Before writing, I highly recommend that you write an outline for your paper. This is a way to organize your thoughts and to make sure that your structure is logical. It also can make the writing process much faster and easier, since you have a roadmap of where you are heading. The more detailed your outlines, the more they help! This may seem like a waste of time, but I promise you it will save you time in the end.
Thesis – You must have one! A thesis is a clear statement of what you plan to argue. It should be identifiable from your first paragraph. This thesis must be original and supportable. You should be able to connect every paragraph in your essay to this idea. If you cannot connect a passage to your thesis, it is either extraneous or in need of explanation. A thesis is a statement of the idea you will be trying to prove. An essay is an argument, an attempt to prove an original assertion through the use of various types of evidence.
Evidence – In Art History essays, there are several forms of evidence you might rely on. First and foremost, there is the visual evidence of the works of art. You may also contextualize the work with primary source texts (that is, texts from the same period as the works of art you are discussion). Then, you should read secondary sources (texts written by modern historians) about the works of art, their artists (if known) and their periods. Finally, you can read theoretical treatments of the vital themes in the works. This final category is generally not needed for introductory courses, but can be a great help in upper division work.
Argument – Be sure to venture beyond formal description of your images. Provide analysis that considers the meaning or meanings which we may draw from these works. Do not be afraid to offer multiple interpretations of an image or set of images. This can often by very effective, so long as the various interpretations are incorporated into a single, overarching argument. Most importantly, be sure that every sentence of your paper can be connected to your thesis.
Conclusion – Your papers should end with some form of concluding remarks. These need not take the form of hackneyed conventions (ie. “In conclusion, I would like to state…”), and you should avoid grand overstatements (ie. “This work shows how incredible the Middle Ages were.”) but should show the reader where they have just been and why this journey was important.
Formatting – Your professors will all have their own specifics, so be sure to read their guidelines in full. Generally, though, standard procedure is to use Times New Roman, 12-point font, 1-inch margins all around, double-spacing, and page numbers in the header or footer. See here for an example page. Papers must have regular citations. Most Art Historians will ask for footnotes in the Chicago style. The two most important aspects of citation are consistency and traceability. Can your reader easily find the text you are citing? Have you given all the necessary information? Have you been honest in giving credit where it is due?
Proofreading – Don’t rely on your spell-checking and grammar-checking software to do your proofreading for you. Many typos are also words, and therefore not picked up. I once read a paper in which the student referred repeatedly to St. Mark’s loin, intending to write about his symbol, the lion. Such errors are distracting. When proofreading, look for various issues, from spelling and grammar through language to overall essay structure. Ask yourself: Have I presented my argument in the best possible order? Are all of my main points clear and well-stated? Does one portion of my argument flow smoothly into the next? If not, try to fix it!
Title – When you have finished all of this, give your paper a title! This can be descriptive (Images of the Sword in the Bayeux Tapestry) or evocative (Slicing and Dicing) or both (Slicing and Dicing: Images of the Sword in the Bayeux Tapestry).
Images – It is often a good idea to include images of any works of art you discuss at length that are not from your class or the textbook. Be sure to clearly and carefully label your images, and put references to them in your text, as on the Example Page.
For an excellent site similarly dedicated to teaching students how to write about art, see Marjorie Munsterberg’s Writing About Art.