WRT 204 (Menut): Visual Analysis

Visual Analysis

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Amy Pajewski
FHG 211

Visual Analysis Project Overview

  1. Purpose: To exercise critical thinking skills through visual analysis. Gathering perspectives is a key function of effective research skills. This project allows you to play with perspective, interpretation, and critical thinking! 

Visual analysis is a method of understanding art that focuses on an artwork’s visual elements, such as color, line, texture, and scale. In its strictest definition, it is a description and explanation of visual structure for its own sake. Yet the purpose of visual analysis can also recognize the choices that an artist made in creating the artwork, as well as to better understand how the formal properties of an artwork communicate ideas, content, or meaning. Visual analysis is often used as a starting point for art-historical writing.

Visual analysis is not just for art. It is also a critical part of visual literacy, a skill that helps people read and critically interpret images, whether in a museum, on social media, in entertainment, advertising, or the news. As citizens of the 21st century, we are constantly confronted with visual media. Practicing visual analysis sharpens critical judgment skills and helps people seek out answers instead of passively receiving information. This is especially important when exposing hidden ideologies that may motivate seemingly neutral images.

(adapted from Visual Analysis 101, Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University)

  1. Task: I’ve broken up your task into multiple steps to help you organize. However, your final project will be one cohesive piece, and shouldn’t be labeled in steps.

STEP 1: Choose an abstract concept related to "cool" to think about.

STEP 2: Find three (3) images that represent the abstract idea from various perspectives. For example, happiness might be depicted by an image of kids playing at the beach on a summer afternoon; a veteran coming home to their dog; and/or two friends laughing.  Note: these images shouldn’t necessarily reflect your own vision of the concept; all three should represent different perspectives.  You will attend 2 library sessions to help you with this step!

  • You may choose visuals from a variety of mediums, including advertisements, fine or pop art, original drawings, paintings, or photographs.  

  • You will be asked to cite each image (more details below and on D2L)

STEP 3: Describe your first image using concrete, third-person language.  You should not include the actual image in your project - your description should give enough details for me, the reader, to visualize it.  

Here are some questions to consider (adapted from Rhetorical Terminology for Visual Analysis, Prof. Kona Morris – Red Rocks Community College Teaching Conference 2016): You don’t have to answer every question, just use a handful to help you describe your image concretely.

  • What are the angles and framing of the shot? (Close ups, extreme close ups, medium shots, long shots, tilted up or down shots, etc.)

  • If people or animals are in the image, describe body language & gaze (Facial expressions, gestures, stance, or position  can convey the attitude, feelings, or personality of the people shown. Take note of the direction the eyes are looking, as well as the tilt of the heads.)

  • What is included is deliberately placed, just as other things might be deliberately left out. Consider all inclusions and omissions (e.g., surroundings, objects, clothing, body parts, and people)

  • In black and white images, examine the use of light, darkness, and contrast. In color images, colors can be used to signify feelings and evoke a response (e.g., red can evoke passion, anger, or vitality, and blue can evoke peace, harmony, or coldness).

  • Examine contrast: The arrangement of opposite elements (e.g., light and dark, large and small, or rough and smooth) to create interest, excitement, or drama.

  • Consider Orientation and Point of View—is the viewer’s perspective positioned above the image (looking down), below (looking up), or at eye level?

  • Consider Positioning and Placement - which objects have been placed in the foreground, middle ground, or background. What is the purpose of their position?

  • Consider Proxemics (the amount of space between people) -  The spatial separation between people is often determined by culture and environment.

  • Consider the Rule of Thirds - Divide an image into thirds from the top and sides and look at the placement of people and/or objects. Are the subjects of the image placed on these lines? How does this placement draw the viewer’s attention to specific parts of the image or create balance in the piece?

  • What are the salient objects (the part of the image that the viewer’s eyes are first drawn to) - Color, image, and layout can determine what the salient image is.

  • Consider Symbolism and Semiotics - does the image use images or symbols within the piece to represent one or more (often complex) ideas?

  • Consider Vectors (the lines that the audience’s eyes follow when looking at an image). Composers deliberately direct visual paths through use of vectors (e.g., if the subject is tall, our eyes follow vertical vectors that lead to the top. This could make the subject seem powerful or inflexible).


STEP 4: Now that you’ve described the image, your next step is to analyze how all those pieces of the image work together to give a deeper message.  In other words, think of Step 3 as answering “what” and Step 4 as answering “how and why.”  Your analysis should also be written in third-person voice. You will attend 1 Writing Center session to help with this!

Some questions to consider for analyzing are:

  • How do the visual elements of each image express the abstract idea of happiness or sadness?  

  • Could the image express more than one message?  

  • What population of people (cultural or political, for example) might relate to this message?  

  • You’re welcome to dig a bit deeper and begin to contemplate why various perspectives of this abstract idea exist; for example, why do various people hold differing views of what happiness looks like?

STEP 5: Repeat Steps 3 & 4 for your next two images.  Each image’s description and analysis should be paired together, and be written in third-person voice. You should not include the actual image in your project - your description should give enough details for me, the reader, to visualize it.  

STEP 6: Now, jot down an introduction and conclusion for your project using the resources in Module 2 Learning Resources folder on D2L. 

STEP 7: Create a Works Cited for the images that appears at the end of your project, either on a separate page or below your writing. The Works Cited does not contribute to the page requirement. 

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