Writing and Research in Art History
Visual Analysis Guidelines
PICTURES WILL ANSWER IF YOU ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Medium; techniques, size. How do these affect the style?
Scale of figures relative to the total object. Does this suggest something about the relative importance of figures?
Treatment of the human body (or animal body; or drapery; etc.). Naturalistic? Schematized or abstracted? Idealized? Note proportions. Is it a portrait? What is the attitude towards the person/animal?
Composition. How is it organized? Is there a focal point? Is the composition unified? Fragmented? Does color affect the composition? Hierarchy? Symmetry? Many or few forms included? Geometrically ordered or free and seemingly accidental? Crowdedness or spaciousness? Variety or repetition? Does the composition help to direct viewers’ attention: in what way and how?
Space. How is it handled—essentially two-dimensionally or three-dimensionally? Shallow or deep? Open or screened off? What kind of perspective used? Atmospheric; one-point; worm’s eye, bird’s eye? Is space suggested by planes in depth or by recession? What is relation of “shape” of space to picture plane? How does the handling of space affect the relationship of the image to viewers?
Brushstroke. Painterly or linear? Tight or free? Emphasis on the boundaries (edges) of objects? Or do they appear to merge with adjacent forms? Are lines used at all? What effect does this have on the image?
Color. Bright or subdued? Many or few? Any one(s) dominant? Warm or cool? Recede or push forward? Complementary colors juxtaposed? To what effect?
Light. Is there a consistent source? Inside or outside the picture? Strong or muted contrasts (“spot-light-lighting”)? Shadows used? What is the function of shadow (e.g., to clarify form or space, or to emphasize a mood)?
Function. If you know the work’s function you can consider the relationship between its purpose and appearance. How have the style and subject of the image been shaped or influenced by its original function?
Remember always that you must be able to justify your conclusions by observations that can be checked by others. Avoid “reading into the picture” qualities which really come from your own attitudes, convictions or sympathies. Distinguish between the given “data” and your own associations. Consider alternate choices that the artist might have made and how these might have affected the character of the work.
SCULPTURE WILL SPEAK
Note: Note the difference between sculpture and sculptor.
Medium; technique; size. How do these affect the style? Is it done in a positive or negative technique (do you was it “build it built up,” as with clay and plaster, or carved it away, as with wood and stone)? Does the sculptor wish you to be conscious of the medium (can you see chisel marks in the stone or wood, or sense the modeled clay in the bronze), or does s/he wish you to “see” the material as something else (e.g., did the artist intend for you to see the marble as having the material qualities of drapery: soft, flowing, etc.?).
Treatment of the human body. See the questions asked above in “Pictures will Answer…” Also consider the scale of the sculpture relative to the viewer as s/he confronts the sculpture.
Composition. In addition to the questions raised in “Pictures will Answer…,” consider the following: do we know where the sculpture was originally located? From what vantage point was the image to be viewed – from below? from the front? Is there a main view? Could the viewer walk entirely around the object? Did the sculptor plan for it to be viewed from all sides?
Space. How does the sculpture relate to the space around it? Does it reach out into it, look or gesture outwards? Or is it self-contained and removed from the viewer’s space? What is the shape of the space, and does it progress or have implied movement (does it spiral upwards or outwards, does a group seem to move from left to right, etc.)? Does the sculpture actually move? Or actually change color or compositions? Does the sculpture seem restricted by the original shape of the material from which it was carved (e.g., has it retained the shape of the tree trunk or the cubic block of stone)? Are the figures fully freed from the material, or are they still attached?
Color and Lighting. Was the sculpture originally painted? Has the sculptor created coloristic effects through contrasting shadows and highlights that play on the actual sculpture? Are there deeply cut areas that create deep shadows? Are the figures modeled vigorously, creating a play of darks and lights, or modeled very smoothly? If we know the original location, did the sculptor take into consideration the lighting of that space?
Function and meaning. What was its purpose? How has the style and subject of the image been affected by its original function?
ARCHITECTURE CAN BE ARTICULATE, TOO
Materials and Construction. What materials used in construction? Is the building trabeated (post and lintel system) or vaulted (arcuated)? Is it human in scale and design?
Composition of Plan. What are the overall characteristics of the plan: symmetrical or asymmetrical, organized or organic, compact or sprawling, axial or bilaterally symmetrical, geometrical? Does the architect direct you along a clear path through a sequence of rooms?
Style. Are the classical Orders used (which)? If so, are classical principles adhered to, or are they altered? Is it a revival of a classical style, or a purposeful distortion of the classical style? Does the building make no reference to the classical past? Why?
Site. How does the structure relate to the site? Is it harmonious with nature, or does it ignore the natural topography? Is it essentially long and horizontal, or tall and vertical?
Temporal Element. How do you approach the structure, immediately, or are you forced to make a slow and indirect approach? Has the architecture manipulated your first view of the structure it? Are you meant to experience the structure as a sequence of spaces? If so, how are these spaces related to each other (e.g., do you move through increasingly smaller and darker spaces; or do you go from a compressed space into an enormous space)?
Proportions. Was the architect concerned with perfect proportions? Was any mathematical system used to determine the height of columns, width, etc.? If so, what was the source for such an idea? Why was this important to the architect or patron?
Facade. Is there a focal point on the exterior of the building? Where? How does the architect indicate it? How is the facade composed (symmetrical, balanced, geometrically arranged, etc.)? Strong contrast of lights and darks, or relatively homogeneous surface? Use of sculpture, mosaics, painting, stained or unstained glass, colored patterns of stones/bricks? Is the appearance heavy and earthbound (why? what creates this effect?), or light and soaring (why?)? Does the architect wish it to appear substantial/insubstantial? How is this effect created? Is the structural system clearly articulated, or masked?
Interior. Does the exterior anticipate the interior, or are you surprised? If they contrast, how are they different and why? What are the sources for the lighting? Is it well-lit or dark? Why? What is the “shape” of the interior space (high and soaring, billowing, horizontal zoom, etc.)? Is the structural system visible or masked? Why? What are the structural methods used to create the building? Is it on more than one level?
Function. Why was the structure built? How was it used? Does the exterior declare its function? How? How does the interior respond to its function? Are there interior and/or exterior images or decoration which reflect the function? Is there figural decoration (why/why not)? What kind of subjects are included? Who (or what group) commissioned the work? What controls did they exercise?
Alterations. Is the structure in its original form, or are there additions and alterations? Was it completed as the architect originally planned? Was it built over a period of time with several builders? Is there a stylistic change from the earlier parts to the later? Was it planned carefully “on paper” before construction began?