GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS: Write a 2-3 page paper analyzing the formal properties of
any artwork that interests you. The artwork chosen can be any unique painting,
sculpture, or photograph that has been publicly displayed in a gallery or museum. See
below for LOTS of further overviews and tips. Please feel free to ask any questions.
FORMAL ANALYSIS PAPER LEARNING OBJECTIVE: the goal of a formal analysis
is to explain how the formal elements of a work of art affect the representation of the
subject matter and expressive content. The emphasis should be on analyzing the
formal elements—not interpreting the artwork.
A formal analysis includes an analysis of the forms appearing in the work you have
chosen. These forms give the work its expression, message, or meaning. A formal
analysis assumes a work of art is (1) a constructed object (2) that has been created with
a stable meaning (even though it might not be clear to the viewer) (3) that can be
ascertained by studying the relationships between the elements of the work.
To aid in writing a formal analysis, you should think as if you were describing the work of
art to someone who has never seen it before. When your reader finishes reading your
analysis, they should have a complete mental picture of what the work looks like. Yet,
the formal analysis is more than just a description of the work. It should also include a
thesis statement that reflects your conclusions about the work. The thesis statement
may, in general, answer a question like these: What do I think is the meaning of this
work? What is the message that this work or artist sends to the viewer? What is this
work all about? The thesis statement is an important element of the analysis that sets it
apart from being a merely descriptive paper.
FORMAT FOR THE FORMAL ANALYSIS PAPER:
• 2.5-3 pages
• 12 pt. Times New Roman
• 1” borders.
• Make sure you proofread your paper for incorrect grammar, spelling, punctuation,
and other errors.
• In addition, make sure your paper includes a thesis statement. Your grade will
reflect your ability to follow these guidelines.
• At least one outside source—be sure to list the source.
SUGGESTED STRUCTURE FOR A FORMAL ANALYSIS PAPER:
Introduction: The introduction should identify the title of the work of art, the name of
the artist, and the date when it was created. You may also indicate the medium, the
period in which it was created, and its current location. While biographical information
about the artist is not necessary, if you know something about the artist’s interests or
the interests of the period that may have influenced this work, you may include it here.
Typically, your introduction should conclude with your thesis statement, which will
suggest the meaning or content of the work to introduce the formal elements you have
chosen to analyze.
• The Thesis Statement: Your thesis should provide a framework for your
analysis and suggest your interpretation of the work. A thesis statement
does not necessarily involve a view of argument or original insight, but it
should let the reader know how the artist’s formal choices affect the
Body/Development of Formal Analysis Paper: In the most straightforward
organization, each element you discuss in your paper should be analyzed in its own
paragraph. You may find it helpful to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence about
the significance of the element and end with a concluding statement. You may also
organize your analyses of the formal elements according to major figures, a focal point,
or other significant effects in the composition.
• The Analysis: Although description is an important part of a formal analysis,
description is not enough on its own. You must introduce and
contextualize your descriptions of the formal elements of the work so the
reader understands how each element influences the work’s overall effect
on the viewer. You may include your emotional responses to a work, but
you must explain them and back them up with evidence, the formal
elements that elicit your emotional response (Barnet, 34).
Conclusion of Formal Analysis Paper: The conclusion may summarize your findings
and relate to the theme presented in your introduction; however, you should avoid
simply repeating what you offered in the introduction. You may also include any new
ideas, insights, or understandings you gained about the work through the analysis
Note: All descriptions and analyses should relate to your thesis.
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN WRITING A FORMAL ANALYSIS:
1. Record your first impression(s) of the artwork. What stands out? Is there a focal
point (an area to which the artist wants your eye to be drawn)? If so, what formal
elements led you to this conclusion? Your impressions can help you reach your thesis.
2. What is the subject of the artwork?
3. Composition: How are the parts of the work arranged? Is there a stable or unstable
composition? Is it dynamic? Full of movement? Or is it static?
4. Pose: If the work has figures, are the proportions believable? Realistic? Describe the
pose(s). Is the figure active, calm, graceful, stiff, tense, or relaxed? Does the figure
convey a mood? If there are several figures, how do they relate to each other (do they
5. Proportions: Does the whole or even individual parts of the figure(s) or natural objects in
the work look natural? Why did you come to this conclusion? 6. Line: Are the outlines
(whether perceived or actual) smooth, fuzzy, or clear? Are the main lines vertical,
horizontal, diagonal, curved, or a combination of any of these?
6. Are the lines jagged and full of energy? Sketchy? Geometric? Curvilinear? Bold?
7. Space: If the artist conveys space, what type of space is used? What is the relation of the
main figure to the space around it? Are the main figures entirely within the space (if the
artwork is a painting), or are parts of the bodies cut off by the edge of the artwork? Is the
setting illusionistic, as if one could enter the space of the painting, or is it flat and
two-dimensional, a space that one could not possibly enter?
8. Texture: If a sculpture, is the surface smooth and polished or rough? Are there several
textures conveyed? Where and How? If a painting, is there any texture to the paint
surface? Are the brushstrokes invisible? Brushy? Sketchy? Loose and flowing? Or tight
9. Light and Shadow: Are shadows visible? Where? Are there dark shadows, light
shadows, or both? How do the shadows affect the work?
10. Size: How big is the artwork? Are the figures or objects in the work life-sized, larger, or
smaller than life? How does the size affect the work?
11. Color: What type of colors are used in the work? Bright? Dull? Complimentary? Does the
artist use colors to draw your attention to specific areas of the work? How? If a sculpture,
examine the color(s) of the medium and how it affects the work.
12. Mood: Do you sense an overall mood in the artwork? Perhaps several different moods? If
so, describe them. How does the mood interpret how you view the work?
•See Sylvan Barnett’s A Short Guide to Writing about Art – Thesis and formal
•Remember that I am also available via Zoom office hours and email.
Works Referenced: Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing About Art. Eighth Edition.
Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.
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