Autumn Landscape Artwork Response Essay Rough Draft


IntroductionFor this assignment, you will submit the progress you are making and a rough draft of your Artwork Response Essay. The purpose of this check-in is a precursor to the core assessment emphasizing the important of drafting and allowing an opportunity for instructor feedback.TIMELINE OF EVENTS:Unit 1: Project instructions provided.Unit 2: Identify and submit your planned visit and chosen artwork.Unit 4: Museum visit complete; Tweet posted of experience.Unit 6: Response Essay ROUGH DRAFT Due.Unit 8: Response Essay Due.Core Learning ObjectivesCLO 1: Use the specialized vocabulary of art and design to describe, both orally and in writing, their responses to art they have directly experienced.CLO 3: Critically respond to works of art, e.g. (Students will be able to not only know what they like but why.)CLO 5: Experience art directly in available local museums, galleries and architectural sites as a basis for response and critique.DirectionsProvide a short statement of the following information:What is the percentage of completion for your core assessment?What issues are you facing in completing this assessment?A draft of your Core Assessment – Artwork Response Essay needs to also be submitted. Use the following to help guide your draft.Artwork Response Essay information and expectations provided below.Use the rubric provided below to guide your draft. Rough draft point expectations, see below.Due DateSubmit by 11:59 p.m., Sunday, CT.RubricUnit 6: Core Assessment Rough Draft RubricUnit 6: Core Assessment Rough Draft RubricCriteriaRatingsPtsThis criterion is linked to a Learning OutcomeRough Draft Submission25.0 ptsExceptionalRough draft requires a minimum of five (5) pages submitted in the template format. Submitted on time – 11:59 p.m., Sunday, CT.0.0 ptsDoes Not Meet ExpectationsDid not submit on time. (11:59 p.m., Sunday, CT)25.0 pts
Total Points: 25.0…This is the artwork that was chosen.

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Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
Chapter 3
Putting Words to Images: Mastering the Response Essay, pp. 33 – 70
Students have often asked me how they could possibly spend more than a
paragraph on describing of a work of art. This chapter will take you through the
process, helping to you translate your visual observations into a well written and
well-organized response paper.
So, you have been asked to write your first paper for art history class. This is often
referred to as a description or response essay, and it is a standard component
of introductory art history courses. The assignment requires you to view a work
of art and write your response to it. At first, you might think, nothing could be
easier. Finally, a paper requiring no research, no footnotes, and no trips to the
library! But the more you think about it, and the nearer the deadline
approaches, the more anxious you get. Respond how? How am I going to
come up with more than a paragraph by simply looking at a work of art? You
glance at a poster in your dorm room and give it a try. All you can come up with
are a few phrases: a garden with flowers … a group of people playing musical
instruments … a table with a basket of fruit on it. Panic is setting in. What more
can I say? And why is it so important, anyway?
As you will see in this chapter, one can say a lot more. Further, you’ll find that
learning to write about what you see is one of the most important skills you can
acquire. As with all writing assignments, the response essay will certainly improve
your writing. Trying to communicate an idea, and particularly a complicated
one, is an exercise, and – as with physical exercise – it builds muscles – in
this case, your “muscles” of articulation. For myself, I have often noticed that
after a period of intense writing, the right words surface more quickly, and I am
better able to convey what I mean both on paper and in conversation. But the
description essay also has another benefit: it improves your powers of
seeing. Once you starting writing about what you see, you will become more
aware of the visual information surrounding you, and you will process that
information in an active and critical way. And at a time in which we are
constantly bombarded with images meant to inform, to persuade, to arouse,
and sometimes to manipulate, what could be more important?
How can a simple writing assignment accomplish all this? By asking you to do
something which might seem, at first, paradoxical. After all, looking at a work of art
is a nonverbal, immediate experience. You view an image and take it in all at
once. Writing about the image, however, means translating the act of looking
into a series of written observations – that is, turning a silent, visual sensation
into a verbal, sequential composition. That is the challenge: how do you go from
looking to writing, while conveying a sensitive, accurate idea of the work of art?
This will depend on (1) how closely and critically you observe the work of art in
the first place and (2) how clearly you can communicate what you have seen to
your reader.
This chapter is intended to help you with these particular tasks. It is not
meant, however, as a comprehensive guide to art history writing assignments. For
Page 1 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
that purpose, there are two very good books to consider. The first is Sylvan
Barnet’s classic, A Short Guide to Writing about Art, 7th ed. (New York:
Longmans, 2002), which is a complete guide to art history papers. The second is
a more recent publication, Henry Sayre’s Writing About Art, 3rd ed. (Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998). Both books are extremely useful, but
for the present purposes, both far exceed what you need to know in order to
write the response essay. By contrast, this chapter will deal only with that
particular task, taking you from your initial encounter with a work of art to the
finished composition.
First, the basics. What is the response essay exactly? While it might vary
slightly depending on your course and professor, we can still draw up a general
definition. First, it is most often short, no more than five pages in length, and
usually just two or three. Second, it focuses on a single work of art. Unless
otherwise instructed, you do not need to engage in lengthy comparisons with
other works. Third, no research is necessary for this paper; do not concern
yourself, for example, with a biography of the artist, or with a detailed discussion
of the subject matter. Instead, focus simply on what you see.
Where do you find an appropriate work of art? This also varies from class to
class. For example, if you attend a school within close proximity to museums,
you will most likely be asked to visit an original work of art. In other locations,
you may need to work from a photograph. On behalf of art history professors
everywhere, however, I urge you to use an original if at all possible. In most
cases, a reproduction can only provide you with a limited idea of the sense of a
work of art. Details, textures, and scale, among other properties, will be difficult
to apprehend when using a copy. In the case of three-dimensional works such
as sculpture and architecture, the limits of photography become even greater,
because you will only be able to see one view. For example, a building can be
experienced from innumerable vantage points, and from both the interior and the
exterior. However, do not despair: you can still write a good description paper
you will just have to be sensitive to the aspects of the work that might be missing
in a reproduction or photograph.
If you are going to be working with an original work of art, your professor will
probably specify a museum or gallery to be visited. You will, of course, need
to bring tools for writing with you. Keep in mind however, that museums often
have special rules about what can and can’t be brought into their spaces. If you
are planning to bring a laptop computer, for example, call ahead to make sure
that is permissible. If using more old fashioned tools, you might want to bring
a pencil, rather than a pen – some museums and libraries will prefer you work with
the latter. Also, the pad of paper you use should be small, so that you can take
notes comfortably standing up. The same holds true for a laptop. Physical
comfort is important: you want to be able to spend at least thirty minutes
concentrating on the work – not on how much your feet are bothering you. On
Page 2 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
the same subject, here is another important tip: make sure that you eat ahead
of time, because most-museums will-not allow you to enter with food or drink.
This might seem like rather silly advice to include in a book, but as you are
probably aware, there is nothing worse than trying to work when you are hungry
(particularly if you choose to work on a still life of fruit!). Your concentration will be
ruined, you will want to rush through the experience, and ultimately your paper
will suffer if you do not attend to these small matters ahead of time.
It is also important to tour the museum by yourself. I find that many of my
students like to go with classmates, often organizing and sharing rides. This is
fine, of course, as long as you part ways when you enter the museum. If
possible, choose different objects to view; if not, at least make sure that you do not
share ideas, as tempting as it might be. The professor has assigned the paper in
order to hear your individual response, not a group consensus. Moreover, he will
certainly notice if your papers sound alike.
Solitary, and armed with your writing implements, you are ready to face a work of
art. But which one should you work on? The answer varies from class to class.
Some professors might actually assign you a work, or give you a list of objects to
choose from. Others might give you free rein to choose something that falls
within the parameters of the class. Make sure you understand what this means.
For example, if you are taking a course in ancient and medieval art, do not
choose a post-Impressionist painting for your response essay (students do this
more frequently than you would think). Check the accompanying captions for
relevant information about the date, period, and place of origin of a work of art. If
you are still in doubt about your selection, ask your professor before
beginning – you might save yourself a lot of wasted time.
Let’s say you have been given the freedom to choose, and that you are
aware of the kinds of works appropriate for your course. This is when you
should consult your own instincts. As you walk into the exhibit space, don’t try to
be methodical. Let your eye scan the room, approaching objects that you are
particularly drawn to. Allow your stream of consciousness to run free. What
thoughts and feelings are stimulated by each work? Which intrigues you the
most? It might not be the most aesthetically pleasing work of art in the room.
My students often choose Egyptian sculpture. When asked why, they tell me that
they are attracted to its sense of mystery and strangeness. Perhaps the work you
have chosen evokes feelings of awe, fear, or sadness. Perhaps it raises certain
ideas in your head, such as thoughts of motherhood, romantic love, or the
supernatural world. Don’t censor yourself – it doesn’t really matter what
sorts of thoughts or feelings the work elicits; the most important point here is that
it engages you intellectually or emotionally.
Note that I said “engages you.” Have you ever watched the behavior of
crowds at a blockbuster museum exhibit? They plod sleepily along, sometimes
harnessed with headphones, on a forced march from one famous work to
another. It is a sad fact that those untrained in art history often do not really
Page 3 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
engage with images at all; instead, they get lost in a haze of passive, fuzzy
appreciation. They stand in front of Monet’s Water Lilies or Leonardo’s Mona
Lisa as if to catch magical rays of genius beamed from the canvases. In art
history class, you will be shaken from that state of stupefied reverence and
learn to really look at the images before you. You will become an active viewer.
As Henry Sayre has written, think of art as “an address, an address that demands
a response.”1 The following section will show you how.
Having selected your work, it is time to take some notes. Begin by recording your
initial impressions while they are still fresh in your mind. A sentence or two will
do. Here are two examples:
The painting makes me feel peaceful – it seems so serene. It
looks like two big glowing clouds, and I want to walk right into
The sculpture is so joyful – the way the woman holds the baby so
close, and the way he looks up into her eyes. It makes me think
about the bond between mother and child.
Note how in each case, the student concentrated on what feelings or ideas
the work elicited. Try to be as honest, vivid, and original in writing down your
thoughts. Avoid trite phrases or overt statements of judgment such as “the women
in the picture are so pretty” or the “baby is adorable.” Do not write that a work is
“beautiful” or “glorious.” Even if you find it so, you need to delve deeper into
your own reactions and come up with more specific terms: is it serene? graceful?
luminous? cheerful?
Next, write down the work’s “vital statistics”: its title, artist (if known), and
date, which should be indicated on a caption adjacent to the work. If mentioned
in the caption, you might also want to note down its place of origin (particularly
with a premodern work). A word, by the way, on captions: theories about what to
include in them vary greatly from museum to museum. Some are terse,
providing only the vital statistics of a work, while others are much more
elaborate, including a wealth of additional information about the object. This
information might be so interesting that you may wish to include it in your
paper. Note it, certainly. However, the purpose of the response essay is for
you to focus on the visual rather than the historical facts of a work of art,
and this should be reflected in your final essay. And by no means should you
include the text of the caption verbatim in your paper! Not only is this
plagiarism, but take it from me – your professor will immediately know
where you got the information! For further information on how to cite
sources, see Chapter Five.
Henry Sayre, Writing About Art, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998).
Page 4 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
Having recorded the vital statistics of the work and your initial
impressions of it, it is time to begin noting your visual observations, a
process often called “prewriting.” As the name suggests, this is meant to be
a preliminary stage to writing the paper. Don’t worry about elegant language
or even complete sentences. Don’t worry about finding some poetic metaphor
for the work in front of you. Just focus on being as thorough, clear, and precise
as possible. Why? Because these notes will provide you with “research
material” – the notes from which you will compose your paper. To help you
with this process, each paragraph below includes a series of questions for
you to answer as you look at the work.
1. Medium and materials. Many students make the mistake of examining a work from an inch away
before they have understood it as a whole. It is crucial, however, that you start with the most
elemental of observations. What is the medium of the work? It might be one of the basic three, that is,
painting, sculpture, or architecture. You might, however, have chosen a work of mixed media (such as
collage), or more recent media, such as photography or
digital art. Second, what kinds of materials are used? Is it
oil on canvas? Is it made of basalt or polychrome wood? Is
it a building made of reinforced concrete? Noting down
the materials is not just information for information’s sake.
If we return to the idea of art as an address, we need to
think of all aspects of the work as words, chosen
deliberately by the artist in order to convey his or her
message. In some cases, the message is more overt than
in others. For instance, if we look at Renoir’s Bathers
(fig.12) we can see how the use of oil paint, a soft, “juicy”
Figure 12 Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French (1841substance, works well with the
1919), The Bathers, 1887.
subject matter of the scene:
three young nude women
cavorting by a riverbank. If the same image were executed in pen and ink,
much of that sense would be lost. Then consider an ancient Egyptian
sculpture, the Khafre (fig 14), made of diorite, a hard, enduring stone.
Think about how the materials themselves encouraged the creation of a
simple geometric form, and how that form communicates a message of
permanence and timelessness. Important note: whether or not you know for
sure how hard or soft a material might be, its appearance alone should give
you a sense of its nature. Remember, the paper is about your perception of
the work. Now, turn to your work and answer the following questions:
Figure 14 Khafre, from
Giza. Dynasty 4, c. 25702544 B.C.
What is the medium used?
What are the materials?
Do these elements shape the work’s effect on you? How?
How would it feel if you touched the work? Would it be hard or soft?
Prickly? Smooth?
5. Do you get a sense of different textures, such as cloth, skin, and
2. Dimensions. Next, consider the dimensions of the work. In many cases, this information will often
be listed on the museum caption, but if it isn’t, don’t worry. Estimate the measurements. Think about
how the object appears in relation to you as the viewer. Then think about the subject matter. Is it a
larger than lifesize human figure? Is it a medieval manuscript page of tiny proportions? Is it a gigantic
abstract (nonrepresentational) sculpture? Think about how the size of the work affects the way you
perceive it. Then answer the following questions:
Page 5 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
1. What are the dimensions of the work?
2. What is the physical relationship between you and the work? Are you overwhelmed by it?
Do you tower over it?
3. Does proportion play a role in the effect of the work on you? How?
3. Display of the Object. Now, consider how the object is displayed. Get as close to it as possible,
remembering, however, that most museums have security devices that will be activated if you get too
close. If you have chosen a sculpture, try to look at it from as many viewpoints as its placement will
permit. Then walk away from it and view it at a distance. View it at different angles, and, if possible, in
different lights. Think about how it was intended to be viewed. Does it have the most effect when
you are near, at medium distance, or far away? Was it meant to be viewed frontally, or from the side?
What kind of lighting is best suited to it? Pretend you are a museum curator, in charge of creating an
effective display for the work of art.
If you are working with architecture, start by viewing the structure from the exterior. Does
it have a clear focal point on one particular side? Does the exterior seem to invite you into the
building? Then, if possible, enter the building. Is the structure best understood from the interior
or the exterior? Note your observations. Here are some examples of such note taking.
This painting looks best when seen at medium distance. When I get too close,
the brushstrokes are so bumpy that I can’t see the whole thing clearly. From
too far away, however, I can’t see the details.
This sculpture is big and simple in shape. But the shape changes in interesting
ways as I walk around it. I think that its placement in the middle of the room is
just right.
This piece seems to make the most sense from straight ahead. The figure has
erect, squared shoulders, and he is looking straight out – I feel like I should
be right in front of him.
This building is best understood from the outside – I can understand where
the tower is in relation to the rounding sides of the structure. When I went
inside wall decoration and the windows disoriented me. But outside, the
organization of its different parts was perfectly clear.
Have you ever noticed how some works of art seem to invite you to look at and
react to them, whereas others seem to be more remote, exist ing in their own sealed
world? Whichever type you have chosen (and many works lie somewhere in the
middle), make sure to note if and how the work engages you. What attracted you toward
It is also important to be aware of the original context of a work of art; that is, the
setting for which it was intended. When we look at works of art in museums, we are often
dealing with objects that were once destined for other locations. A medieval altarpiece was
intended for a church setting, while Egyptian sculptures were often housed in tomb
chambers. Even a painting from the Impressionist era was initiall y placed in a gallery
very much unlike the one that now houses it. A response essay may not require you to
do any detective work in the area of original con text, but keeping original context in mind
will help you think about how you, the viewer, are inten ded to behold the image. Now,
look at the work again and answer the following questions:
1. How is your object displayed?
2. From what angle should it be viewed? Why?
3. From what distance should it be viewed? Why?
Page 6 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
4. How is it lit, and how does that affect your
5. What is the original context of the work of art?
Formal Elements
It is now time for you to analyze the formal (or
visual) aspects of your work of art, using the
language of art history. Many terms of formal
analysis are used in everyday speech, such as
line and color. However, these words have
specific and technical meanings when used in
art history, and an important part of your success
in the class is your mastery of them. The
following sections are designed not only to
explain the terms but also to show you how to use
them in your paper.
Figure 16 Woman
from Willendorf,
Austria, c. 2200021000 B.C.
Figure 18 Piet
Mondrian (18721944), Composition
with Red, Blue, and
Yellow, 1930. 51 x
51 cm.
Line. One of the most basic art-historical
concepts is line, and it manifests itself in
many different ways depending on the
work of art. In sculpture and architecture,
we often speak of the contour line: the
outline defining the perimeter of the
shape. Think of the triangular contour
lines of Egyptian pyramids, or the wavy,
undulating contours of Frank Gehry’s
Guggenheim Museum of
Contemporary Art in Bilbao, Spain
(fig. 15). Or consider the contour
lines of the prehistoric figurine known
as the Woman from Willendorf, made
of repeating semicircles (fig. 16).
Contour lines also occur in twodimensional works. Think about the
lines that surround the forms, for
example, in a painting such as
Masaccio’s Trinity with the Virgin, Saint
John the Evangelist, and Donors (fig.
17). In modern abstract painting, lines
work in a different way. For instance,
Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red,
Blue, and Yellow (1930) (fig. 18)
Figure 15 Frank Gehry, Guggenheim
Museum of Contemporary Art, in Bilbao,
Spain, 1997.
Figure 17 Masaccio, Italian (1401-1428),
Trinity with the Virgin, Saint John the
Evangelist, and Donors. Fresco in the
Churchc of Santa Maria Novella, Florence,
c.1425 (?).
consists of strong vertical and horizontal lines
creating a geometric design that denies any sense of
Lines are powerful not only because they define
shapes and order images, but because they also serve to direct your eyes,
whether in architecture, sculpture, or painting. Remember the way line works
in the Nike of Samothrace (fig. 8). The upraised wings of the figure and the
folds of the drapery create two intersecting diagonal lines across-the body of
the figure. Now consider a sixteenth-century Flemish painting, the Return of
Page 7 of 22
Figure 8 Nike of
Samothrace, from
Sanctuary of the Great
Gods, Samothrace, c.
190 B.C. (?).
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
the Hunters by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (fig. 19). On this two-dimensional surface, how are
lines used? As Marilyn Stokstad has commented,
The sharp diagonals, both on the picture plane
and as lines receding into space, are countered
by the pointed gables and roofs at the lower
right as well as by the jagged mountain peaks
linking the valley and the skyline along the
right edge. Their rhythms are deliberately
slowed and stabilized by a balance of vertical
tree trunks and horizontal rectangles of water
frozen-over in the distance.2
Note how strongly line works in this image to
direct your eye, affecting the whole composition
Figure 19 Peter Bruegel the Elder, Flemish (c. 15251569), Return of the Hunters 1565. Oil and tempera
and your experience of the work.
on panel, 46 x 63 ¾”.
In most cases, the use of repeating lines at
right angles conveys a sense of stability. Strong diagonals, on the other hand, often create
tension and suggest motion. Consider another example: Jean-Louis David’s Oath of the
Horatii (1784-1785) (fig. 4), a painting depicting three Roman brothers (the Horatii) swearing an
oath to their father to fight to the death for Rome.
Note how the raised arms of the three brothers at
left create an emphatic diagonal line that is
countered by the upraised gesture of their redcloaked father. But the effect is not of uncontrolled
energy. David is known for his careful, balanced
compositions; note how the diagonal lines in the
image are stabilized by the triple-arched backdrop
of the image.
Let’s turn to architecture. Think about a
Greek temple, such as the Parthenon on the
Acropolis in Athens, dated to the sixth century
B.C. (fig. 20). What are its predominant lines? A
series of uniform verticals (the columns)
Figure 4 Jean-Louis David (1748-1825), Oath of the
complemented by a continuous horizontal (the
Horatii, 1784-1785 c. 1784. Oil on canvas, 330 x 425
entablature). How does this arrangement of lines
differ from, for example, the Guggenheim museum
in Bilbao? In the building by Frank Gehry, the building contains, it seems, almost no right
angles, using instead curvy, wavy forms. How does the difference in line affect your experience
of the two buildings? The former, with its uprights and horizontals, seems stable and planted in
the ground, while the modern building seems to
move, to undulate.
In two-dimensional arts, as mentioned, line
is also used primarily to describe or outline shapes. But
the illusion of volume (or roundness) can be also
indicated through the use of lines, as in the use of
hatching (short, sharp strokes that create shadows).
Moreover, lines can be uniform and sharp, as in the
example of Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and
Yellow (1930) (fig. 18), or fuzzier and of inconsistent
thickness, as in Monet’s Water Lilies, Giverny (fig. 1).
If you think that the choice of lines does not
Figure 20 Kallikrates and Iktinos, Parthenon,
affect your experience of a work of art, consider a page
Acropolis, Athens, 447-438 B.C.
from the medieval manuscript known as the Ebbo
Art History, 727.
Page 8 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
Gospels (816-840) (fig. 21). It depicts the evangelist Mark seated in a landscape. Line, more
than any other formal component, dominates the image. Instead of using shading or modeling to
define drapery folds, the artist has depicted a figure bathed in swirling, undulating lines. The
saint’s hair is a mass of wildly curving strokes, and even the landscape is composed short,
curved hatchmarks. The use of these marks serves to energize the image – it has often been
referred to as having a “nervous linearity.” This nervousness and dynamism, moreover, is a
perfect visual counterpart to the subject matter of the painting: the saint is depicted just as he
is divinely inspired to write down the word of God. Think about the work of art you have selected
and ask yourself these questions:
1. What are the dominant lines of the work?
2. If sculpture or architecture, what kinds of contour lines are created?
3. Do the lines suggest movement and direction? Or do the forms seem planted in the
4. To where do the lines lead your eye?
5. If you are dealing with a two-dimensional work, are the lines thick or thin?
6. Is their width consistent?
7. Are they straight or wavy?
8. Are they predominantly vertical, horizontal, or diagonal?
9. How does line contribute to the overall effect of the work?
Shape and Space. As you answer the previous question, you will also find yourself confronting a
related issue: shape and space. What do we mean by shape? Based on its common English
definition, you probably already have a good idea. But it can also be defined, for our purposes, in a
more technical way: for three-dimensional works such as sculpture and architecture, shape is
defined by the physical contours of the form. In the case of the pyramids at Giza, for example,
we are speaking of an object that takes up space and thus has volume. In the case of twodimensional works, shape is defined by lines, or sometimes edges of color. It exists on a flat
plane (such as a canvas or photographic sheet) only in width and height. In abstract art, as in a
work by Mondrian or Jackson Pollock, the quality of flatness is often emphasized: we are to
understand shapes as surface elements. However, artists will often manipulate shape in order to
convey a sense of three dimensions. In painting, one of the most frequent ways to suggest this is
by the use of tonal gradations or modeling, in which shadows and highlights simulate the effects
of light bouncing off an uneven, projecting object. Shapes, moreover, can be classified as either
geometric, as in the case of the Giza pyramids, or biomorphic, which refers to natural forms,
such as human figures, animals, and plants.
What shapes are used in your work?
If it is a two-dimensional work, has the artist suggested a three-dimensional shape?
How is this done?
If sculpture or architecture, what form does the shape take?
Space. S o far, we have talked about the definitions of solid shapes. We may refer to these as
positive shapes. But there are also shapes created by the absence of solids. These can be
referred to as negative shape, or space: the void located between or around solid shapes. In
sculpture and architecture these spaces are real. In two-dimensional art, however, space, like
shape, is only implied. Now at this moment you may wonder, “Why all the fuss about something
as insubstantial as space?” As with line, however, space can have a powerful effect on a work of
art and your experience of it. For example, it can create dramatic optical effects in sculpture.
Consider the fourth-century reliefs on the Arch of Constantine (fig. 22). Here, short, stubby
figures stand in a row across a long horizontal plane. Between each of the figures’ legs are
shadows, roughly the same width as the legs themselves. Hence a uniform pattern of light
(made by the figures’ legs) and dark (made by the spaces between them) is created, and
thus a kind of visual rhythm is established.
Space can also be used in more metaphorical, expressive ways. This is illustrated in a
work of classical Greek art: Consider the Woman and Maid, a painting on a lekythos, a
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Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
slender, one handled vase, dated to 450-440 B.C. (fig. 23). The vase
depicts a servant offering a box of jewelry to her mistress, the
deceased. Although in close proximity, the two figures do not look at
each other. There is a clearly perceptible, roughly triangular void that
separates them, painted white like the rest of the background. In its
sharp outlines, and placement between the two figures, this space
emphasizes the sense of loss inherent in the theme of the work.
Because the vase contains only minimal indications as to the
setting of the two figures, it is impossible to discern whether the
void that separates them is shallow or deep. Yet in many two-dimensional
works, one may often discern different layers of pictorial depth, a term
referring to the recession of space into the distance. If we look at a
landscape, for example, we can immediately sense which elements of
the painting are closest to us and which are farther away. Yet, we are, of
course, looking at a flat surface. The space that seems closest to us
is referred to as the foreground, that which seems farthest is referred to
as the background, and that which is between them is called the middle
ground. Artists will manipulate these elements in order to control the way
you experience an image. For example, note how in the Oath of the
Horatii (fig. 4), David has positioned the action in the foreground. An
arcade situated immediately behind blocks any further recession into
space and creates a shallow, stage-set effect, highlighting the dramatic
content of scene.
How is depth created in a two-dimensional image? There is no single
answer to this question. Artists from different eras and cultures have
conveyed the idea using a variety of methods. To demonstrate this, let’s
compare the following two works: the ancient Roman wall painting
entitled Cityscape (fig. 24) and the Trinity by Masaccio from fifteenthFigure 23 Style of
century Italy. Both are meant to give the impression of pictorial depth or
Achilles Painter, Woman
and Maid¸white-ground
perspective, but do so in different ways.
and black-figure
Let’s start by looking at Masaccio’s Trinity (fig. 17). Let your eyes
decoration on a lekythos,
follow the diagonal lines created by the figures and by the architecture.
c. 450-440 B.C.
Note that the barrel vault above the figural group contains a series of
diagonal lines. In your mind, extend them back into the depths of the image. You have probably
noticed that all these lines, called orthogonals, intersect at a single point, referred to as a
vanishing point, just above the base of the cross. This method of
conveying depth, referred to as scientific perspective, was
invented during the Renaissance and is characteristic of the
postmedieval art of Western Europe.
Turn now to the Cityscape, a detail of a wall painting from the
House of Publius Fannius Synistor, Boscoreale, and dated to the
late first century A.D. Here too, allow your eyes to follow the
orthogonals, and extend them toward an imagined vanishing point.
You will immediately notice that not all the diagonals lead to the
same point – rather, each leads in different directions. This
system, frequent in ancient and medieval art of the West, is
referred to as intuitive perspective, because it is based on the
intuition or sensation of depth rather than on a scientific system.
Most people new to the study of art history make the
mistake of assuming that scientific perspective is somehow
superior. However, such qualitative judgments are rarely useful.
Figure 24 Cityscape, detail of a
Even if we agree (and we might not) that scientific perspective
wall painting from House of
replicates most closely the way things seem in nature, this
Publius Fannius Synistor,
doesn’t necessarily mean that the method is superior to any
Boscoreale, late 1st century A.D.
other. What makes close imitation of the natural world superior to a
Wall painting from the Cubiculum
of the Villa at Boscoreale: Panel
more abstract or subjective expression?
II. Fresco.
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Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
There are many additional ways to show depth. For example, on a two-dimensional plane,
depth can be conveyed by placing the nearest figures lowest on the page and those farthest at
the very top. Space is thus created by the stacking up of forms. This is referred to as vertical
perspective, and is commonly found in pre-Renaissance and non-Western art. Another way to
indicate spatial distances is to use overlapping, in which one form is placed in front of another.
Diminution, in which the farther object is made smaller, is also a frequent means to convey
depth. Finally, elements of line, light, and color might also be brought to use, as in the case of
atmospheric perspective. This method is based on the observation that the closer an object is to
the viewer, the sharper its outlines and more intense its color. Objects placed farther away lose
their strong contours and hues, becoming faded and blurry.
Now consider the use of space and shape in your work and answer the following questions:
If you ar e w orking with a two-dimensional work, what are the shapes present?
How are mass and volume conveyed?
How is negative space conveyed?
Has the author used these forms to further his message (as we saw in the
Is the work open or does it seem more solid?
Is spatial recession conveyed and if so, how?
How does the artist’s treatment of shape and space inform your experience of the
If you are dealing with architecture or sculpture, what are the dominant forms?
Are they biomorphic or geometric?
Is there any empty space, and how does that affect your experience?
Does the empty space make the object look more fragile or is does it seem strong and
Composition and Relative Scale. We have considered the concept of shape and space in your
work of art. But in order to understand your work, you must consider how these elements come
together as a whole. The organization and arrangement of forms is referred to as composition,
and this greatly affects the meaning of a work of art, controlling your visual focus and highlighting
particular elements of the whole.
To discern the composition of a work, it is important to be able to see underlying formal
structures. In the case of abstract art, the process is easier: you should be able to pick out the
dominant forms and the way they are organized. A representational work, however, is more
challenging to work with. For example, instead of seeing the figure of a woman, you must try to
see her as a collection of cylinders, spheres, triangles, or whatever shapes she is composed of.
How best to achieve this? The trick I learned in high school drawing class is particularly effective:
turn the work upside down or sideways – your
mind will be less ready to pick out identifiable
shapes and think “arm” and “leg,” and will focus
instead on the pure formal properties. Of course,
this trick is not advisable if you are working with a
museum object! However, try squinting or turning
your head – you will be less likely to be distracted
by the subject matter. At this point, the composition
will become clear to you.
Why is composition an important concept?
Like the other formal elements we have
considered, the way forms are arranged in a
work often creates the overall message. To
understand how this works, look at the medieval
Figure 9 Central tympanum, west façade, Chartres
Cathedral, c. 1145-1155. A tableau of 12th century
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Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
tympanum at Chartres Cathedral (fig. 9). Now, turn the book upside down. Forget that you are
viewing Christ surrounded by evangelist symbols, apostles, and prophets. Think about these
figures as abstract forms instead. How are they organized? You will notice that the composition
is made up of one large figure at the center of the composition. Moving out from the center are
slightly smaller figures. Turning to the archivolts, or the arched frames of the portal, the figures
have become even smaller.
With these observations about composition, we can now “remember” who we are
looking at. Notice how the central form, that of Christ, dominates the composition. Not only
is he placed at the center of the image, but he is also the largest figure on the tympanum,
and is framed by the other figures. These compositional choices organize the image, but
they also serve another function: they illustrate a hierarchy in which Christ assumes the
most important position. Indicating importance by manipulating the scale of figures and using a
centralized composition with framing elements is typical of many premodern and non-Western
artistic traditions.
Now think about how forms are arranged in painting. Let’s turn back to Masaccio’s Trinity
(fig. 17). Again, put side the identity of the figures and concentrate on the composition they
create. Notice how the two central figures create a solid, stable anchor for the composition,
which is framed symmetrically by the two kneeling figures nearest to them. This framing element
is furthered by the two donors at either sides of the composition. The symmetry and solidity of the
composition, moreover, is emphasized by the massive barrel vault that houses the figures and
by the stone base which supports them. Note, then, how the placement of figures symmetrically
around a central component and the use of horizontals and verticals (instead of diagonals)
conveys a sense of solidity and stability.
Now consider a Baroque painting: the central panel of The Raising of the Cross by Peter
Paul Rubens (1609-1610) (fig. 25). As with Masaccio’s painting, the image depicts a group of
figures surrounding Christ on the cross. However, here we see the moment just before the
Crucifixion, when the cross is hoisted to an upright position by a group of muscular soldiers. The
figure of Christ creates a strong diagonal from the
lower right to the upper left, which is highlighted
also by the pale nude colors of his flesh and of
those immediately around him. Unlike the
composition of Masaccio’s Trinity, with its
anchored, centralized composition, here we have a
sense of imbalance and tension – as though the
central unit of figures would topple at any
moment. This sense of tension is in keeping
with the themes of the work: intense emotion
and physical suffering. Now, think about the
composition of the work you have chosen to
describe, how it affects your experience, and how it
relates to the subject matter depicted.
1. How do the various formal elements
2. Does the relationship convey the unity of
the forms? How?
3. Are all the forms clustered-toward the
center, or are they balanced at either side?
4. Is the composition symmetrical?
5. How is emphasis achieved through form?
6. What is the focal point of the composition?
7. How is this focal point created?
8. What is the theme or idea conveyed by
the focal point?
Figure 25 Peter Paul Rubens, The Raising of the Cross,
c. 1609-1610.
Light and Color. So far we have talked about the solids and spaces that define the work you
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Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
are describing. These, as you have already noted, affect the way you perceive the painting and
the message it communicates to you. But the shapes and spaces that you see may also be
informed by two more principles: light and color.
Let’s begin with light. This element affects both two- and three-dimensional works, but it
is most affecting when it appears in two-dimensional work such as painting. Often, light is
used to convey the volumes of solids. For example, in Renoir’s Bathers (fig. 12), we can see
how highlights, in combination with shadows, give a sense of roundness to the objects.
This, however, is a rather broad generalization. In fact, artists of different eras used light
in various ways. In the Venetian Renaissance, artists
suffused their paintings with clear, golden, evenly distributed light, whereas the Florentine artist
Leonardo used more heightened contrasts between light and dark – a technique referred to by
the Italian term chiaroscuro, which translates, literally, as “light-dark.”
In some works, light creates more dramatic power than any
other element. Consider, for example, Georges de la Tour’s
Repentant Magdalen (c. 1640) (fig. 26). Here, the seated Mary
Magdalen sits at a desk, resting her head in one hand and touching
a skull with the other. Behind the skull is a lit candle, which casts
strong light on her profile and arm. The rest of the room is thrown
into darkness. This creates a theatrical effect, effectively spotlighting
the woman as the subject of the painting. But light also plays an
important role in the meaning of the work as well. Not only are we
directed, through the use of light, toward the woman, but we
meditate on her, on the ephemerality of the candle, on the skull
before her, and on the void lying outside of that small, lighted space.
Think of how different the piece would be if the whole room were “lit
up” by the artist!
What role does light play in the work you have selected?
Is it uniform and gentle? Or dramatic and theatrical?
Where does it lead your eye?
Is it disturbing or comforting? Why?
Does it help to convey the message or theme of the work?
Figure 26 Georges de La Tour
(1593-1652), Repentant
Magdalen¸c. 1640. “Madeleine
a la Veilleuse” (Penitent
Magdalen). Oil on canvas, 128
x 94 cm.
Color, also called hue, can also play an important role in a work of art. To understand the
effects of color in the work you are responding to, you need first to master some technical
knowledge on the subject: there are three primary colors – red, yellow, and blue. By mixing them
in various combinations, you arrive at the secondary colors: green, yellow, and purple. Moreover,
each of these colors can vary according to its value (degree of lightness or darkness), and
intensity (degree of saturation). To visualize this, think of the difference between the color of an
emerald and a stalk of celery.
Often, the choice of colors, or palette, of a work of art sets a
particular mood. Reds, yellows, and oranges are often referred to
as warm or hot colors, whereas blues, greens, and purples are
cool. In his painting Water Lilies, Giverny (fig. 1), Monet used a
wide range of blues and greens, emphasizing the serenity and
stillness of the watery gardens. In Picasso’s Les Demoiselles
d’Avignon (fig. 13), however, the artist has reduced his palette to
a sharp contrast of acid orange and light blue, lending the scene
a mood of aggression, if not violence.
While some artists use color to convey the accurate hue of
an object, artists from the Impressionists onwards begin to
experiment and depart from the local (or authentic) colors of an
object. Monet placed blues and reds in fields of hay to simulate
Figure 13 Pablo Picasso, Spanish
the optical effects of looking out into the distance in bright sun.
(1881-1973). Les Demoiselles
Picasso, on the other hand, used green in the hair of his mistress.
d’Avignon, Paris (June-July 1907).
Oil on canvas, 8’ x 7’8”.
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Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
Now, think about the palette used in the work you are examining:
What is the dominant palette of your work. Warm or cooI colors?
What is their value?
What is their intensity?
Is color used to help convey the work’s theme or message?
Does it add drama or tension, or is it calming?
Style. Style is the final component for you to consider as you take notes on your chosen
work of art. What do we mean by style? Don’t confuse it with the popular definition – it
has nothing to do with being fashionable. Style is a technical term w ith specific
application in the field of art his tory, referring to the way in which the artist presents his or
her subject to you. Style is a question of how the artist achieves his or her presentation. In
painting and sculpture, there is a
representational and nonrepresentational
style; the former depicts views or objects
recognizable in the world, and the other
is abstract – depicting forms and
shapes that originate in the mind of the
artist. Style also refers to the way in
which forms are presented. Are they
defined primarily by line? In this case,
you may call the work linear. The Page
Depicting Mark the Evangelist in the Ebbo
Gospels c. 816-840 (fig. 21) is a work
in which ink is used to define forms. It
Figure 7 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Large Odalisque, 1814.
is an excellent representative of the
linear style. However, paintings too can
be linear. Consider, for example, the work of Jean -Auguste Dominique Ingres, a
neoclassical painter and student of the famous neo classical artist Jean-Louis David. In
Ingres’ painting Large Odalisque (1814) (fig. 7), depicting a reclining nude woman, the
canvas surface seems smooth and glassy, and distinct lines define the contours of the fig ure, the pleats of the drapery, and the dark void beyond. Pierre -Auguste Renoir, on the
other hand, used a painterly style. In his Bathers (1887) (fig. 12), the artist used a brush
loaded with paint and applied it to the canvas in loose strokes, endowing the forms with
soft modeling rather than sharp outlines.
The elements of style presented to you thus far probably
seem straightforward. However, students often get confused by
four additional concepts: realism, naturalism, idealism, and
abstraction. Let’s begin with the first. What is realism? Consider
the example of a late Roman portrait of the emperor Caracalla,
dating from the early third century A.D. (fig. 27). Pay attention to the
way the face is handled. It is that of an individual; we see the
wrinkles and furrows on the forehead, the folds of skin linking the
nose to the mouth, the prominent cleft chin, and even the em peror’s stubble. All of these details convey the sense of a real
person; one can imagine walking by such a figure on the street.
So, realism is the attempt to depict objects exactly
Figure 27 Caracalla, early
as they are in actual visible reality, “warts and all.”
3rd c. A.D. Portrait head of
the Emperor Caracalla (A.D.
Like realism, naturalism is also based on the
211-217). Marble, bust,
representation of the physical world; in this case,
Roman III Century A.D.
however, artists look to nature only for inspiration,
rather than trying to achieve precise imitation. For an example, let’s turn
to the Corinthian capital, an element of Greek architecture (fig. 28).
Consider the plant forms sculpted around its base, referred to as
acanthus leaves. Note that they seem to bend and curve around the
Figure 28
capital. Carved
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Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
capital, conveying a sense of real, organic life forms. They appear to be growing right out
of the capital. Certainly, the forms are somewhat patterned – the
artist has arranged them symmetrically to conform to the circular
base of the capital. But they are still recognizable as forms found in
Naturalism might also have to do with the way a figure is
rendered, as in, for example, Greek sculpture. Let’s consider a work of
early classical sculpture, the Doryphoros (fig. 2), a portrait of a young
athlete in the nude. Note how the artist has paid attention to details
of the anatomy, such as the little flap of muscle above the knee,
seemingly suspended-by the skin. Note also the way the figure
stands, with his weight shifted onto his left leg. Attention to
anatomy and to lifelike movements of the body are also elements
of naturalism. But is this a particular man, someone you might run into
in a restaurant or store? It is hard to say. What are his distinguishing
features? He has no wrinkles, freckles, or asymmetries – those
“irregularities” which distinguish us from each other and make us
unique individuals. There is no hint of a facial expression to convey a
specific state of mind or mood. This makes the Doryphoros an
example of naturalism rather than realism. It is a work inspired by the
appearance of an actual young man, but not a precise record of that
man. Drapery or clothing can also be termed as naturalistic if it hangs
over the body in a believable way.
Idealism and abstraction are more conceptual. In the case of
idealism, the work of art is meant to communicate a kind of visual
perfection or beauty. It is important here to remember that beauty is
not an absolute idea, but shifts from culture to culture – Victorian ideals
of female beauty, for example, are quite different from those of modern
Figure 2 Polykleitos of
Argos (5th B.C.E.),
Japan. In Greek sculpture, idealism was often conveyed through
Doryphoros (Spear Bearer).
representations of the human figure such as the Doryphoros (fig. 2).
Roman copy of Greek
Now, you might be confused at this point: didn’t I just use this work as
original bronze. (c. 450-440
an example of naturalism? Isn’t it inspired by nature? The answer is
yes and yes. But in Greek society, the youthful athletic human figure,
rendered in a naturalistic way, was considered the epitome of what was good and beautiful. Its
sculptor, Polykleitos, devised a mathematical formula in order to produce the ideal male form, and
the Doryphoros was intended as a representation of it. So the Doryphoros is an example of both
naturalism and idealism.
In the royal portraiture of ancient Egypt, we also encounter
idealism. Here, too, the figures are represented as young and strong,
with broad shoulders, a slim waist, and muscular limbs. However,
instead of the relaxed stance of the Greek sculpture, the Egyptians
preferred to depict their ideal figures as rigid, frontal, and erect, as in
the sculpture Menkaure and his Wife, Queen Khamerernebty (fig. 29).
Abstraction is another way to describe artistic style. In this
case, the artist is less interested in the careful recording of how things
look in nature, and more interested in a certain visual property or
pattern. Let’s take an example from prehistoric art, the Woman from
Willendorf (fig. 16). We can certainly recognize that this is a heavy-set
woman, and we can distinguish the different parts of her body. Yet, we
can also note that the representation is not perfectly true-to-life, but
has been manipulated. Note the exaggerated solidness and
roundness of her breasts, belly, and thighs. The other parts of her
body, by contrast, are virtually unrecognizable: the face is entirely
obscured, and her minuscule hands are only just visible above the
In this way, the artist transformed the female body into a
Figure 29 Menkaure and
pattern of repeating round forms. The artist’s method of abstraction,
his Wife, Queen
Khamerernebty, from Giza,
Dynasty 4, c. 2515 B.C.
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Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
moreover, emphasizes a single idea; the round belly, breasts, and thighs convey the fertility of
the female – an important message in an era when the average life expectancy of humans
was around 35!
In some works, however, there is no recognizable relation to subjects found in nature. Such
works are referred to as nonrepresentational or nonobjective art. Twentieth-century art offers
many examples of this style. Consider Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930)
(fig. 18). Here, we are confronted with a series of colored squares, large and small,
connected by a grid of black lines. The artist has turned away from the naturalistic to
concentrate primarily on geometric forms, sharp contrasts of color, and repeating patterns. It
would be a mistake, however, to assume that the picture is empty of meaning because of the
absence of a recognizable subject. In fact, we know that Mondrian viewed his compositions as
metaphors for an ideal society, in which the use of colors and balanced forms represented
individuals living in harmony. But an exploration of subject matter, after all, is not the aim this
chapter. Rather, it is to make you aware of the different styles that an artist can adopt to
communicate his or her ideas.
Another artistic style is called expressionism. In this case,
the work might be naturalistic, abstract, or idealistic –
expressionism refers to any work that appeals to the emotions
of the viewer, often in an exaggerated or theatrical way.
Twentieth-century art provides us with many examples of
expressionism, and these often also feature elements of
abstraction. Perhaps the most famous is Edvard Munch’s The
Scream (1893) (fig. 30). In this case, a man stands in the
foreground of a landscape, holding his hands to his head and
crying out. The eyes and mouth of the man are enlarged, and
lines radiate around the figure, focusing our attention on his
disturbed psychological state. Even the landscape, with its
wavy horizon lines, seems to reverberate with anxiety. Note
how line is used here, as in the Ebbo Gospels (fig. 21), to
convey drama and mood.
Abstract Expressionism is a specific period unto
Figure 30 Edvard Munch, The
itself, and refers to a school of painting and sculpture
Scream, 1893.
active in New York between 1940 and c.1960. In the work
of Jackson Pollock, for example, representational forms have
been abandoned in favor of rhythmic splatters and drips of paint, records of the dynamic and
expressive gestures of the artist.
Now consider the work you have chosen to explore and ask yourself the following
In what style is your artist working?
Do you see elements of abstraction? What are these elements?
What do you think the artist meant to convey through his or her abstraction?
Is it a naturalistic form? To what extent is it inspired by nature? To what extent does it
depart from nature?
5. Is it a realistic form? What makes it realistic? What seems “real” about it?
6. Is it an ideal form? How do you know? What makes it characteristic of ideal
beauty? And if so, to what culture does it belong?
7. Is it expressionistic? Does it appeal primarily to your emotions? Which emotions
and how?
Before leaving the museum it is useful to draw a small sketch of the work. This is
mostly for your benefit; it doesn’t matter if you feel you are a gifted artist or not.
The purpose is to get you to look carefully at the work, and sometimes the best
way to do this is through recording what you see in visual as well as verbal
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Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
terms. A sketch will also be a useful resource to return to as you write the paper.
If a photographic reproduction of the work is available, however, either from a
website, a book, or in the form of a postcard, you should obtain that as well, and
if possible, include it with your paper.
Having examined the work of art closely, answered the above questions, and
drawn a thumbnail sketch, you are ready to begin the process of composing
your paper. To do so, find a quiet, comfortable place to write. This might be
your dorm room, the library, or even a café – the main thing is that you have
a place to spread out your notes and write without distractions.
You might be dreading this point. After all, writing is not always an
easy process. My friend Maria enters into a deep depression when
confronted with a writing assignment. This might sound extreme to you, but
feelings of dread and anxiety often accompany the beginning of writing. It is
equally true, however, that they will recede once you start. For this reason, I
urge you to begin as soon as possible. Generally, the actual act of writing is
nowhere near as unpleasant as the anticipation of it. I think of it as I would
think of completing a crossword puzzle – work at it calmly until all the right
words fall into place. So grab a snack (never work on an empty stomach!),
find a comfortable spot to sit and work, spread your notes and images in front
of you, and keep reading. And take heart: you are done with the hardest part
– you have accumulated all the notes you will need and have given careful
thought to your work. Composing the paper is now just a matter of organizing
and presenting the information that you already possess.
The Introduction
Step 1: Write a Short Description of the Work You Have Chosen. The
first section will serve to introduce your reader to the work of art. It should
not be detailed, nor more than one or two sentences. It should describe the
work in plain and simple terms, mentioning subject matter, medium, scale,
and location. For example:
Menkaure and his Wife is an Egyptian sculpture about four feet
tall, made of slate, and located in the Museum of Fine Arts in
Boston. The royal couple stands together facing outward, and
the queen wraps her arm around her husband’s waist.
While it might seem like an obvious beginning, I can’t tell you how many
papers I have received that begin with a discussion of Menkaure’s elbows! It
helps here to remember the process of seeing itself. When you first see an
object, do you immediately hone in on its details? Typically, no. So
remember, when you write, always to proceed from general to increasingly
detailed observations.
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Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
Step 2: State Your Main Argument. Your second step will be to express
the main theme of your paper. What should it be? Think back to the first
moment you encountered your work. Remember the feeling or thought that
came to you? Was it fear, mystery, romantic love? Put your statement in
objective terms, and avoid the word I. It might go something like this:
The sculpture evokes a sense of permanence and unity…
This is the first part of your thesis statement. You are arguing, in your paper,
that permanence and timelessness are the ideas that this sculpture evokes.
Step 3: State (Briefly) the Ways in Which You Will Prove It. These
themes, you should now realize, did not simply appear in your head at
random. Choices in the subject matter and formal elements such as line,
composition, color, and style helped to create it. The main goal of your paper
will be to describe how this idea or feeling, so central to your response to the
work, was created by artistic choices. So, despite the innocuous name of
“response” or “description” paper, this is really meant to be an argument –
your argument, for why the work is so powerful. This does not mean you
should second-guess the intentions of the artist. What he or she meant by
the work is less important, for the purposes of this paper, than the effect the
work has on you.
So the second part of your thesis statement might read:
… and this is evoked through the materials used, the
composition, the relationship and poses of the figures, and the
Writing the Main Body
Step 1: Sketching an Outline. Having established your main argument, and
the ways in which you will prove it, you may now proceed to the paper’s main
body. Here, you will detail the evidence for your argument, focusing on the
elements you cited in your thesis statement. At this point you might be asking
yourself, “Which element should I discuss first?” In general, it is advisable to
build up to your strongest points. Think about what most strongly contributed
to the work’s overall effect on you. End with that. In the case of a paper on
Menkaure and his Wife (fig. 29), you might want to begin with a discussion of
materials and conclude with a section on the poses of the figures.
In the case of the main body, it might be useful to sketch a quick outline
before beginning to write. Give each of your sections a heading such as “pose” or
“figural type.” Then, after each heading, provide a description of that element in
your work. Be as detailed and vivid as possible. Consider again the example of
the paper on Menkaure and his Wife (fig. 29). An outline of its main body would
look like this:
Page 18 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
I I . M ai n Body
A. materials
1. slate
2. greyish black stone
3. looks hard and smooth
4. gives sense of unchangingness, stillness
B. composition
1. the two forms are physically attached to each other
2. little space between them
3. seem to form a single, stable mass
4. this also gives a sense of unity and stability
C. Facial Expressions
1. the expressions of the couple seem blank
2. mouths are closed and still
3. this adds to the sense of unchangingness
D. Treatment of the Figures
1. Figure type
a. they seem youthful
b. he has broad shoulders and a narrow waist
c. she has a very slim, soft-looking body
d. she is covered with a transparent garment that emphasizes
her body
2. Pose
a. they seem stiff and erect
b. no twisting or shifting of weight
c. these qualities also give a sense of stillness and
Note how the sections above were organized in terms of art-historical
elements (materials, composition, facial expressions, and treatment of the
figures). Then came a description of how the work in question used those
elements. In the case of Menkaure and his Wife, the composition consists of two
forms that are attached to each other. Finally, the sections end with a statement of
how each element contributes to the overall effect. This is a restatement of
your main thesis. Hence, in the example given, the figural pose of the Egyptian
sculpture lends to its sense of timelessness. Do the same for the work you are
writing about, going from category to category, and listing your points in outline
Step 2: Writing the Paragraphs. The above outline is rather abbreviated – you
may very well have more descriptive details in your paragraphs. The more, the
better. But it is also important to keep them ordered. Remember, each section of
your outline should constitute a new paragraph. Moreover, as you start each new
paragraph, begin with your most general observation, and then list the details
that support that observation. Be as minute and painstaking as possible;
remember, your job is to persuade the reader of your argument. At the end of
each paragraph, tell the reader how those details support your main argument.
Here is a sample paragraph from the main body of our paper on Menkaure and
Page 19 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
his Wife (fig. 29). (I have added annotations in bold to show you the paragraph’s
(Subject heading: the pose of the figures): We get a sense of
permanence from the way the figures are posed. They are not
leaning over or in a casual pose. (General observation): In
fact, they seem to be as stiff and rigid as boards. (Detail 1):
The king has broad shoulders and does not slump at all; he
holds them completely erect and straight. (Detail 2): His arms
fall down to his sides and his hands are clenched into fists.
(Detail 3): His wife, although smaller, also stands with broad,
squared shoulders, and her neck and head are very erect.
(Detail 4): Both stand without turning to one side, but are completely frontal. We also get a sense of permanence and unity
from the positioning of the figures’ legs and feet. Although
they both appear to be striding forward, we really don’t get
the sense of motion. (Detail 5): Menkaure and his wife’s legs
and feet are not, as in a regular walking stride, more
weighted on one side than the other; rather both the right and left
sides are perfectly balanced. (Concluding statement: How the
details support the main argument): For these reasons, the
figures’ poses give the impression that they are almost like
geometric forms: solid and unchanging, and in this way, convey a
sense of stillness and permanence.
Note how the writer has gone from making a general observation the
figures “seem to be as stiff and rigid as boards” – to citing specific
examples of how they look stiff and rigid (erect shoulders, straight arms,
clenched fists). Then, she has told us how this stiffness contributes to her
main impression of the work (“they are almost like geometric forms: solid and
unchanging. . .”).
Having written up paragraphs for each important element of the work,
you have now completed the main body of your paper. But let’s say you have
made other observations about the work that you would like to include, but which
don’t necessarily fit into your argument. If you feel they are important, you
should include them, perhaps in a final paragraph before the conclusion. In the
case of the paper on Menkaure and his Wife, you might also want to talk about
how the two figures also convey ideas of unity. Whatever it might be, including
such observations in a separate paragraph shows your professor that you have
considered the work thoroughly, and also that you don’t wish to interrupt the
flow of your main argument. She will also appreciate your sense of
Step 3: Writing the Conclusion. End your paper with a conclusion that
Page 20 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
reiterates your thesis statement, repeating both the particular message the
work conveys and the ways in which it is conveyed. This is sufficient. However, if
you wish to go farther (and impress your professor even further), think, for a
moment, about how the work relates to a larger issue. Let’s take the example of
Menkaure and his Wife (fig. 29) again. You have persuaded your reader that
the work communicates the idea of permanence. Now you can afford to make
a few speculations about why this idea seems to be so important in the work.
You could make, for example, the following generalization:
Menkaure and his Wife shows how the artistic choices in
materials, composition, form, and so forth, can communicate a profound
idea – perhaps that the idea of harmony and permanence were
important in ancient Egypt. If we look, for example, to the
pyramids, we also see a sense of wanting to preserve the past, to
perpetuate the memory of powerful rulers. Menkaure and his Wife
seems to belong to that way of thinking.
Some Further Tips on Writing
1. Be as detailed as possible. Your professor will appreciate it if you go into detail to
support your observations.
2. But keep your details organized! Too often students will simply write up a
muddle of interesting observations. Make sure to put them in a sequence. I often
tell students to pretend they are describing the work to a blind person. Would you start
by discussing an elbow?
3. Make an outline. This will spare you from producing one of the worst kinds of
student papers I know – one that incites disappointment and displeasure in every
professor: the one-paragraph paper. I am not referring here to length (although a
paper less than the desirable number of pages is never a good idea); rather, I am
referring to a three-page paper with no paragraph breaks. Never do this. It shows
that you have no internal structure for your paper, and suggests that your ideas are
muddled. Again, using an outline will solve this problem.
4. Forget that you are writing for a professor. I find that many of my students
leave out important statements (for example, “this is a portrait of a man and wife” in the
sculpture of Menkaure and his Wife). When asked why, they reply, “You are the
professor – you already know all that!” Write as if your professor were just another
student. This paper is your chance to be the teacher. Help your professor see the
work as you see it.
5. Don’t worry about flowery writing. Students will often try to impress their
teacher with vocabulary they cannot control. Do not do this. It only frustrates your
professor and makes your writing appear pretentious.
6. Terms to avoid: “artwork” and “piece.”
7. Number your pages. Lack of pagination is an annoying but common error. If your
paper is too short (or too long), omitting page numbers may be construed as an
attempt to pull the wool over your professor’s eyes.
8. Provide an illustration. If at all possible, include an image of the work and/or your
Page 21 of 22
Excerpt from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci.
(Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458)
own thumbnail sketch at the end of the paper.
9. Always proofread. It helps to read the paper aloud. This will highlight grammatical
errors or awkwardness that would otherwise go unnoticed. For further guidance on
issues of grammar and style, see Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art
(pp. 123-128: “Some Conventions of Usage”) and Henry Sayre’s Writing About Art
(Appendix, pp. 124-137: “A Short Guide to Usage and Style”).
10. Have a friend read it. This is even better than reading it aloud yourself.
Page 22 of 22
Unit 6: Core Assessment – Rough Draft Rubric
Needs Improvement
25 points
0 points
Rough draft requires a minimum of
five pages submitted in the
template format.
Did not submit on time (11:59
p.m., Sunday, CT)
Submitted on time – 11:59 p.m.,
Sunday, CT.
Unit 8 Core Assessment: Art Response Essay
Provides objective
information about
the artwork.
Clearly articulates
thesis statement.
10.0 to >8.0 pts
Uses examples
where needed.
6.0 to >0 pts
Mentions All: Artist’s name, Date, Missing one item of
Medium, Size, Name of Museum or information. Information not in
Gallery. In introduction of paper.
Missing two or more items of
15.0 to >11.0 pts
8.0 to >0 pts
11.0 to >8.0 pts
Thesis clearly stated in the
Thesis only somewhat clear, or
introduction. Presents a claim that a not stated in introduction.
case can be made for.
15.0 to >11.0 pts
Provides three (3)
items of evidence to Three distinct items of evidence
support thesis.
offered to support the thesis.
Provides enough
support for each
item of evidence.
8.0 to >6.0 pts
No thesis offered. Thesis hard to
understand or does not make a
claim that can be argued.
11.0 to >8.0 pts
8.0 to >0 pts
Less than three distinct items of
evidence to support thesis.
One item of evidence or no
evidence presented to support
15.0 to >11.0 pts
11.0 to >8.0 pts
8.0 to >0 pts
Each evidence point is clearly
explained, and reasoning stated.
Support for points is mostly clear, No clear support for points is
but in some cases is hard to
offered. Or points are poorly
understand or poorly explained. supported.
5.0 to >4.0 pts
4.0 to >2.0 pts
2.0 to >0 pts
Always uses examples where
needed to help clarify argument.
Some use of examples, but not
Little or no use of examples when
5.0 to >4.0 pts
Has good
Uses correct
grammar, spelling,
and punctuation.
Correctly cites
Correct length
2.0 to >0 pts
Each paragraph has a clear purpose, Paragraphs are somewhat
essay’s argument is well organized. organized. Some paragraphs are
irrelevant or have a weak
connection to argument.
No paragraphs or organization of
paragraphs does not make sense.
10.0 to >8.0 pts
8.0 to >6.0 pts
6.0 to >0 pts
2 or fewer errors
4 or fewer errors
More than 4 errors
4.0 to >2.0 pts
2.0 to >0 pts
5.0 to >4.0 pts
Uses good sentence
Sentences are clear and wellstructure.
Uses accurate
4.0 to >2.0 pts
Some sentences are awkward, are Many awkward sentences, runrun-ons or fragments.
ons or fragments make essay hard
to understand.
5.0 to >4.0 pts
4.0 to >2.0 pts
2.0 to >0 pts
No facts wrong.
1 or more facts wrong.
2 or more facts wrong.
5.0 to >4.0 pts
4.0 to >2.0 pts
2.0 to >0 pts
References used where needed. Are References used where needed.
correctly cited.
Are incorrectly cited.
Citations needed but not used.
5.0 to >4.0 pts
4.0 to >2.0 pts
2.0 to >0 pts
1000 words
900 words, or over 1100 words.
900 to 800 words
(Less than 800 words will not be
Includes image
5.0 pts
0 pts
Includes image of artwork.
Does not include image.

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