This article has been written for high school art students who are working upon a critical study of art sketchbook annotation or an essay-based artist study. It contains a list of questions to guide students through the process of analysing visual material of any kind including drawing, painting, mixed media, graphic design, sculpture, printmaking, architecture, photography, textiles, fashion and so on (the word ‘artwork’ in this article is all-encompassing). The questions include a wide range of specialist art terms prompting students to use subject-specific vocabulary in their responses. It combines advice from art analysis textbooks as well as from high school art teachers who have first-hand experience teaching these concepts to students.

Why do we study art?

Almost all high school art students carry out critical analysis of artist work in conjunction with creating practical work. Looking critically at the work of others allows students to understand compositional devices and then explore these in their own art. This is one of the best ways for students to learn.

Art analysis tips

  • ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like this’ without any further explanation or justification is not analysis. Personal opinions must be supported with explanation, evidence or justification.
  • ‘Analysis of artwork’ does not mean ‘description of artwork’. To gain high marks students must move beyond stating the obvious and add perceptive personal insight. Students should demonstrate higher order thinking – the ability to analyse evaluate and synthesizer information and ideas. For example, if colour has been used to create strong contrasts in certain areas of an artwork students might follow this observation with a thoughtful assumption about why this is the case – perhaps a deliberate attempt by the artist to draw attention to a focal point, helping to convey thematic ideas.
  • Cover a range of different visual elements and design principles. It is common for students to become experts at writing about one or two elements of composition, while neglecting everything else – for example, only focusing upon the use of colour in every artwork studied. This results in a narrow repetitive and incomplete analysis of the artwork. Students should ensure that they cover a wide range of art elements and design principles as well as address context and meaning, where required. The questions below are designed to ensure that students cover a broad range of relevant topics within their analysis.
  • Write alongside the artwork discussed. In almost all cases written analysis should be presented alongside the work discussed so that it is clear which artwork comments refer to. This makes it easier for examiners to follow and evaluate the writing.
  • Support writing with visual analysis. It is almost always helpful for high school students to support written material with sketches, drawings and diagrams that help the student understand and analyse the piece of art. This might include composition sketches; diagrams showing the primary structure of an artwork; detailed enlargements of small sections; experiments imitating use of media or technique; or illustrations overlaid with arrows showing leading lines and so on. Visual investigation of this sort plays an important role in many artist studies.