This text is intended to help students improve their ability to write about visual things. I explain the most common types of analysis used by art historians and a little bit about how these methods developed. This is not a history of art history, however, nor is it an introduction to the theory and methods of art history. Major scholars are not mentioned and complicated ideas have been presented only in terms relevant to their practical application. It also is not a guide to learning how to look at art. For that, Joshua Taylor’s Learning to Look remains unsurpassed.3
Almost all of my examples come from texts written in English. Translations change exactly what is of greatest interest here: the words and concepts used by good writers about art. Furthermore, there is a history to the language used in English by art historians. Sometimes this has shaped the meaning of a term, occasionally in significant ways. A few examples will be discussed below. Even in their use of ordinary words, however, these writers can serve as models. Their vocabulary and ideas offer a wealth of contributions to the internal resources upon which we all draw when we write. The more developed these resources are, the more fluent and expressive writing based upon them will be.
Painting, sculpture, and architecture have been considered the major forms of the fine arts during much of the Western tradition. They have attracted many of the most ambitious artists and, consequently, more attention from art historians. Architecture, however, like video and electronic mediums, requires a specialized descriptive and analytical vocabulary. Just as the art historical methods I explain are the ones most commonly used, so the forms of art discussed in the passages I have selected are those most frequently covered in art history courses. For the same reason, most of the art analyzed in the text comes from the West.
I have not included any reproductions, in the hope that more attention will be given to the passages quoted. Glancing at a picture and then skimming text about it is not the same as trying to create a mental image of something from words alone. The absence of illustrations also should make it easier for each reader to decide which words seem particularly effective in communicating information about visual things. However, I have given enough information about each work so that a picture of it can be found without difficulty. Many of them will be familiar from art history surveys.
Another editorial decision I made was to cite the names of the authors quoted within my text. The normal practice of putting that information in the notes makes it easier for the reader, who is given a smoothly flowing argument instead of one constantly interrupted by names and book titles. Here, however, since my subject is writing, identifying the writer with the passage seemed useful. The most important art historians of the past have birth and death dates in parentheses after the first mention of their names.
This is a guide to writing about art, not to writing itself. It is no substitute for a book like The Elements of Style, the classic but still inspiring text by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.4 Nonetheless, I would like to begin with a few fundamental principles. Paragraphs should be the basic organizing unit of any essay. Each one should develop a single idea, introduced at the beginning of the paragraph by a topic sentence. The paragraphs should be organized so that the ideas follow one another in a logical sequence. This means that the topic sentences should form an outline of what the writer intends to express. Sentences should be complete, and grammar and spelling must be correct. Words should convey the writer’s meaning as directly as possible.
The choice of which verb tenses to use must be consistent throughout a single piece of writing. My personal choice is to use the present tense for anything that still exists, like a work of art or a book, and the past tense for a completed action. In other words, Michelangelo sculpted David (because he did it centuries ago), but David shows Michelangelo's interest in the Classical conception of the nude male body (because it still does). This seems to me the most logical approach, although sometimes it leads to awkward phrasing. Many people use the present tense for both cases. In other words, Michelangelo uses the Classical conception of the nude male body in his sculpture David. Whatever the choice, it must be adhered to throughout any particular essay.
To be effective, a paper must be directed toward a single goal. The purpose matters to the writer and it matters to the reader, who will have expectations about what comes next based on what has been promised. Writing intended to evoke a vivid impression of a work of art has to present very different information from an interpretation of the subject that depends upon detailed historical arguments. For this reason, it is important to let the reader know as soon as possible what kind of analysis will follow. Every aspect of the paper should contribute to it.
Success is measured by how well the intended meaning has been communicated to the intended reader. There is no substitute for having someone read a draft, or for putting a paper aside and returning to revise it later. Even before that, though, a writer should try to assess the clarity and logic of the presentation. Underlining topic sentences to see if they really do outline the argument is helpful. Quickly sketching elements mentioned in a visual description is another revealing exercise. If there is no place in the drawing for a particular detail, it has been introduced at the wrong point in the essay or essential elements have been neglected. Most of all, the writer should be prepared to revise and revise and revise. Good papers never just happen.
Guide to Essay Writing - Introduction
- 1.1 General comments
One could say that writing an essay consists essentially of two processes:
(i) writing to find out what one thinks - preliminary drafts
(ii) writing to communicate one's thoughts to others - further drafts completed and essay.
It is, in fact, through the process of writing that one tends to discover and to clarify one's ideas.
Many people start writing with a relatively vague idea of their interpretation, but after having written a draft they can arrive at a clearer statement of what they think (this is often found on the last page or in the last paragraph).
- 1.2 Writing a preliminary draft or drafts
(i) Think out the essay question in the light of the images you have studied and of what you have read.
(ii) Write a plan - this is only a guide and will undoubtedly change as you write.
Example of such a plan:
Topic: 'Cubist painting embodied a new way of representing the external world'
- Intro. para - didn't describe ext. world - used signs - spectator's role.
- Not a static but a dynamic form of representation (parallels in science, philosophy- Bergson)
- Cubism and modern life (see Berger)
- Which images - still life? A portrait?
- Compare with more realist still-lives and portraits (use Cezanne's?) Compare with earlier Cubist works where more legible-
- Repres. of space? of volume?
- Use of signs.
Quote Apollinaire on Cubism as 'Realist' (where?) Fry's interpretation 'abstract'; compare Golding's emphasis on 'realist' qualities - but Cubist paintings are both 'abstract' and 'real'
- Conclusion - Cubism, and the dynamic ambiguous repres. of reality.
(iii) Write a rough draft in these terms. Do not write straight from your notes; this generally results in a patchwork of facts and opinions Its best to leave your notes somewhere else! You will remember what you need. You should return to your notes only when rewriting your draft for the final essay.
At this stage don't bother too much about how it sounds (above all don't bother about a resounding first paragraph). What you want is a broadly argued interpretation which you can develop and demonstrate as time goes on. If you want a specific fact, contrary idea or quotation, don't interrupt the flow at this stage by searching through notes or books or you may lose the thread of your argument. In such cases you can note: 'Apollinaire said "something about Cubism being realist, etc" - and then you can make this exact later.
- 1.3 Re-writing the draft
The rough draft is only a beginning It is the process by which you find your interpretation, but the form in which this is put is rarely the form which communicates well. Re-writing is not just a question of making a fair copy, but of re-organising the material so that the reader can follow the argument.
A first draft rarely begins with a clear statement of your ideas (which is a natural way of communicating), and you will often find that in your first draft you don't arrive at a clear statement until the end. It therefore often helps to 'swing' your concluding statement to the beginning of the essay. Then you need to consider what evidence will convince your reader.
Very often that evidence is, of course, that which you have already used to 'find out' your interpretation, but it will have to be re-ordered. When you have finished the draft, try to leave it for a time, then examine it critically. Ask yourself questions like the following:
(i) What have I said?
(ii) Is what I have said clearly expressed?
(iii) Have I used evidence to support my views?
(iv) Have I dealt with the major issues?
(v) Have I given my reader a sense that I am aware of the varying interpretations and that I have come to my own conclusions about their validity?
At this stage you will probably have to clarify these points. You may find that you need to do further reading to demonstrate certain points, or to fill in the gaps in your argument.
When critically examining your essay, remember that the only facts which are useful are those which serve to demonstrate your reasoning. Irrelevant or unused facts merely obscure your argument. In particular, in the history of art there is a tendency (whatever the question and issue) to give biographies of the artists concerned. This is often quite irrelevant, and unless you can show the relevance of such facts, you should cut them out.
Remember too that your reader has no need to be told the obvious. For example, if writing an essay on a specific aspect of Monet's style, there is no need to give the entire history of Impressionism, and you can assume that your reader knows about the generally accepted accounts of the subject.
It is at this stage that you should check notes and facts (good note-taking pays off here) and indicate where you need footnotes or endnotes.
In re-writing the draft, remember:
(i) that the essay should begin with a clear statement of your interpretation of the issues
(ii) that the body of the essay should substantiate and amplify your initial statement
(iii) that there should be a conclusion summarising your arguments and your interpretation
- 1.4 Visual material
It is not adequate to use an image merely as an illustration to an argument. You should be sure that your arguments are drawn from your experience of the images and that you have shown your grounds for developing your interpretation in terms of your chosen visual material.
- 1.5 Quotations
Quotations will not do your work for you, any more than illustrations will. Is not enough simply to copy out the quotation in your essay as if it explains itself since others will not necessarily read it in the way in which you do. You will therefore need to show why the quotation is there, what it is doing in your argument, how you interpret it.
Back to top