Art History Writing Guide

I. Introduction
II. Writing Assignments
III. Discipline-Specific Strategies
IV. Keep in Mind
V. Appendix


At the heart of every art history paper is a close visual analysis of at least one work of art. In art history you are building an argument about something visual. Depending on the assignment, this analysis may be the basis for an assignment or incorporated into a paper as support to contextualize an argument. To guide students in how to write an art history paper, the Art History Department suggests that you begin with a visual observation that leads to the development of an interpretive thesis/argument. The writing uses visual observations as evidence to support an argument about the art that is being analyzed.

Writing Assignments

You will be expected to write several different kinds of art history papers. They include:

  • Close Visual Analysis Essays
  • Close Visual Analysis in dialogue with scholarly essays
  • Research Papers

Close Visual Analysis pieces are the most commonly written papers in an introductory art history course. You will have to look at a work of art and analyze it in its entirety. The analysis and discussion should provide a clearly articulated interpretation of the object. Your argument for this paper should be backed up with careful description and analysis of the visual evidence that led you to your conclusion.

Close Visual Analysis in dialogue with scholarly essays combines formal analysis with close textual analysis.

Research papers range from theoretic studies to critical histories. Based on library research, students are asked to synthesize analyses of the scholarship in relation to the work upon which it is based.

Discipline-Specific Strategies

As with all writing assignment, a close visual analysis is a process. The work you do before you actually start writing can be just as important as what you consider when writing up your analysis.

Conducting the analysis:

  • Ask questions as you are studying the artwork. Consider, for example, how does each element of the artwork contribute to the work's overall meaning. How do you know? How do elements relate to each other? What effect is produced by their juxtaposition
  • Use the criteria provided by your professor to complete your analysis. This criteria may include forms, space, composition, line, color, light, texture, physical characteristics, and expressive content.

Writing the analysis:

  • Develop a strong interpretive thesis about what you think is the overall effect or meaning of the image.
  • Ground your argument in direct and specific references to the work of art itself.
  • Describe the image in specific terms and with the criteria that you used for the analysis. For example, a stray diagonal from the upper left corner leads the eye to...
  • Create an introduction that sets the stage for your paper by briefly describing the image you are analyzing and by stating your thesis.
  • Explain how the elements work together to create an overall effect. Try not to just list the elements, but rather explain how they lead to or support your analysis.
  • Contextualize the image within a historical and cultural framework only when required for an assignment. Some assignments actually prefer that you do not do this. Remember not to rely on secondary sources for formal analysis. The goal is to see what in the image led to your analysis; therefore, you will not need secondary sources in this analysis. Be certain to show how each detail supports your argument.
  • Include only the elements needed to explain and support your analysis. You do not need to include everything you saw since this excess information may detract from your main argument.

Keep in Mind

  • An art history paper has an argument that needs to be supported with elements from the image being analyzed.
  • Avoid making grand claims. For example, saying "The artist wanted..." is different from "The warm palette evokes..." The first phrasing necessitates proof of the artist's intent, as opposed to the effect of the image.
  • Make sure that your paper isn't just description. You should choose details that illustrate your central ideas and further the purpose of your paper.


If you find you are still having trouble writing your art history paper, please speak to your professor, and feel free to make an appointment at the Writing Center. For further reading, see Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing about Art, 5th edition.