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What Is the Process of “Visual Analysis” and Why Is It Important?

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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?

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Visual analysis is the basic unit of art historical writing. Sources as varied as art magazines, scholarly books, and undergraduate research papers rely on concise and detailed visual analyses. You may encounter a visual analysis as an assignment itself; or you may write one as part of a longer research paper. The purpose of a visual analysis is to recognize and understand the visual choices the artist made in creating the artwork. By observing and writing about separate parts of the art object, you will come to a better understanding of the art object as a whole. A visual analysis addresses an artwork’s formal elements—visual attributes such as color, line, texture, and size. A visual analysis may also include historical context or interpretations of meaning. Be sure to read the assignment carefully to decide which elements of visual analysis your professor expects you to include. Some professors will look for a formal analysis alone; others will expect you to frame your formal description in terms of historical information.

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Visual analysis is a method of understanding art that focuses on an artwork’s visual elements, such as color, line, texture, and scale. In its strictest definition, it is a description and explanation of visual structure for its own sake (Suzanne Hudson, 2002). Yet the purpose of visual analysis can also recognize the choices that an artist made in creating the artwork, as well as to better understand how the formal properties of an artwork communicate ideas, content, or meaning. Visual analysis is often used as a starting point for art-historical writing. Visual analysis is not just for art. It is also a critical part of visual literacy, a skill that helps people read and critically interpret images, whether in a museum, on social media, in entertainment, advertising, or the news. As citizens of the 21st century, we are constantly confronted with visualmedia. Practicing visual analysis sharpens critical judgment skills and helps people seek out answers instead of passively receiving information. This is especially important when exposing hidden ideologies that may motivate seemingly neutral images (Henry M. Sayre, 2005).

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In sum, once students have an understanding of formal analysis, they will be well prepared to put this theory into practice by making their own images based on the elements and principles of design. Whether in photography, sculpture, or painting, the theory of formal analysis will help students to compose their works of art as professional artists would.

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Suzanne Hudson and Nancy Noonan-Morrissey, The Art of Writing about Art (Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, 2002).

Henry M. Sayre, Writing about Art (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005).

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What Is the Process of “Visual Analysis” and Why Is It Important?
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