Formal Anaylsis

Formal analysis simply involves looking at a work of art, observing carefully, and drawing conclusions from what you see. This part does not involve any research, but is “reading” the art based on what you see.

Step 1 – Feel

It can help to just write down you initial thoughts and reactions to the artwork. These reactions are important, and can help give focus to your analysis as you go.

Try answering the following questions: What do you think of it? How does it make you feel? What is your first reaction or thought? What emotions do you see?

Step 2 – See

Look at how the artist is using the elements of art. Carefully observe each element, how much the artist is using it (or not using it), and what kind of effect, feeling, or mood is portrayed. If you are writing a report or other assignment, you will probably need to only write about 3 or 4 elements – the ones that seem most important to the art work. But it helps to start by looking at all of them. The elements are:


Next look at the composition. This is how things are arranged in the image, and how the above elements are used together. What catches your eye first, and how does your eye move around the image? Looking for the principles of art will help you understand the composition. You can go through the list of principles, just like you did with the elements. Remember, as you write about what you see, be clear and specific. Instead of saying something like, “the artist used contrast.” say, “the artist used black and white, which are high contrast colors.” The principles are:


Step 3 – Connect

This is where you bring together the information from steps 1 and 2, and draw some conclusions. This is where you answer questions like:

  • What is in the art, visually, that caused your thoughts or reactions to it?
  • How does the artist use the elements of art to create a certain feeling, idea, or emotion?
  • How does the composition give a certain feeling, idea, or emotion?

There are other possible questions or things you could discuss, depending on the work of art you are looking at. The main key is the be patient and spend time really looking at and thinking about the art work. Maybe imagine what it would be like to be the artist, and what sorts of things would go through their mind as they make this work of art.

Step 4 – Conclusions

Finally, draw some conclusions about what the artist was trying to do in his work. What is the artist trying to do or say with this artwork? What is the purpose? Is there a message?

You may also include some of your own thoughts on if you think the art was successful or not, and why.


If you want a brief, but good example of formal analysis, check out this video:

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