Visual analysis

Undertaking history and theory units at Monash Art Design and Architecture (MADA) complements your studio practice. The process of writing a visual analysis will help you develop your skills in the studio by helping you understand how visual material communicates and functions, whether it generates meaning, elicits emotion or creates a mood. Visual analysis can be applied to any visual material including art, design and architecture.

Visual analysis identifies and explores characteristics of example material and relationships within the context in which they were produced and encountered. The purpose of visual analysis is to make an argument based on visual evidence. It is a skill you will use to complete written assignments and apply in the studio. There are three basic steps to writing a visual analysis:

  1. Identify, describe and analyse the visual material.
  2. Situate the visual material in its context.
  3. Interpret and respond to the content of the visual material.

Identify, describe and analyse the visual material

The first step of the visual analysis is examining and describing the appearance of the example. This process is sometimes labeled formal analysis, because it focuses on the form of an example, rather than the content. Follow these steps for the formal part of your analysis.

  1. Begin by stating the type of material (for example, a building, a photograph, etc.), who made it, its title/name, and the year it was created. If relevant also state its media, materials, components, dimensions, and location.
  2. Then, examine and describe formal elements such as colour, line, shape, texture, and tone.
  3. Next, analyse the composition, for example, relationships between elements like balance, geometry, pattern, proportion, repetition, rhythm, scale, and symmetrical and asymmetrical balance.
  4. You can also consider ways the artist conveys feelings through form and space, for example, dynamism, harmony and tension, illusion, light and shade, modeling, perspective, and positive and negative space.

Teachers distinguish between description and analysis. Description merely explains something, whereas analysis examines and evaluates relationships, and makes comparisons. You need to identify and describe the visual examples, but when you start discussing the composition and the feelings it conveys you’ll begin to analyse them. The Analysis vs description page has more information about these differences.

Formal analysis activity: Kazimir Malevich

Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Football Player: Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, 1915, oil on canvas

Figure 1. Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Football Player:
Color Masses in the 4th Dimension
, 1915, oil on canvas.

In the paintings of Russian modernist Kazimir Malevich, form is the content. Malevich’s Painterly Realism of a Football Player: Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, painted in 1915 (fig. 1), does not depict anything recognisable; it’s not a picture of a football player. Formal elements, especially colour, shape, proportion and depth, are expressive in their own right. The elements create an energetic tension between two ways of seeing the composition; sometimes the brightly-coloured geometric shapes look like they’re laying flat on a surface, but sometimes they look like they’re suspended in space.

Questions you could ask about Malevich’s painting to analyse it could include:

  • How is the composition balanced?
  • Does the painting look flat, or is there some feeling of depth?
  • Do the shapes look randomly scattered or carefully arranged?


Kazimir Malevich:Painterly Realism of a Football Player: Color Masses in the 4th Dimension

In the next step, you’ll outline some important information that will help you interpret why these elements and relationships are as they are.

Situate the visual material in its context

The next step is to situate the example in the historical context in which it was produced. Considering visual material in context is important because it helps you to understand historically distinct artists’, designers’ and architects’ practices. It includes the ways they developed ideas and resolved problems, approached materials and technologies, marketed their labour, and expressed their visual culture – their particular ways of seeing. As a result of considering examples historically, you’ll develop your ability to reflect on the context of your own practice.

To situate visual material in its context:

  1. Selectively consider which contexts are most relevant to the example’s production and give you an understanding of its significance, for example, historical, geographical, economic, technological, social, cultural or political contexts.
  2. Conduct research to find out more about these contexts.
  3. Ask if the visual material fits within any movements or styles relating to these contexts, and identify visual characteristics that link to these movements or styles.

To situate the visual material historically, discuss relationships between the example and the historical era in which it was produced. To characterise the era, consider developments in areas like society, politics, religion, science and/or technology that were current at the time. You can also consider relevant social and cultural aspects of the place in which it was produced. How is the society distinctive, and how does the example reflect this?

Historical analysis activity: Julia Margaret Cameron

Julia Margaret Cameron, Mrs. Keene, 1866, albumen print.

Figure 2. Julia Margaret Cameron, Mrs. Keene, 1866, albumen print.

Photography was a new technology in Victorian Britain. A cultural impact of this innovation in the 1860s was that photographic studios began producing portraits of the middle class. Ordinary people had portraits of themselves for the first time. This market relied on a particular technology for producing a print onto paper from a negative: the albumen print. It had a brownish tone, which today we associate with 19th century images. Julia Margaret Cameron’s Mrs. Keene (fig. 2) is an albumen print made in 1866 and an example portrait from this period. However, Cameron’s portrait is subtly allegorical. The wreath on Mrs Keene’s head is similar to the wreath of the classical figure of victory. Cameron’s use of allegory links to a current visual culture. Popular in the 19th century, classical allegories like victory or liberty were often personified by young women. Within the context of Victorian Britain, Cameron’s photograph is technologically innovative, and it communicates via an established visual culture.

Activity: Julia Margaret Cameron

To visualise the historical context of Cameron’s photograph, examine other visual material using the same technology, expressing similar themes or made in the same period.

Drop the appropriate caption onto its corresponding image.

Analyse, interpret and respond to visual material

Along with form, visual material has content. Content includes the subject matter, the scene, or the story the example depicts. In some cases, it is important to summarise the story an example depicts, in others it is important to discuss the story of its production, the artists’ goals, or its reception. The associated story, and your interpretation of it, will contribute to the readers’ understanding of the visual material. The final step in the visual analysis is to interpret the themes and ideas in the example.

  1. Consider associated narratives, for example, the story it tells, the story of its construction, the stories of its use or application.
  2. Consider ideas in scholarly text sources; you can apply these ideas to understand the example
  3. Interpret the visual material,for example, make associations between the example and other material or ideas.
  4. Reflect on how the visual material makes you feel.

Considering the content of the visual material: Gabriel Orozco

A big grey grimy ball of plasticine with litter stuck to it, resting in a gutter. Orozco has rolled it across a steel grate and the pattern is imprinted onto its surface.

Figure 3. Gabriel Orozco, Yielding Stone, 1992, plastine.

Gabriel Orozco’s sculpture Yielding Stone, 1992 (fig. 3), is a large ball of plasticine measuring the same weight as the artist. Orozco rolls it around the street where textures on the ground imprint onto its surface and it picks up litter. The sculpture is amorphous and malleable, and thus it doesn’t have a fixed form. Within the distinction between form and content in art, Orozco places more emphasis on content than form. Content is the subject and meaning of an artwork. The content of Yielding Stone, according to Orozco, is that it is a vulnerable mass reacting to its context and, in this way, it represents the human body. Yielding Stone is an abstract artwork. Like Malevich’s painting, it does not depict external reality. However, its content, the human condition, is also abstract: a concept and not a tangible thing.

One way of thinking about content in art is through semiotics, the study of signs. Signs convey meaning; they represent things. Works of art, design and architecture can be analysed as signs because they convey meaning. In the 1860s, American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce identified three types of signs based on the distinct ways they convey meaning: an icon, an index and a symbol.

  • An icon is a sign that denotes a subject by visually resembling it. Figurative paintings and sculptures are icons.
  • An index is a sign that denotes a subject by being a result or evidence of it – in other words, caused by it. A footprint in the sand is an index, and in a similar way a photograph is an index too.
  • A symbol is a sign that denotes a subject because people understand it that way, even though it has no resemblance to the subject. Written language is symbolic. Allegory is also symbolic.

One visual example can work as more than one type of sign. Identify which of the following is a combination of an icon and a symbol, and which is a combination of an index and an icon.

Activity: Signs and symbols

Drop the appropriate caption onto its corresponding image.

In effect, Orozco uses, and questions, these three types of signs in Yielding Stone. The sculpture looks like a stone, so it is iconic. Although, interpreting it as a stone isn’t very interesting. The visible imprint of the steel gutter grate – Orozco rolled it across – is an index that shows viewers the sculpture is malleable, and in fact, not really a stone. Furthermore, this impression gives viewers an understanding of how Orozco symbolises the feelings of being an embodied and emotional human immersed in the world. Symbols are abstract. While the artist states that he is trying to convey this feeling, viewers can still make their own interpretations.

Understanding the ways signs communicate can help you in the studio. Think about how the forms of door handles are determined by human hands. Their affordances have an indexical relationship to their use. Think about how architects have used classical columns to symbolise power over the centuries. Visual analysis is a practical skill you will use every day. If you are writing an essay, follow the three steps – form, context, content – to develop a sophisticated analysis.