How to Write a Visual Analysis Paper

The Market Stall, Henry Charles Bryant, 20th Century
The Market Stall, Henry Charles Bryant, 20th Century | Source

Visual Analysis Essays

- Are usually written for Art History, History or English courses.

- Describe the image and discuss how the way it is put together (the composition).

- Analyze the meaning of the image for the artist.

- Consider the historical meaning of the image.

- Evaluate the effectiveness of the image for today.

Advertisement for clothing brand uses stereotypes, symbols, lines and color.
Advertisement for clothing brand uses stereotypes, symbols, lines and color. | Source

Analyzing the Meaning of Visual Images

All images project ideas or claims. Advertisements generally make these claims openly and even tell you the claim in the text. Works of art may be more subtle but they usually are also trying to get the viewer to believe something. How can you analyze visual images? You look at:

  1. The purpose of the artist.
  2. The audience.
  3. The way the image was composed.
  4. The historical context when it was produced and when it is viewed.

Famous Whistler Painting The White Girl uses similar colors for a very different meaning and style. Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl - Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan by Whistler
Famous Whistler Painting The White Girl uses similar colors for a very different meaning and style. Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl - Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan by Whistler | Source


Introduction: Tell the basic facts about the art (see citing your image). Get the reader interested in the image by using one of the following methods:

  • Describe the image vividly so the reader can see it.
  • Tell about how the image was created.
  • Explain the purpose of the artist.
  • Give interesting facts about the art or artist.
  • Talk about a controversy or misunderstanding about the art.

Thesis: Your thesis will tell the meaning of this image (see Analyzing the Meaning of the Image)

Body: Support your thesis with three or more main ideas which support your meaning. Use questions in the pre-writing sections for ideas.

Conclusion: Try to conclude rather than just repeating your thesis. Either give a final interesting fact or try one of the following:

  • Compare the reception of the painting by the audience who first saw it with your own ideas, or with the way people today might interpret the picture.
  • Speculate on what the artist would think about the way his picture has been viewed over time.
  • Compare this image to other similar images.
  • Suggest how this piece of art fits into the works of an artist, or the ad campaign of a company.

What sort of image will you be analyzing for your Visual Analysis Paper?

  • Artwork such as a painting or drawing
  • Sculpture or other 3 dimensional art
  • Advertisement
  • Video
  • Photograph
  • Other--tell us in the comments below
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Sample Essays

Student Paper Visual Analysis Sample: This is not a student from my class but I think the example is pretty well done and might be helpful. It is about Jeff Soto's wood panel painting "Last Voyage"

Visual Analysis of Botticelli: Another student paper which does a nice job with using the format of explaining how the historical period and life of the artist is related to the meaning of the painting as well as discussing the visual aspects.

Describing an Image in a Paper

Don't have an art background? Don't worry. You probably know a lot more than you realize. Modern people are surrounded by images every day.

Everyone Can Analyze Images: Even if you don't know the terms of how people analyze art, you will be familiar with many of the tricks that artists use to create a reaction in the reader, such as making the most important images larger and light, and the less important ones in the background or fading darker. You can also easily recognize symbolic colors, such as: red means emergency or blood or danger; green means safe and close to nature; and blue means cool and relaxed.

Start by Looking Closely: Most Visual Analysis Papers will require a clear and vivid description of the image along with an analysis of the visual composition of the picture in order to explain how the artist put the image together to create meaning. Just describe the image you see and use the chart below to help you use the right terms.

Trust Your Own Eyes: You may want to do your own study of the image before you actually research the history of the image, so that you can write out your own thoughts without being influenced by other people.

Use Chart and Questions for Help: Start your visual analysis description by getting a good copy of the image and looking at it carefully. Look at the chart below and answer the key questions in order to help you see the different visual elements.

Girl Hanging up Stocking (pre 1923).  Compare to the photo of the boys below.
Girl Hanging up Stocking (pre 1923). Compare to the photo of the boys below. | Source

Visual Elements of Design

Key Questions
Why important
How image is put together. Where things are placed in relationship to one another and to the space of the canvas.
What is main figure? How are other figures placed in relation to main figure? What is left out?
The way different parts of an image are put together draws the viewers attention to some parts more than others. It also creates tone, mood and meaning.
Elements of Design
The different aspects the artist can use to put together the image.
Which elements of design are most important in this piece (color, line, texture, shape, form, value, size, text, movement)
Meaning comes from what the artist uses and also what they don't use.
Focal Point
Where your attention is drawn to in the picture
What is the focal point? What elements of design does the artist use to create the focal point?
Understanding the focal point helps you understand the meaning of the picture.
All of the colors as well as black, white and neutrals. Monocromatic means using one color. Complementary means using colors opposite one another on the color wheel
What colors are used? How do these colors affect the tone, mood and meaning of the image? Are colors used in predictable or unpredictable ways (example: predictable is red for danger)
Color can create meaning by creating moods, highlighting particular parts of the image, connecting aspects of the image, or by being symbolic.
actual lines in picture or lines created by the placement of other objects
How do lines draw your attention towards or away from certain parts of the picture? How are different
Artists use lines to draw your attention to the focal point.
Texture is how rough or smooth something is, or the pattern it has. Texture can be real on 3 dimensional art, or represented on 2 dimensional art.
Where is texture in the image and how does this texture create an expectation in the audience of a particular touch sensation?
Texture links images to real objects and the use of senses other than sight.
The way in which the artist uses circles, squares, rectangles, ovals and other shapes in the art.
How are shapes used in the art? Where does shape, or relationships between shapes help your eye to focus?
Our eyes tend to focus on familiar shapes and see shapes in two dimentional art through shading and use of light.
How light and shading techniques make a 2 dimensional object look like it has 3 dimensions.
Where has the artist used shading or light to highlight some aspect of the image? Does some part of the image stand out as having 3 dimensions?
Form can contribute to making an image seem more real, and also to add importance to a part of the picture.
Degree of light and dark in different parts of the picture.
How are light and dark used in this picture? Is there a symbolic use of light and dark? Does the artist use light or dark to highlight the focal point?
Value can be used along with color. Extreme changes in value createst contrast which often is used to provide meaning.
Size can refer to the overall size of the image and also the relative size of items in the image.
Why did the artist choose this size for the piece? What is the meaning of the difference between sizes of elements in the image?
Variation in the size of shapes and lines indicates relative significance.
Symbolic Elements
Specific parts of the design which have symbolic or historical meaning (such as a cross for Christianity, or triangles for the Trinity).
Are any of the aspects of this piece symbolic? Does the artist intend to use the symbolism directly or to invert it?
Symbols draw on cultural meanings which can work differently for different audiences.
For a simple introduction of the principles of design see the website of artist John

Elements of Design

Analyzing Meaning of Visual Images

Although Visual Analysis Essays often focus a lot on the details of describing the image, you will also need a thesis which tells what the images mean. There are several ways to do this and your assignment may tell you which direction to go. Here are some typical ways to analyze images for meaning:

  • Analyzing the meaning of the image for the artist and his or her time.
  • Analyzing the meaning of the image for you and your time.
  • Analyzing the changes in the meaning of an image over the course of time.
  • Analyze the audience reaction to the image.
  • Analyze your own reaction and evaluate the effectiveness of the image.


1. Claims: What claims does the image make? What type of claim is it?

  • Fact Claim: Is it real?
  • Definition Claim: What does it mean?
  • Cause Claim: What is the Cause? What are the effects? How are these related?
  • Value Claim: How important is this? How should we evaluate it?
  • Policy Claim: What is the solution? What should we do about it?

2. Visual Composition: How is the image arranged or composed? Which of the following aspects of composition help makes the claim? Examine:

  • Layout: where images are placed and what catches your attention. How visual lines draw your attention to or away from the focal point.
  • Balance: size of images and how they compare with one another. Is the focal point centered or offset?
  • Color: how color (or lack of color) draws your attention or creates a mood
  • Key figures: what is the main focus? How does this contribute to meaning?
  • Symbols: are there cultural symbols in the image? What do these mean?
  • Stereotypes : how does image support stereotypes or challenge them?
  • Exclusions: is there anything left out of the image that you expect to be there?

3. Genre: What is the genre of this image? (examples: fine art, movie, advertisement, poster, pamphlet, news photograph, graphic art etc.). How does it follow the rules of that genre or break away from them? How does that affect the meaning of the image for the audience?

4. Text: How does any text or caption work to provide meaning to the visual?

5. Appeals: How does it appeal to the audience to believe the claims? Are appeals to logic? Emotion? Character? Authority? Are any of these appeals false or deceiving?

6. Selling: Does the claim move into a sales pitch? Does it use a cultural value or common cultural symbol in a way that exploits that image?

7. Story: What story does this image convey? How does this story help the claim or appeal to the audience?

Historical Context

To get ready to analyze the meaning of the image for the artist and the people viewing the art, it helps to first find out the rhetorical situation. That means you need to know what the artist was trying to do at that particular point in time, and how the audience reacted. Sometimes the reaction of the audience that first saw the piece is very different from the reaction you might have. If it is, that can make an interesting paper thesis.

Starving Russian Children in 1922 famine.  Photo postcard sold to raise money for famine victims.
Starving Russian Children in 1922 famine. Photo postcard sold to raise money for famine victims. | Source

Analyzing Historical Photos

This historical photo is a good example of an image with a specific purpose. The photo was taken by Fridtjof Nansen along with other photos of the Russian famine. The purpose of the photo was to raise money for Russian relief. The photo was published as part of a set of postcards which were sold to raise money and then sent to raise awareness of the problem in others.

Since the text is in French, the Photograph was probably published to raise money from France and other French-speaking peoples. The text elucidates the image by saying the boys are feeding one another in the fatal final stages of hunger. It describes their skeletal limbs and swollen bellies as having come from eating grass, tree bark, straw, worms and dirt in order to survive.

While the photo undoubtedly affected the original audience, the pathos of the image also speaks to an audience today who may be completely unaware of this famine. For viewers today, the image may bring to mind the many famines in other areas around the world, as well as images of Holocaust survivors.

Pre-Writing for Visual Analysis Essay of Historical Context

Answer the following questions to get ready to write an analysis of the image and the audience response. While each of the questions can have a single sentence answer, you can use that single sentence as the topic sentence of a paragraph and give examples and explanation to fill out that paragraph.

  1. Who is the artist?
  2. What is the purpose of this piece? Why did the artist create it?
  3. Who did the artist create the image for?
  4. What was going on at that time in art or in the culture that the artist was either reacting against or reflecting?
  5. How did the audience in that historical moment view this work?
  6. Where was it published? How would the image appeal to that audience?
  7. What was the reaction to this piece of art when it first appeared? Since then?
  8. Did the audience understand what the artist was trying to say with the image?How did the artist feel about the reaction of the audience?

Principles of Design

What it Means
What to look for
How the different visual elements are distributed so that they seem stable or unstable.
Symmetrical balance means things on both sides are even, asymmetrical balance means that the design is weighted on one side, radical balance means things are organized around a center point.
What catches your attention when you look at the image.
The artist usually uses size, texture, shape, color or some other element to make one part of the image stand out as the focal point.
How your eye moves in a path through the picture, sometimes stopping to focus on certain parts.
Where do your eyes go, and what makes your eyes move through the picture in a certain way. Is it lines? Colors? Shapes? Edges?
Pattern and Repetition
Is there an object or a symbol that repeats in the design?
If it is repeated, it is probably important to the meaning. You might want to find out what that image means.
The relationship of sizes inside the piece of art, for example the size of one building to another, or a head to the body.
Are the proportions realistic or distorted?
Variety and Rhythm
Variety is the use of several elements of design to make the audience see the image as dynamic and in an active rhythm.
See how the different elements of design work together to produce a mood or meaning.
Taken from Getty Education Materials:

Citing Images

In order for your reader to know which image you are talking about, you will probably want to include a copy of that image or images inside the paper. You will also need to make sure that in the first paragraph you include all of the information your reader needs to know, such as:

  • Title of the Image (underline or italics)
  • Artist's name
  • Date of work
  • Where it was published or the name of museum or collection it is now in.
  • Medium: magazine advertisement, video, oil painting, marble sculpture, chalk drawing, pencil sketch, photograph (what type of image it is and what type of art medium was used)

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Comments 13 comments

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 6 weeks ago from United States Author

Excellent points, Mandi. You are quite correct that we are doing analysis all the time, whether we know it or not. Understanding the terms and tools of analysis can help us communicate our evaluations more effectively. That is the purpose of this article. Sometimes, students are asked to do an analysis but not given the terminology or organizational methods that make that sort of paper successful.

mandi 6 weeks ago

Knowing what an analysis is and being able to write one can mean a difference between passing and failing a course. In addition, here is why:

• Your professor may ask you to write an analysis without even mentioning that it is, in fact, an analysis

• Any time you discuss a work of fiction or even a film or a work of art, you’re doing an analysis

• Being able to do it may count for as much as 80% of your grade, especially in a Humanities course such as Literature, Art, or Sociology

Writing a picture analysis essay requires a basic understanding of essay structure and these visual communication techniques. Excellent picture analysis essays combine both these elements while addressing the more ephemeral ideas and experiences communicated by a picture.

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 2 months ago from United States Author

Alex--I'm so glad you stopped by to tell me that my work helped you! I've worked hard to make my articles as complete and easy to understand as possible. Having used many different textbooks in my career, I've noticed that many of them explain how to analyze writing but are not as good at explaining how to do that sort of writing yourself. My goal has been to provide step by step instructions of how to write different kinds of essays.

Alex 2 months ago

Thank you so much for this article! It's very helpful.

aesta1 profile image

aesta1 20 months ago from Ontario, Canada

I wish I had these guidelines when I was in university. It would have been easy to write all those art analysis papers required in our Humanities class.

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 24 months ago from United States Author

Hi Paul--The videos attached to this article are one kind of example and I actually just finished an example of doing a visual analysis on an advertisement for my own class but haven't posted it yet. I will have to do that soon. Can you tell me what your assignment is like? Are they analyzing their own photo? That would be interesting. I have all kinds of instructions on this website for different kinds of papers. Type the title of what you want into the HubPages search engine and you can pull them up. Or you can look at my "index" of articles:

Paul 24 months ago

This article is so helpful. I am teaching an Expository writing course (first time!) and i am having my kids try this, but with a personal photograph. Would you have an example essay that I can show them as a model?


Paul V. Harmon

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 2 years ago from United States Author

Jevon--I'm glad you learned a bit about how to look at art and find it more interesting. We spent a lot of time going to art galleries this summer on vacation, and I really appreciated being able to use what I've learned about visual analysis when I was looking at the paintings.

Jevon Wiley 2 years ago

Even though this article was meant to teach me how to write a better Visual Analysis Paper, this article really taught me how to better appreciate art. I'm not the type of person to go to an art gallery just to look at art, but now I believe I can actually give an intellectual thought on any painting I see.

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 2 years ago from United States Author

Thanks for the comment nic. I probably need to add a link to my ariticle about organizing essays:

I also have tips on structure in most of my articles on types of essays like Argument, Problem Solution or Cause. For a full list of all of my Essay Writing Articles see:

nic 2 years ago

was hoping for an essay structure but this still helped

Colin Neville 2 years ago

Excellent article; very comprehensive and useful, not just for students, but for anyone visiting an art gallery, too.

Ohlem profile image

Ohlem 2 years ago from Fairbanks, AK

I had to do one of those in my English 111 class way back when. It was fun but I wish I'd read this sooner... college teachers don't make a lick of sense :(... but good hub ;D

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