truly Mexican.

How to explore the painting through a cultural lens?

  • Use the Internet. Obviously, you might know nothing about the culture depicted in the painting. This is where the Internet will be significantly helpful;
  • Identify the peculiar elements and Google them. For instance, some of Kahlo’s paintings include monkeys. This comes as a surprise to the viewer. Google ‘monkeys in Mexican culture’ and you’ll learn that a monkey is a symbol of lust;
  • What about the colors? Again, identify the colors and Google their meaning as a part of a particular culture. Kahlo’s palette is full of earthy colors that symbolize Mexican land;
  • Clothes and jewelry. If the subject in the painting is a person, check the way they’re dressed. One of the paintings by Kahlo includes a traditional Mexican dress hanging in the center of the picture. At the same time, Frida was known for wearing traditional clothing herself;
  • Read books on the artist’s life and culture. To understand the artist’s oeuvre, you must learn about their life and their cultural background.


Political and Social Lens

Here, the main task is putting the painting into a political context. Again, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who or what are the subjects in the painting? Check out ‘The Problem We All Live With’ by Norman Rockwell. You’ll find four headless men walking with a young Black girl trapped in the procession. You can easily guess that the painting explores racism in America;
  • When was the painting created? Rockwell’s masterpiece was painted in 1964. The year takes the viewer back to the 1960s, the Civil Rights epoch;
  • How do the formal elements support the topic? If you look closer, you’ll see yellow bands and a red fruit thrown at the wall. Ask yourself: what do these elements symbolize in the political context?


Formal Artistic Lens

  • This is when you forget about the topic and symbolism and focus on the formal elements strictly. This is the best way to analyze the painting when you need to trace the changes in the artistic movement. For instance, check ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso.
  • What are the elements in the painting? Is there geometry? The elements in the painting are human-like geometry forms with sharp angles;
  • Which artistic movement does the painting represent? ‘Guernica’ is a cubist painting with disproportionate shapes;
  • Which artistic techniques and mediums were used in the painting? Picasso used special paint without gloss to create a photo-like effect.


Historical Lens

Like with the cultural analysis, you’ll have to closely look at the elements like clothing and furniture. Again, there is a high chance you know nothing about the required historical epoch. We advise you to identify the date of the painting and read more sources on the historical context.

  • Are there objects in the painting that nobody uses nowadays? If you check ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ by Jan Van Eyck, look closely at the characters’ clothes. No one wears those fur-trimmed coats nowadays. But in the 15th century, fur was the symbol of wealth;
  • Are there any objects that surprise you in the painting? Coming back to ‘The Arnolfini Portrait,’ there is a dog in the foreground. Sure, a dog is a domestic animal that is a part of the domestic setting in the picture. However, in the 15th century, a dog was a symbol of loyalty. Hence, the animal shows the woman’s duty in Renaissance society – bearing children and staying loyal to the family.


Mixed Lens

This is where you’re allowed to use as many visual analysis approaches as you want. In fact, this is the most common approach your instructor will ask you to take. Here, you’ll need to analyze how the formal components depict the main idea of the painting. Shortly put, you’ll have to write about social, political, cultural, and historical aspects of the painting.

Focus your analysis on the symbolism of the formal elements. For instance, how the grey-black-and-white palette in Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ shows the smog in the bombed city.

Final Thoughts

Visual analysis is not only about watching. It’s also about interpreting what your eyes see. The artist never composes elements without an intention to translate a special message into shapes and colors. Here, the viewer is always a decoder of the artist’s message. Read as many sources on the artist’s biography as you can and peer into the painting. The truth is closer than you think.

We hope the article was helpful to you. Good luck!

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