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Art History: Step 1: Choose Your Piece

This guide demonstrates the Art History research process, gives examples of art theories, searching strategies, and links to citation help.

Using This Guide

This Art History Research Guide demonstrates the process of art history research, from selecting a piece or artifact to finding sources to citing those sources. 

Step 1: Choose Your Piece

Step 2: Review and Evaluate the Piece

Step 3: Develop Your Argument

Step 4. Art Analysis and Theories

Step 5. Searching Strategies

Step 6. Citation Resources

Step 1: Choose a piece, artifact, or artist

Choose something (or someone):

  • you are interested in learning more about
  • you feel makes a social, culture, historical, or political impact
  • that can be researched
  • that is human-designed (NOT found in nature, intangible, supernatural, or mythical)

It can be anything visual, like:

  • a piece of art, like a painting or print
  • graffiti or a cereal box
  • marketing or political campaigns
  • 3D objects, like statues or cars
  • physical spaces, like malls or museums
  • landscape designs, like gardens or a college campus

Advice from your librarian

Unlike other fields of study, there isn't a lot of art history scholarship. If your piece or artist isn't well known or still alive and creating, chances are the amount of scholarship or any written sources about them are going to be even fewer. You can still research the piece or artist. You have to be more creative and broaden your search. Use the questions in Step 2 to think creatively about ways to research the piece(s) or artist you are interested in.

Image Databases at the BGSU Library

Step 2: Consider the context

WHO is/was the creator?

  • Is/was it an individual, group, or corporation?
  • What else has the author created?
  • Who did the creator make the visual for? Who is/was affected by it?
  • What do you know about the creator/s background, heritage, education, etc?

WHAT kind of an artifact or piece is it?

  • What genre or category would you label it as?
  • What seems to be the creator's attitude toward the subject?
  • What makes it special or important? What impact has it had on society or culture?
  • What is the artifact made out of (wood, stone, plaster, etc.) and what is included in it (images, colors, shapes, text, etc.)?

WHERE was the artifact or piece originally constructed?

  • Where was the artifact intended to be viewed?
  • Where was it actually viewed?
  • Where might the artifact be viewed in the future?
  • Who owned the artifact originally? Who owns it now?
  • Was it stolen or taken from the original owner(s)? Or taken from the country of origin from colonizers?

WHEN was the artifact or piece created?

  • What other historical and cultural events were occurring the same time period? How did they influence the artifact and/or the creator?
  • How did the artifact and/or the creator influence the cultural and historical events during the time period?
  • When did the artifact have its greatest significance? Might that happen again?

Your Art Librarian

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Laura Sheets

Sources and Suggested Reading

Source: Adapted from How to do a visual analysis by Curtis Newbold, Associate Professor of Communication at Westminster College