Writing a Critical Analysis of a Painting

You only need to look carefully at the painting then analyze and classify what you see. If you have never written about a painting before, it may be helpful for you to consider the following list when studying the painting.

  • How old is the painting you are writing about?
  • What is its size and proportions?
  • Is it a landscape, a portrait, or a still life?
  • Look at the artist’s use of space.
    – Is there a center of interest?
  • Look at the artist’s use of color and shape.
  • Look at the movement of the forms.
  • Write down your impression of the mood.
  • Does the painting have narrative content (tell a story)?
    – How do you know?
    – What do you think the story is?
  • Who is the artist?
  • Do you think the artist used symbols?
  • Look at the brushwork.
    – Is the paint applied thickly or thinly?
    – Is it transparent or opaque? Is it mixed media?If the work you are studying is an abstraction you will need to focus on:
  • Paint handling
  • Direction and flow
  • Color use
  • Mood
  • Researching the artist

    Begin The Essay


    Just like all other essays, your first paragraph serves as your introduction. This section should identify the title of the painting, the artist, what year the painting was created, and where the painting is located. You should also introduce your thesis in this paragraph. Your thesis could be about one specific aspect of the painting, or it could be a broad statement about the painting as a whole.


    Your next several paragraphs should analyze the painting. For example, if your thesis is that the painting is a “startling piece of work,” then the body of your paper should describe why you find it to be startling. Within your analysis you should include specific descriptions of the piece itself. However, do not focus only on describing the painting; presumably your audience is familiar with the work. You should describe aspects of the painting only as they relate to your thesis. For example, if your thesis is that the painting is “startling,” perhaps it is the subject’s body language that makes it startling. You may want to include a description of that figure’s body language and explain the impact the body language has on the audience.

    In an informal essay about art it is acceptable to include your own feelings and behavior as you looked at the painting. You can include information like how long you studied the painting, whether you compared it to other paintings in the gallery, whether or not you made a sketch of the work, how the painting made you feel, etc. If the painting makes you feel sad, then explain what evokes that feeling. Is it the colors the artist used? Is it the figure’s pose, or the facial expression, etc.?

    Drawing Conclusions:

    It is then important for you to make some conclusions about why you think the artist made the decisions that he/she did. If the painting looks startling or sad, why do you think the artist chose to paint it that way? Is part of the painting dark or dull simply to draw the audience’s attention to another part of the canvas? You may also want to research what was happening during that time of the artist’s life. Often there will be a correlation between the mood of the painting and the events in the artist’s life during that time.


    The end of your essay should reiterate the important points that you made, yet leave the reader with something more to think about.

    This is a very brief essay, and as a result, the introduction is concise. The thesis is in the first sentence.

    Rembrandt’s Self Portrait in the National Gallery

    By M. Lewinski
    November 1, 2001
    Submitted for Art History 101

    Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait” in the East Wing of the National Gallery is a startling painting. Rembrandt placed his face in the upper two thirds of the canvas which is 33¼” by 26″. It was painted in 1656.

    Artists usually paint themselves well dressed, happy, sitting at an easel, working. In this painting, however, Rembrandt looks inexpressibly sad, timeworn, and defeated. While everything else is in shadow, the face is illuminated as if it attracts all the light. His face is softening with age; his unruly hair is tinged with gray. His eyes look out, capturing and pinning me the moment I enter the gallery. I feel as if I had disturbed him while he was painting.
    His coat looks dull, nondescript. In contrast to other self-portraits where Rembrandt painted himself in finery, in this painting he looks like he is wearing an old coat, and an old hat. The color and quality of his clothing adds to the somber mood of the painting.

    His hands are not visible. In fact, no skin other than his face is visible. Perhaps his hands would have taken some of the light away from his face, and he wanted to draw the audience’s attention immediately to his face. It is as though he meant to emphasize the importance of his facial expression and the lines in his face, and de-emphasize the importance of everything else. It looks like he’s just turned around to see who entered the room– and he’d rather not have been interrupted from his thoughts. The only other form that captures any light is the curved form in the lower portion of the painting. It is possible that shape is his palette.

    Drawing Conclusions:
    You should attempt to explain why you think the artist painted himself in this way.

    Rembrandt made a self-portrait almost every year of his life, beginning about age twenty. The early portraits depict a smiling, self-confident, prosperous Rembrandt. These were probably intended to be advertisements of his skill to attract commissions. Clearly this painting was not designed to attract commissions. Perhaps this painting’s intent was to capture a more honest, uncensored truth of the artist’s life. He could have made himself look however he wanted, but he chose this somber pose.
    Though we do not absolutely know why he depicted himself in this dark way, we must assume that Rembrandt was certainly trying to both evoke and express a feeling of uncomfortable defeat. Perhaps Rembrandt has painted the reality of his life– a dimly lit, cold room; worn, dark clothes; a pensive, tired expression– and his current emotional state without hiding behind flashy clothes and bright colors.
  • Conclusion:
    Reiterate your thesis and the important points you made, and leave the reader with something more to think about.
  • What about this painting has given the impression that Rembrandt looks sad or defeated? Is it the colors the artist used? Is it the pose, or the facial expression? You should describe some specific parts of the painting in order to support your thesis. You may also wish to compare this work to other paintings by the same artist.
  • Analysis:
    Now you can begin to explain why you find this painting to be startling.
  • Sample Critical Essay of a Painting


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Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary


Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary takes readers inside the world of contemporary art and shows them how to think, write, and talk about art. Throughout, the principles of art criticism are presented and applied to contemporary forms of American art giving students of art and art history a solid framework for critically considering contemporary art through describing, interpreting, evaluating, and theorizing.ART CRITICISM AND FORMAL ANALYSIS OUTLINE


Defining Art Criticism

· Art criticism is responding to, interpreting meaning, and making critical judgments about specific works of art.

· Art critics help viewers perceive, interpret, and judge artworks.

· Critics tend to focus more on modern and contemporary art from cultures close to their own.

· Art historians tend to study works made in cultures that are more distant in time and space.

· When initially introduced to art criticism, many people associate negative connotations with the word “criticism.”

A professional art critic may be

· a newspaper reporter assigned to the art beat,

· a scholar writing for professional journals or texts, or

· an artist writing about other artists.

Journalistic criticism –

· Written for the general public, includes reviews of art exhibitions in galleries and museums.

· (Suggestions that journalistic criticism deals with art mainly to the extent that it is newsworthy.)

Scholarly art criticism

· Written for a more specialized art audience and appears in art journals.

· Scholar-critics may be college and university professors or museum curators, often with particular knowledge about a style, period, medium, or artist.


-Four levels of formal analysis, which you can use to explain a work of art:

1. Description = pure description of the object without value judgments,

analysis, or interpretation.

· It answers the question, “What do you see?”

· The various elements that constitute a description include:

a. Form of art whether architecture, sculpture, painting or one of the minor arts

b. Medium of work whether clay, stone, steel, paint, etc., and technique (tools used)

c. Size and scale of work (relationship to person and/or frame and/or context)

d. Elements or general shapes (architectural structural system) within the composition, including building of post-lintel construction or painting with several figures lined up in a row; identification of objects

e. Description of axis whether vertical, diagonal, horizontal, etc.

f. Description of line, including contour as soft, planar, jagged, etc.

g. Description of how line describes shape and space (volume); distinguish between lines of objects and lines of composition, e.g., thick, thin, variable, irregular, intermittent, indistinct, etc.

h. Relationships between shapes, e.g., large and small, overlapping, etc.

i. Description of color and color scheme = palette

j. Texture of surface or other comments about execution of work

k. Context of object: original location and date

2. Analysis = determining what the features suggest and deciding why the artist used such features to convey specific ideas.

· It answers the question, “How did the artist do it?”

· The various elements that constitute analysis include:

a. Determination of subject matter through naming iconographic elements, e.g., historical event, allegory, mythology, etc.

b. Selection of most distinctive features or characteristics whether line, shape, color, texture, etc.

c. Analysis of the principles of design or composition, e.g., stable,

repetitious, rhythmic, unified, symmetrical, harmonious, geometric, varied, chaotic, horizontal or vertically oriented, etc.

d. Discussion of how elements or structural system contribute to appearance of image or function

e. Analysis of use of light and role of color, e.g., contrasty, shadowy,

illogical, warm, cool, symbolic, etc.

f. Treatment of space and landscape, both real and illusionary (including use of perspective), e.g., compact, deep, shallow, naturalistic, random

g. Portrayal of movement and how it is achieved

h. Effect of particular medium(s) used

i. Your perceptions of balance, proportion and scale (relationships of each part of the composition to the whole and to each other part) and your emotional

j. Reaction to object or monument

3. Interpretation = establishing the broader context for this type of art.

· It answers the question, “Why did the artist create it and what does it mean

· The various elements that constitute interpretation include:

a. Main idea, overall meaning of the work.

b. Interpretive Statement: Can I express what I think the artwork is about in one sentence?

c. Evidence: What evidence inside or outside the artwork supports my interpretation?

4. Judgment: Judging a piece of work means giving it rank in relation to other works and of course considering a very important aspect of the visual arts; its originality.

· Is it a good artwork?

· Criteria: What criteria do I think are most appropriate for judging the artwork?

· Evidence: What evidence inside or outside the artwork relates to each criterion?

· Judgment: Based on the criteria and evidence, what is my judgment about the quality of the artwork?

Barrett’s Principles of Interpretation

1. Artworks have “aboutness” and demand interpretation.

2. Interpretations are persuasive arguments.

3. Some interpretations are better than others.

4. Good interpretations of art tell more about the artwork than they tell about the critic.

5. Feelings are guides to interpretations.

6. There can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same artwork.

7. Interpretations are often based on a worldview.

8. Interpretations are not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative.

9. Interpretations can be judged by coherence, correspondence, and inclusiveness.

10. An artwork is not necessarily about what the artist wanted it to be about.

11. A critic ought not to be the spokesperson for the artist.

12. Interpretations ought to present the work in its best rather than its weakest light.

13. The objects of interpretation are artworks, not artists.

14. All art is in part about the world in which it emerged.

15. All art is in part about other art.

16. No single interpretation is exhaustive of the meaning of an artwork.

17. The meanings of an artwork may be different from its significance to the viewer. Interpretation is ultimately a communal endeavor, and the community is ultimately self- corrective.

18. Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and to continue on our own.41naapzd-il-_sx402_bo1204203200_