Visual Analysis is the backbone of art history! It takes a bit of practice, but once you’ve mastered the skills, it can help you to analyze any works of art you come across. It will even help you to understand why things you see every day — ads in magazines, billboards and the like — are (or are not) effective.

To perform a visual analysis, you first need to know the basic visual elements, also called formal elements, that compose all images. Each time you encounter at a work of art, first look for these elements. Click on each term for examples that will clarify how they can be used:

Line: The most basic visual element, defines shapes & figures, indicates motion & emotion
Color: Can be defined on several scales, including hue, value, and saturation
Shape: A two-dimensional area with boundaries defined by lines or colors
Form: Three-dimensional shape, either real or in illusion
Naturalism: Making an image look like the “real world”

Now that you know some of the basic visual elements, we can look at how they are put together in compositions. Composition is the way all of the visual elements are arranged to make the whole image. Some of the major compositional devices are:

Symmetry: Mirroring of two halves of a work
Balance: An even use of elements throughout a work
Proportion and Scale: The relation in size of parts of an image to the whole
Rhythm: A visual tempo set by repeating elements in a work
Composition: The sum off all the visual and compositional devices