How to write a formal analysis

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1) Get ready: find a work of art to look at in a museum and observe your work carefully. Mentally answer the following questions (and why not take notes):
--What does the work of art represent? Have you seen this subject, or a similar one, in works we looked at in class? Does it include a recognizable subject or is it an abstract work? If it is figural, is it a historical narrative, a religious scene, a portrait? Does it include more than one scene? How is it different from works with the same (or similar) subject?
n.b. You can look up more information on the subject if it seems puzzling to you and you need to know more to understand its representation.

--How is the work of art composed? How do the various components of the work relate to the whole? How are lines, color, light and dark areas, and shapes ordered? Think about symmetry and asymmetry, grouping of figures, balance, the creation of geometrical forms through the composition. Is the composition emphasizing dynamic motion or static calm? What is the relationship of the composition to the picture plane? (Remember, even representations of single figures are composed carefully).

--What is the role of naturalism? By what means does the artist try to give a sense of naturalistic observation or purposefully deny it? Is the artist more concerned with the interplay of abstracted forms? Consider the artist's use of flat or spatial qualities, his/her use of perspective, light and shadow, color, and distortion or exaggeration of natural elements. If you conclude the artist is not as interested in a naturalistic portrayal of his/her subject as in something else, define what the qualities are that s/he is trying to suggest.
--If the work is 3-D, does it cause the viewer to move around it, and how? What is the main viewpoint, if any? How does its size contribute to its effect on the viewer?
--Think about how the artist’s use of the medium expresses something important. If it’s sculpture, how does s/he treat light and shadow, give the impression of volume, give a sense of the material – skin, drapery, hair? If it’s painting, how does the artist’s use of the brush contribute to a sense of movement or, instead, suppresses brushwork for a gleaming surface? How does s/he treat color?
--How would you characterize the work of art as a whole? How does the artist’s composition, choice of medium, and use of technique contribute to the overall visual effect of the work? What meaning is s/he trying to convey?


Guidebooks are useful, like Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing about Art.



2) Look at the prompt and write your paper. When you do, be sure to follow these guidelines:
--Identify and then analyze the work of art carefully; do not just describe it neutrally. Do not include everything you see, but focus on the qualities that support a major point you are trying to make about the work.
--Include in your paper an organized discussion of some of the above questions that led you to your main conclusion concerning the artistic qualities, visual effect, and meaning the artist was trying to suggest through its visual properties. Focus on the work, not on general issues about the period to which the work belongs.
--Always give specific examples of what you mean. Make sure that what you are saying about the work of art can be supported by the visual evidence.
--The paper is to be primarily an analysis of the art work’s forms, not distracting non-visual issues. This means that you should focus on the visual properties of the art work. You can look up general information to clarify your questions about the subject, for example, but don’t spend time on in-depth research, don’t write about symbolism, and don’t pad the paper with generalizations about the subject, period, or artist.

It should also not concentrate primarily on how the work of art makes you feel. For example, "The linear patterns created by the fluttering drapery lend a sense of movement to the entire composition" is acceptable; "I can almost feel the cool, restorative breezes on my face from the fluttering drapery" is not acceptable.

Instead, your essay should concentrate on what you see, and how your observations illuminate the intention the artist may have had to provide some kind of meaning for his/her creation.
-- Write two full drafts at least. I recommend that you send or take the first draft to a writing tutor in the Writing Center in Chuck Pratt and leave it with him/her the night before. You can sign up for an appointment online: .
Having a writing tutor go over your work is not a remedial grammatical exercise; it will make a big difference in clarifying your ideas for the benefit of a reader who is not situated in your head (me!). But you have to WANT to do it for it to be helpful.
--PLEASE ATTACH AN ILLUSTRATION OF THE WORK OF ART YOU HAVE CHOSEN to your paper. The works in the Mead and in the 5-College museums should be illustrated on the 5-College Museums Database . If you need help using this resource, ask the Mead staff.

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