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Art History: Step 4. Art Analysis & Theories

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

Formal Analysis Essay

Visual analysis includes descriptions of the objects(s) or image(s) based on your observations, which serves as your evidence, as well as an argument that is defended by this evidence. 

A formal analysis describes the qualities of the object or image, which involves careful observations and questions about what you see in the object or image.

Below are the most common formal elements and their definitions to get your formal analysis started.

  • Composition
  • Technique
  • Color
  • Texture
  • Line
  • Scale
  • Material
  • Shape

Learn by example as you compare and contrast two artworks related by genre from the Getty Museum’s collection. Terminology from the elements of art and principles of design guides discussion of the key visual elements in a painting by Jan van Huysum and a photograph by Man Ray. From the Getty Museum.

Compare / Contrast Essay

In a compare/contrast essay, you are doing similar work as a formal analysis but you are introducing another object or image to your analysis. However, it is more than just a list of similarities or differences. You must either connect the materials in a significant way or comment on the context in which the object was created, displayed, or culturally regarded. 

Below are questions to ask when writing a compare/contrast essay:

  • What techniques were used to create these objects?
  • How does the use of color in these two works compare? Is it similar or different?
  • What can you say about the composition of the sculpture? How does the artist treat certain formal elements, for example geometry? How do these elements compare to and contrast with those found in the painting?
  • How do these works represent their subjects? Are they naturalistic or abstract? How do these artists create these effects?
  • Why do these similarities and differences matter?

Argumentative Research Papers

Formal analysis and compare and contrast essays may not require scholarly research but other types of art analyses require synthesis of experts' arguments and research on the objects you are analyzing.


These papers focus on the symbolic role or significance of symbols, gestures, objects, etc. included in the object or image. When finding sources for these papers, also search for the the symbol itself, not just the object or image. For example, if your object is The Yellow Christ by Paul Gaugin (seen below), you could also research the color yellow or the crucifixion as symbolism in art. 

Image of The Yellow Christ by Paul Gaugin

Source: Gauguin, Paul, French. 1889. The Yellow Christ.

Artistic Style & Period

An artistic style and period research paper compares an object or image to a stylistic category or period of art. First, you'll want to be sure you understand the style or period you are comparing your piece belongs to so you can explain how it fits or belongs in that particular category. If you haven't extensively covered that style or period in your course, you will need to do research about that category before researching your piece. 

Potential artistic styles and period research questions:

  • How does Claude Monet's Water Lilies display the characteristics of the Impressionist style?
  • What elements of Kandinsky's works most embody the Bauhaus movement?


The information on this page has been adapted from Writing in Art History from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Books about Art Analysis