How to Analyze Art

Art is an expression of human creativity and emotion that takes many forms. It can include paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and even photographs. It can tell us about the people who created it, and it can reveal our ideas and values. It can also influence the way we see the world around us. Students are often required to analyze visual material, such as artwork or posters. This handout discusses strategies for approaching and evaluating such materials and provides examples of analytical questions.

The question of what makes a piece of art “good” has captivated humans since they began making images. Deciding factors like realism, beauty, decoration and moral idealism have come in and out of fashion over the centuries, with fresh generations of artists often spurring shifts in taste.

For example, in the 18th and 19th centuries, much of what was considered good art was based on the notion that it embodied a kind of timeless perfection. This aesthetic approach, which focused on painting and the other so-called fine arts, dominated the field until about the 1970s.

As art historian Katerina Deligiorgi explains, the field of art history became more sophisticated in the early 20th century as scholars started to examine how and why works of art were made, rather than simply describing them. In addition, the field expanded to encompass more types of art, such as performance and video.

To analyze an artwork, you need to pay close attention to its formal qualities. In other words, how does the work use line, shape, color, light, texture and other elements to convey meaning? You should also think about how the work is arranged and what kinds of contrasts (e.g., curved versus straight lines, jagged versus smooth shapes) it uses to attract your attention and create movement in the composition.

Another consideration is the subject matter of the artwork and the ways that it reflects the world in which it was created. For example, how does the artist’s choice of topic — such as religion, politics, landscape or family life — reflect his or her culture and beliefs? What does the way in which the artist presents these subjects — for example, through the depiction of bodies or their arrangement in space — say about the artist’s views?

Identifying and explaining these elements of art can help you evaluate how well it is working. During class discussions, don’t accept a general statement like “I like this because it’s pretty.” Instead, ask the student to explain how and why he or she likes the work, using specifics. This will encourage critical thought and debate in the classroom and help students develop their own artistic philosophies. You might even play the role of devil’s advocate in class to get your students to challenge their own opinions. This will help them become more confident in their art-historical analysis.