How to Analyze Art

Before we get started learning about art history, we should make sure we know all the important terms.

While knowing time periods and different philosophical theories can be important, for right now we’re just going to focus on ways to visually analyze a work of art. After all, we want to understand a work’s physical properties before we get into its abstract identity.

Van Gogh's painting The Starry Night. It features a night sky filled with swirling color and yellow stars. There is a yellow crescent moon in the top right corner. The left side of the painting shows a dark tree in the foreground. Behind the tree you can see a dimply lit village. Behind that lay blue hills.
We will be using Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night as an example of applied visual analysis.

Scale – This refers to the size of something. It can be used to describe the size of the work of art as a whole, or simply the figures within.

Let’s take a look at our example. This painting is 29 inches tall by 36 inches wide, so decently large. Then, within the painting, the sky is the largest element.

Composition – This is the arrangement of forms. What shape do the figures create? What impression does this give the viewer? How do the foreground and background interact? What directions are the objects moving? What shapes and angles are being repeated? What empty space is there?

As a viewer, our eyes first settle on the most prominent element (which here is the tree). Then, the swirls in the sky move our attention to the moon. This arrangement lets our attention rove around the painting from the swirling natural forms to lastly settle on the small angular village below.

Pictoral Space – This refers to the illusion of three-dimensional space created in a two-dimensional work of art. What objects are overlapping? Are objects farther away depicted less clearly? Was the artist using linear perspective?

Van Gogh uses the tree to settle the viewer on a hill overlooking a village. Objects become smaller the father away they are. However, Van Gogh makes the moon much larger than it would be seen normally, signifying its importance in the painting.

Form – These are the solid objects being depicted in the work of art. These are specifically the figures or structures depicted.

There are four main forms in this painting. There’s the large tree near the viewer, the moon and stars hanging in the sky, the village, and the small hills behind the buildings.

Line – These are instances lines appear in the work. They can be used on their own, or to define the form of something else.

Van Gogh tends to use heavy lines in his works to separate the different forms. He also uses thick lines of color to define elements within the work, such as texture. Here, you can see the lines especially well in the sky and hills.

Color – What colors are being used in the work of art? Which colors correspond? Which colors contrast? What colors are used commonly, and how so? What do these color relationships imply within the work of art?

The primary colors here are blue and yellow. These are contrasting colors, so by placing them side-by-side Van Gogh made them both seem brighter than they would normally be. However, he used their mixture, green, to make dark areas seem more muddled.

Light – How is light being depicted in the work of art? Where is the light coming from? What objects are illuminated? What objects are left in shadow?

Van Gogh likes to use light in a very interesting way. Instead of merely showing the effect of light on the forms in the painting, he depicts it as its own entity. For the most part, only the lights themselves are illuminated; the rest is left in shadow.

Tone – This is the amount of lightness or darkness within a color.

Most colors in this painting are very bright and saturated. However, here the natural brightness of yellow is taken advantage of in order to depict light.

Texture – This refers to both the visual and actual quality of a surface. What is smooth? What is rough? Is this merely a visual effect, or an actual texture the artist applied to the work of art?

Van Gogh is known for using very heavy paint-strokes in order to create a heavily textured surface.

A close-up of Van Gogh's painting, The Starry Night. It shows the moon in detail, highlighting the texture of the oil paints.
Such amazing texture! Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Pattern – These are repeated decorative designs (sometimes referred to as ornamentation). Are these patterns natural or man made?

Here we see that patterns of repeated lines are used in the sky and the hills. These patterns not only highlight the different colors, but also the motion of the painting. We also see pattern used in the roofs of the buildings in the village, though these are much more stagnant.

All of the terms I have described here can be found in Khan Academy’s video “Tools for Understanding Art: How to do Visual (Formal) Analysis in Art History.” Check out their videos to learn more about art history!

Primary image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Learn more about this piece at the MoMA online exhibit.


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