Formal Analysis

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Although this is a type of writing about art it is also the way art historians look and understand art. The formal analysis is a technique you can use to observe a painting sculpture or building. If you get into the habit of looking at art work this way you will be observing completely. A Formal Analysis considers all the formal parts (e.g., framing, symmetry, perspective, etc.) of a work of art and their relationship to each other to create new and interesting ways of observing and understanding the work in question as a whole. Please use the guide below to help you focus on how to look at art work.

Directions: Please choose a painting from the chapters we have covered so far. Copy an image of it and paste into a word document. Then copy and paste the outline below into the word document. Answer each question in a red font. Please note the answers are from your observation of you painting. This is an observation and recording exercise, not a “look up the answer assignment”.

[The following questions have been adapted from a guide written by J.S. Held, Professor

Emeritus, Barnard College.]


1. Identification

–Who is the artist?

–What is the subject or title?

–Where and when was the work painted?

2. Subject Matter

–What type of painting is it?

a. religious

b. historical

c. allegorical

d. genre (scene of everyday life)

e. still life

f. portrait

g. landscape

h. architectural view

–If the painting seems to belong to two or more categories, does one dominate?

3. Frame and Pictorial Area

–What is the proportion of height to width?

–What is the relationship of the shapes to the frame? Are they harmonious or


–What is the actual size of the picture (height x width)?

–Does the frame cut the shapes?

4. Technique

–What materials are used for support: wood, canvas, cardboard, paper?

–What kinds of paint are used: oil, tempura, watercolor, pastel?

–How is the paint applied: thickly or thinly, with a fine or coarse brush, or by

other means?

–Are colors transparent or opaque?

–Have other materials been used, as in a collage?

5. Composition (arrangement of the parts that form the whole)

–Organization: Is it simple or complex? Geometrically ordered or free and

seemingly accidental? Do some forms dominate others? Is there symmetry?

Is the painting crowded or spacious? Do the shapes vary or do they repeat?

–Individual units: Are there many or few? Are they large or small (in relation to

both the outside world and to the picture area)? What kinds of patterns do they form? What are the proportions of solid and broken areas? Is the emphasis on central or marginal areas? Are forms multi-dimensional or flat?

–Lines: Are lines clear or obscure? Angular or curved?

–Colors: Are they bright or subdued (‘saturated’ or ‘low-key’)? Are there many

colors or few (is the palette ‘wide’ or ‘limited’)? Are the dominant colors

warm (reds, oranges, yellows) or cool (blues, grays, greens)? Are there

moderate or extreme contrasts? Large areas or small patches? Repetitions or


–Light: Is there a consistent source? Is the source inside or outside the picture? Is

light used to emphasize parts of the picture, to create mood?

–Space: Is the space shallow or deep, open or screened? Is the emphasis on

solids or voids (intervals)? What kind of perspective is used (linear or aerial)? Is the main interest near or far? Is space suggested by in-depth or recessed planes? Is there any overlap? What is the degree of illusion?

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