• 3-3.5 pages, double-spaced, Times New Roman, 1-inch margins

Formal (or visual) analysis is a technique for identifying the different visual elements of an artwork and understanding how they work together to create a particular effect. A formal analysis asks the question, “What is the effect or message of this work of art and what about its appearance tells me that?”

For this paper, you will write a three-page formal analysis of one of the three possible ancient works of art (see attached Powerpoint for options). The goal of a formal analysis is to argue an interpretation of the artwork using only its formal characteristics (color, line, shape, composition, material, etc.). Contextual or socio-political knowledge should NOT factor into your argument. For this reason, outside research is strictly prohibited. Again, your argument should be constructed only from the relationships of formal elements of the artwork.

The paper should be over 3 full pages of text and under 3.5 pages of text. Papers should be in 12-point Times New Roman font, double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins. There should be no header at the top of your paper (i.e. your name, my name, the class, the date, etc.—I already know those things and you do not need to waste space). There is no need to include a picture of your chosen artwork.

To assist you in formulating a thesis and structuring your paper, there is an optional assignment called “Preparing for Formal Analysis” available on Canvas. This is entirely optional, but past experience has shown that students who complete this worksheet and take my feedback into account have done better on their papers.

Guidelines and suggestions

  1. Questions you should ask yourself to get started are: what visual elements immediately caught your eye when you began looking at this painting and why do you think they caught your eye? What choices has the artist made in representing their subject? How would the effect/mood of the artwork be changed if they had represented it in a different way?
  • DO NOT use outside sources for this paper. Anything you argue should be based on what you see. If you make a statement about what something means, represents, or suggests—ask yourself, how do I know this? There should be visual evidence to support that claim. If you only know it because the internet or textbook said so, it’s not formal analysis.
  • Use the present tense (“The sculpture suggests…”) consistently throughout the paper. The work of art still exists, so it “speaks” to us in the present taste.
  • Avoid writing in the first-person here. This will help you stay focused on the work of art—the source of evidence supporting your ideas—rather than on your personal response. Do not write about our own response to the object; write about the visual aspects of the work that elicit that response in you and, presumably, in others.
  • Formal analysis is NOT about interpreting symbolism in a work of art. Symbolic meaning is culturally assigned, which essentially means that understanding a symbol requires outside cultural knowledge—it’s not about what it looks like, it’s about what we as a culture or society has agreed on as its meaning. Making your paper about symbolism is one of the easiest ways to do poorly.
  • Proofread your final draft carefully for grammar, spelling, clarity, and typos. Translating visual experience into words is the point of the paper, so the care you take with your writing matters.
  • Do not write about the “vibes” that a work of art “gives off.” Just don’t.


Introduction & Thesis   First paragraph captures the reader’s attention and defines the paper’s purpose with a strong opening sentence and a clear, well-stated thesis—the controlling idea of the paper, which formal analysis will support.     25
Argument/Formal Analysis   Clear and concise description and careful analysis of the object demonstrating close looking and deep thinking about the way the formal elements contribute to the overall effect. Principal points are supported by valid visual evidence, thesis is fully supported and developed.     75
Conclusion   Lucid and thoughtful statement or reflection that ties up the analysis for the reader by reiterating, expanding, or elaborating on thesis statement, and/or raising questions for future consideration.     10
Organization   Paper is clearly organized, following a logical train of thought, with cogent paragraphs, careful transitions, and a sequence of ideas that advances the argument.     10
Mechanics/Style and Grammar   Correct page length and format; adequately proofread with few or no spelling or punctuation errors; correct grammar; professional tone; varied sentence structure. Image of work of art is included.     20
  TOTAL     140

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