Analysing art is a rewarding activity and a tried and tested way to help you develop as a visual artist. Through this step by step guide to analysing artwork you will learn more about your chosen artwork, any art movements the artwork and artist was associated with, the background / context of both the artwork and the artist and the artist’s techniques, processes and style. You may also develop an understanding about what drew you to analyse a specific artwork in the first place and what your own response to the work was and why. Starting with how to initially approach the artwork, this guide takes you through recording your own personal response to the artwork and then onto examining the subject matter, context, style and the visual elements within the work. You will then conclude your analysis and think about how to apply what you have learnt.
What is analysis?
Analysis is a thorough detailed study of anything complex (or something not completely understood) in order to discover or understand more about it. Analysis may determine the nature of something and it’s essential features, or help you to understand your own response to the artwork (your own experience, opinion or judgement) of the work during and after the analysis (Mirriam-Webster, 2022; Cambridge Dictionary, 2023). Analysis often involves seperating the whole into parts in order to gain a better understanding. In the case of analysing artwork the whole is the artwork and the parts could be the subject matter, context, colour, composition, line, etc…
The benefits of analysing other artists’ work
Analysing other artists, illustrators and designers’ work will help you to learn more about the chosen artwork, the artist, art movements, context and the decisions the artist has made when they created that work. Analysis often illuminates why the artwork was created, what influenced it, the influence it had at the time and beyond and what drew you to take a closer look at that artwork in the first place. Analysing art is enjoyable and looking at art in general has been shown to have positive effects on the wellbeing of the viewer, for example, reducing the viewer’s stress and blood pressure (Law, Karulkar and Broadbent, 2021).
Analysing artwork will also help you develop as an artist. If you are currently (or are thinking of) studying any art related subject, analysing any art would be beneficial to you. You can document your analysis of the artwork in a stand alone document or in your reflective art journal, in the form of a sketchbook, note book or in an electronic document, along with the image of the artwork you are analysing and any visual analysis you have completed (a painting, drawing or sketch of the artwork). If this is part of an assignment you have been set follow the format instructions you have been given by your tutor, instructor or teacher. The use of the terms ‘artwork’ and ‘work’ in this guide encompasses all visual forms of art: sculpture, photography, painting, drawing, mixed media, installation, illustration, design, etc…
I found my own old college sketchbook that I used to document my own analyses of artwork and the images shown in this guide are of the visual and written analyses that I completed as an art student back in 1999! At the time I did not appreciate how important they were in my development as an artist.
Getting prepared to analyse the artwork
Fine art, illustration, graphic design, sculpture, printmaking, photography, textiles, fashion, etc… are all unique fields, but the following questions / prompts should cover most visual art. Some may not be relevant to the artwork you are analysing and if this is the case just disregard that particular question / prompt and move onto the next. The basic tools you will need are:
- A good image of the artwork you have chosen to analyse (if you do not have access to the actual artwork if this is a painting, sculpture, mixed media piece, installation, etc…
- Something to write and make notes on (paper, PC, Laptop, etc…)
- Access to the internet and/or other found information on your chosen artwork and the artist
Unless the artwork is meant to be viewed in printed or in a digital format, if you are able to visit the artwork in person this is, of course, better than viewing it from a second hand image, perhaps in a book or from the internet. Understandably, this is not always possible and is definitely optional. If you are going to conduct a visual analysis, a drawing, painting or sketch of the artwork (also optional), you will need some basic art materials and these will depend on your chosen artwork. Ready to analyse your artwork? Lets get started…
Step by step guide to analysing artwork
1. Approach the artwork you want to analyse
You should choose atleast one of these following two approaches to start your analysis….
Slow looking is an approach that will help you to become familiar with the artwork and allow you to explore your responses to it. Spend atleast 10 minutes slow looking at your chose artwork before moving onto a creating a visual analysis or Section 2. Record your response to the artwork. If you are able to view the actual artwork in person, it’s surroundings may be an important consideration, for example, sculpture set outside or interactive art. What you can hear, smell, see, touch and feel could be included in your initial response notes if you feel it is relevant.
Try to approach the artwork, or image of the artwork, with openness and a fresh mind, as if this is the first time you are seeing it. This is especially important if you are analysing a well known artwork or one that is already familiar to you. Let your eyes and mind wander over the artwork. Your eyes will be naturally be drawn to certain elements and your mind will naturally try and make connections between elements in the work. You may be seeing the artwork as intended by the artist or your experience of the artwork may be different and unique to you (Tate, 2023)
For more information on slow looking at art there is a short Guide to Slow Looking by Tate (2023). Slow looking is at it’s best when you are able to view the actual artwork in person or in the form the artist intended.
Visual analysis by painting, drawing, sketching the artwork (optional)
Making a realistic visual depiction of the artwork you are analysing by painting, drawing, sketching or sculpting it will help you to really engage and become familiar with the artwork. Your visual depiction should ideally be of the entire artwork, if it is a 3D form and you are choosing a 2D format for your visual analysis (drawing, sketching and painting) you may need to do a number of visual analysis studies. If the artwork is complicated you may choose to depict only a section of the artwork. Although this initial approach can be time consuming, I highly recomend it. It is the traditional way for artists to learn from other artists and as you visually analyse / create your visual depiction of the artwork it forces you to look closer at the artwork and you will start to see things you did not notice before. Ideally you should work from the actual artwork itself, but if that is not possible work from a good quality image of the art piece from a book, magazine, postcard, poster or the internet. Try to be realistic in your depiction of the artwork to better understand that artwork better, especially the visual elements. Don’t worry about what your visual depiction looks like at the end, that’s not important, it’s the process of you looking and understanding the artwork as a whole and starting to notice the parts (colour, composition, line, texture, etc…) that make up the artwork that is important.
2. Record your initial and considered response to the artwork
Now you have become familiar with the artwork it is time to start recording your initial responses (first impressions / when you first looked at it) and considered responses (during and after slow looking and/or conducting your visual analysis) to the artwork. Keep an image of the artwork you are analysing in front of you and any visual analysis (painting, drawing, sketch or sculpture / model) you have completed and start to write or make notes. As you work through the following questions / prompts you can choose to handwrite or work digitally on a PC, laptop or tablet, or do a bit of both. You can combine your written work with relevant drawings, colours, images, findings, quotes, etc…
Remember if the questions / prompts don’t apply to the artwork you are analysing or you cannot answer them, move onto the next. I find this a really interesting part of the analysis because it is your own unique experience. Lets make a start…
- What was your initial reaction to the artwork?
- As you continue to look at / experience the artwork, how does your mind and body respond? For example, does the artwork help you feel calm, does it anger, excite, irritate you? (just need a few more examples here.
- Does the artwork trigger any memories for you?
- What is your overall response to the artwork?
Next we will move onto what you think the subject matter is of the artwork you are analysing, if you can observe one. If you are analysing an abstract or semi-abstract artwork knowing the subject matter at this point may be difficult or impossible without doing some research, but give it a go at this stage. Later, when you start to research the artwork and artist, the subject matter may become clearer to you…
2. Examine the subject matter
You may have already started to answer the following questions / prompts on subject matter in your response to the artwork, especially if it triggered any memories for you. Ideally you will still not have looked into the context or background of the artwork you are analysing (that comes in the next section). For some artwork the following questions / prompts will be fairly straight forward to answer and discuss, but for others it may be more difficult, perhaps even impossible… Give it a go and if the question / prompt really doesn’t apply to the artwork or you cannot answer it at this stage move onto the next question / prompt…
What is the subject matter?
Do you recognise objects or the environment?
What is happening in the painting?
What does the subject or theme suggest or remind you of?
If there are humans, animals and/or creatures in the painting how are depicted? For example, are they at ease, fearful, dwarfed by nature? What is their relationship to their environment? Such as the horizon, sky, ground, water, etc…
If there is an environment how is it depicted? Is the sky cloudy, stormy, clear or bright? Is the forest inviting or nurturing or dark and threatening?
Now we will move onto the context / background of the artwork you are analysing and at that point you may find that your response to the artwork may change as you learn more about it. If it does, make sure you record what has changed and why.
3. Examine the context / background of the artwork and artist
This part is going to involve a bit of research on your part and you can spend as much time as you want on this section of the analysis. I would recomend using the internet if you have access to it and starting to search for information on your chosen artwork by typing in the title of the artwork into a search engine like Google. You may have access to your own personal books, a local library or information given at the point you saw the artwork, at a gallery or museum as examples. If you find something out that surprises or interests you make a note about what it was and why it surprised or interested you. As an example, when I was an illustration student I came across a German artist John Heartfield who, after seeing his work and then locating and reading books about him, found that the art I had seen were anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist photomontages which served as a political weapons (Wikipedia, 2023) during the World War II. As a result of his art, John Heartfield ‘rose to number-five on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List’ (Johnheartfield.com, n.d.) and he had to flee the Nazis a few times before relocating to England and then the United States. The context to John Heartfield’s work, what was happening at the time, his personal background and views, etc… Very much interested me and were very important and relevant to much of his famous photomontage work. Both my response and the infromation I found would be important to include in my analysis of one of these artworks. So start to find information / research that will help you answer the following questions / prompts…
What is the artist’s background? Is it relevant to the artwork you are analysing, if so, how is it relevant?
What is the title of the artwork? Does the title have any significance?
When and where was the artwork made?
Did the artwork serve a purpose? A purpose could be commercial, decorative, self expression, political, etc…
Does it fit into a particular genre? For example, religious, landscape, still Life, fantasy, etc…
Was the art part of a particular movement? Cubism, Impressionism, Pontalism, Futurism, American Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism?
Has finding out about the context of the artwork changed your response to the artwork in anyway?
Now it’s time to move onto looking at the style and the visual elements of the artwork. You may find that the style and visual elements connect with what you have discovered about the artwork, the artist and your own responses.
4. Examine the style and the visual elements of the artwork
‘Style’ is the approach taken by the artist to portray a subject matter or express an idea / concept. It is the process and decisions made by the artist, the techniques used and the way the artist has used colour, line, light, composition, etc… It could have been influenced by an art movement the artist was involved in or have been influenced by something else. You may well have discovered this earlier in your analysis but try to answer the following questions / prompts the best you can…
What is the style of the artwork?
What does that style suggest about the artist’s point of view or place in time?
What is a visual element?
Visual elements are the componants or building blocks the visual art is made up of and are ‘any characteristic that we can see, including line, shape, direction, size, texture, colour, and value…’ (Goag, 2019). Not all of the visual elements may be present in the artwork you are analysing. The absense of a visual element may be as important as the ones that are present in the artwork. For this analysis we are staying with four basic visual elements: colour, line, light and composition. This is because this guide is designed for readers at different levels and with different needs. There are many more visual elements to art which you may choose to take also take into account, for example, texture, form, shape, etc… To learn more about the basic visual elements try Virtual Art Academy’s Painting for Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide to the 7 Elements Of Art, Wikipedia’s Elements of Art and for ‘Light’ in particular, head over to The Drawing Source’s Value, Light and Form blog.
At this point don’t worry about your knowledge of colour, line, light and composition, just have a go at answering these questions / prompts…
What are the main colours used? / Is there a lack of colour?
What mood do the colours, or lack of colours, evoke?
If colours are used what do they traditionally represent?
Are the colours flat, smooth, aggressive or expressive?
Are the lines definitive and hard? Irregular? Indistinct? Broken?
Do objects in the artwork blend into the background or do they stand out off the canvas?
What is the effect of light in the artwork?
Does light illuminate a scene, object/s or character/s in the artwork?
Does light shadow a scene, object/s or character/s in the artwork?
Does light / dark unite or divide in the artwork?
In what direction is the artist trying to direct your gaze by the use of light / dark?
Do the colours, poses or objects have any impact on the composition?
Are objects harmonious with one another or at odds?
Do the objects equally share the viewer’s attention?
Where does the composition lead the eye to?
Do other elements make up the artwork’s composition? For example, shape and space.
5. Conclude your analysis and think about how to apply what you have learnt
By this stage you will hopefully have a good analysis of your chosen artwork and you will need a conclusion to bring together the important things you have discovered from your analysis. It will give you the bigger picture and will be provide a handy quick reminder for you if you return to your analysis in the future. It could be just one or two paragraphs or something more (depending on why you analysed the artwork in the first place). At this point you may be reflected on what you have learnt and possibly what you want to do next. The analysis may have led you into a new area of interest (another artwork by the same artist, the art movement the artist was affiliated to, other artists in the same art movement, other artists working in a similar way, etc…). You may have been inspired to try and create you own art (if so that is fantastic news!). If you are already an artist it may have given you some new ideas for your own art practice that you want to try out, perhaps a technique, the colour combination, composition or similar subject matter you found in the artwork you have just analysed. All this thinking about what you can do after completing your analysis is part of the learning process. In Kolb’s Experiencial Learning Cycle (1984) it is called the abstract conceptualisation stage. To learn more about this head over to my blog A Guide to Keeping a Reflective Art Journal
I hope that you have enjoyed analysing your chosen artwork and found this guide useful.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.
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