Analyzing Art: Formal Analysis

While courses on art are taken by a lot of college students, many are still confused by art analysis. Some students are under the notion that art analysis is about offering a personal opinion regarding an artwork. Some students, on the other hand, think that art analysis is about describing an artwork. While art analysis involves both description of and personal opinion regarding a work of art, it goes beyond these; rather, art analysis looks finely into the visual elements and principles of design to determine how these function in the artwork and elicit a response from the viewer.

Formal Analysis versus Contextual Analysis

A common cause of confusion among students is the nature of the analysis itself. Art can be analyzed in different ways, but the two major types of analysis are formal analysis and contextual analysis. In this post, we look into formal analysis.

As the term itself suggests, formal analysis is the analysis of the “form” of an artwork. The general form, in turn, involves the visual elements as well as principles of design. In other words, formal analysis is concerned more with looking at the formal characteristics rather than finding out the meaning of the work or the underlying message of the artist. To understand better, remember that the visual elements of the work include but are not limited to the following:

  • Color
  • Composition
  • Line
  • Shape
  • Texture
  • Space
  • Light and shadow

Meanwhile, principles of design include the following:

  • Balance
  • Proportion
  • Movement
  • Rhythm

In writing the formal analysis, what you should do is examine the individual elements and principles. Note that not all elements and principles apply to an artwork. Most of the time, you will be able to look at only a few of these. In fact, it will be better if you focus only on the most important visual characteristics, since this will help you create a narrow claim that you can defend better. Analyzing too many visual characteristics at once risks making your paper incoherent and confusing.

Some of the questions you may ask yourself are the following: What characteristics stand out for you? How would you describe the colors? How would you describe the lines? Does the composition look balanced or unbalanced? How do the figures draw your gaze? How do the elements make you feel? What do you think the artist wants you to feel?

Once you have thoroughly examined the work, you can proceed to formulating a cohesive thesis statement.

To understand formal analysis better, let us take a look at an example. Below is a marble sculpture titled Apollo and Daphne by the Italian artist Gianlorenzo Bernini. The sculpture depicts the moment the nymph Daphne turns into a laurel tree in order to escape the god Apollo who has become enamored with her.

formal analysis art artwork sculpture painting

Now, there are various characteristics that can be considered here, but the most prominent are the use of line and directionality. These characteristics allow the viewer to not only fully appreciate the narrative that the artwork presents but also give the work the sense of chaotic and dynamic movement that is inherent to the story itself.

Firstly, one of the more noticeable things about the sculpture is how most of the lines form a curve that leads the eyes from the bottom left (Apollo’s feet) to the upper right (Daphne’s hands). The lines are smooth and sinuous, and they have a sense of delicacy about them. But what the lines accomplish is the successful retelling of the story. According to the myth, Apollo was chasing after Daphne when the latter prayed to her father, a river god, to turn save her. She then became a tree just before Apollo caught up with him. The ascending curve that the lines make enables the viewer to see Apollo first, followed by the human Daphne, and ultimately the first parts of Daphne to turn into a tree. The lines, therefore, help tell the story in chronological order because we (a) see Apollo, (b) see Daphne running from him, and (c) Daphne turning into a tree. Furthermore, the upward curve helps create a sense of rising action, as opposed to a downward line that is more associated with dissipation of action.

formal analysis art artwork sculpture painting

Secondly, the directionality of the work also helps in conveying movement. A viewer may notice how Apollo’s right leg is resting on the ground and slightly bent, as if it is absorbing the weight of his body. His left leg, on the other hand, is behind him and hanging mid-air. Apollo’s weight is therefore unequally distributed as he assumes the position of someone running, and this creates the feeling that he is moving. Similarly, Daphne’s center of gravity is odd despite assuming a more stating position. She seems to tilt forward, and the only thing preventing her from tipping is the tree bark that envelops her legs. On the top, Daphne’s hair spreads out as if she has suddenly turned her head. And finally Apollo’s wrap billows behind him. The contrasting directions of the bodies and other parts of the sculpture all come together to create a sense of motion. The sense of motion, in turn, is highly effective in expressing the sense of action and disorder that are at the heart of a story about a chase.

formal analysis art artwork sculpture painting

While the above is a partial sample of a formal analysis, it should give you some insight into how to conduct a formal analysis. Some other points to remember are the following:

  • Follow the basic structure of a paper by including an introduction with a thesis statement, a main body that expounds on your thesis, and a conclusion.
  • Include a short description of the work in the beginning of the paper. Mention the title, the name of the artist, the date the work was executed, the medium, and the current location.
  • Italicize or underline the title of the artwork. If the title is long, mention it in full the first time and then use a shortened title in the rest of the paper.