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How to Write a Visual Analysis Paper

VirginiaLynne has been a University English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

Visual Analysis Essays

– Are usually written for Art History, History or English courses.

– Describe the image and discuss how the way it is put together (the composition).

– Analyze the meaning of the image for the artist.

– Consider the historical meaning of the image.

– Evaluate the effectiveness of the image for today.

Analyzing Meaning

All images project ideas or claims. Advertisements generally make these claims openly and even tell you the claim in the text. Works of art may be more subtle but they usually are also trying to get the viewer to believe something. How can you analyze visual images? You look at:

  1. The purpose of the artist.
  2. The audience.
  3. The way the image was composed.
  4. The historical context when it was produced and when it is viewed.

Introduction: Tell the basic facts about the art (see citing your image). Get the reader interested in the image by using one of the following methods:

  • Describe the image vividly so the reader can see it.
  • Tell about how the image was created.
  • Explain the purpose of the artist.
  • Give interesting facts about the art or artist.
  • Talk about a controversy or misunderstanding about the art.

Thesis: Your thesis will tell the meaning of this image (see Analyzing the Meaning of the Image)

Body: Support your thesis with three or more main ideas which support your meaning. Use questions in the pre-writing sections for ideas.

Conclusion: Try to conclude rather than just repeating your thesis. Either give a final interesting fact or try one of the following:

  • Compare the reception of the painting by the audience who first saw it with your own ideas, or with the way people today might interpret the picture.
  • Speculate on what the artist would think about the way his picture has been viewed over time.
  • Compare this image to other similar images.
  • Suggest how this piece of art fits into the works of an artist, or the ad campaign of a company.

What sort of image will you be analyzing for your Visual Analysis Paper?

Student Paper Visual Analysis Sample: This is not a student from my class but I think the example is pretty well done and might be helpful. It is about Jeff Soto’s wood panel painting “Last Voyage”

Visual Analysis of Botticelli: Another student paper which does a nice job with using the format of explaining how the historical period and life of the artist is related to the meaning of the painting as well as discussing the visual aspects.

How to Describe Images

Don’t have an art background? Don’t worry. You probably know a lot more than you realize. Modern people are surrounded by images every day.

Everyone Can Analyze Images: Even if you don’t know the terms of how people analyze art, you will be familiar with many of the tricks that artists use to create a reaction in the reader, such as making the most important images larger and light, and the less important ones in the background or fading darker. You can also easily recognize symbolic colors, such as: red means emergency or blood or danger; green means safe and close to nature; and blue means cool and relaxed.

Start by Looking Closely: Most Visual Analysis Papers will require a clear and vivid description of the image along with an analysis of the visual composition of the picture in order to explain how the artist put the image together to create meaning. Just describe the image you see and use the chart below to help you use the right terms.

Trust Your Own Eyes: You may want to do your own study of the image before you actually research the history of the image, so that you can write out your own thoughts without being influenced by other people.

Use Chart and Questions for Help: Start your visual analysis description by getting a good copy of the image and looking at it carefully. Look at the chart below and answer the key questions in order to help you see the different visual elements.

Elements of Design

Visual Elements of Design

Principles of Design

Analyzing Meaning

Analyzing Meaning of Visual Images

Although Visual Analysis Essays often focus a lot on the details of describing the image, you will also need a thesis which tells what the images mean. There are several ways to do this and your assignment may tell you which direction to go. Here are some typical ways to analyze images for meaning:

  • Analyzing the meaning of the image for the artist and his or her time.
  • Analyzing the meaning of the image for you and your time.
  • Analyzing the changes in the meaning of an image over the course of time.
  • Analyze the audience reaction to the image.
  • Analyze your own reaction and evaluate the effectiveness of the image.

Pre-writing Questions

Use the pre-writing questions below to help you analyze your images and start writing notes that will help you develop your paper ideas.

1. Claims: What claims does the image make? What type of claim is it?

  • Fact Claim: Is it real?
  • Definition Claim: What does it mean?
  • Cause Claim: What is the Cause? What are the effects? How are these related?
  • Value Claim: How important is this? How should we evaluate it?
  • Policy Claim: What is the solution? What should we do about it?

2. Visual Composition: How is the image arranged or composed? Which of the following aspects of composition help makes the claim? Examine:

  • Layout: where images are placed and what catches your attention. How visual lines draw your attention to or away from the focal point.
  • Balance: size of images and how they compare with one another. Is the focal point centered or offset?
  • Color: how color (or lack of color) draws your attention or creates a mood
  • Key figures: what is the main focus? How does this contribute to meaning?
  • Symbols: are there cultural symbols in the image? What do these mean?
  • Stereotypes : how does image support stereotypes or challenge them?
  • Exclusions: is there anything left out of the image that you expect to be there?

3. Genre: What is the genre of this image? (examples: fine art, movie, advertisement, poster, pamphlet, news photograph, graphic art etc.). How does it follow the rules of that genre or break away from them? How does that affect the meaning of the image for the audience?

4. Text: How does any text or caption work to provide meaning to the visual?

5. Appeals: How does it appeal to the audience to believe the claims? Are appeals to logic? Emotion? Character? Authority? Are any of these appeals false or deceiving?

6. Selling: Does the claim move into a sales pitch? Does it use a cultural value or common cultural symbol in a way that exploits that image?

7. Story: What story does this image convey? How does this story help the claim or appeal to the audience?

Examine Context and History

To get ready to analyze the meaning of the image for the artist and the people viewing the art, it helps to first find out the rhetorical situation. That means you need to know what the artist was trying to do at that particular point in time, and how the audience reacted. Sometimes the reaction of the audience that first saw the piece is very different from the reaction you might have. If it is, that can make an interesting paper thesis.

Analyzing Historical Photos

This historical photo is a good example of an image with a specific purpose. The photo was taken by Fridtjof Nansen along with other photos of the Russian famine. The purpose of the photo was to raise money for Russian relief. The photo was published as part of a set of postcards which were sold to raise money and then sent to raise awareness of the problem in others.

Since the text is in French, the Photograph was probably published to raise money from France and other French-speaking peoples. The text elucidates the image by saying the boys are feeding one another in the fatal final stages of hunger. It describes their skeletal limbs and swollen bellies as having come from eating grass, tree bark, straw, worms and dirt in order to survive.

While the photo undoubtedly affected the original audience, the pathos of the image also speaks to an audience today who may be completely unaware of this famine. For viewers today, the image may bring to mind the many famines in other areas around the world, as well as images of Holocaust survivors.

Pre-Writing for Visual Analysis Essay of Historical Context

Answer the following questions to get ready to write an analysis of the image and the audience response. While each of the questions can have a single sentence answer, you can use that single sentence as the topic sentence of a paragraph and give examples and explanation to fill out that paragraph.

  1. Who is the artist?
  2. What is the purpose of this piece? Why did the artist create it?
  3. Who did the artist create the image for?
  4. What was going on at that time in art or in the culture that the artist was either reacting against or reflecting?
  5. How did the audience in that historical moment view this work?
  6. Where was it published? How would the image appeal to that audience?
  7. What was the reaction to this piece of art when it first appeared? Since then?
  8. Did the audience understand what the artist was trying to say with the image?How did the artist feel about the reaction of the audience?

Citing Images Correctly

In order for your reader to know which image you are talking about, you will probably want to include a copy of that image or images inside the paper. You will also need to make sure that in the first paragraph you include all of the information your reader needs to know, such as:

  • Title of the Image (underline or italics)
  • Artist’s name
  • Date of work
  • Where it was published or the name of museum or collection it is now in.
  • Medium: magazine advertisement, video, oil painting, marble sculpture, chalk drawing, pencil sketch, photograph (what type of image it is and what type of art medium was used)

Questions & Answers

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THIS IS A VERY HELPFUL GUIDE I DID MY PAPER FAST BECAUSE OF THIS

Hello Virginia Kearney,

Thank you so much for your article. It is very helpful to me as I am writing a paper on visual analysis, and my professor doesn’t go into too much detail. Keep up the good work.

Virginia Kearney 10 months ago from United States

Taro–Look at my articles about argument strategies for more information, but here is the basic idea: pathos is the emotional appeal, logos is the logic or reason appeal, and ethos is the character appeal. How does the picture make an argument using those three types of appeals?

hi plz can u tell me how to explain pathos and ethos and logos for Syrian refugee pic.

Jigme Tenzin 12 months ago

Wonderful! Glad that I came across this piece of yours at the right time when I had to submit my visual Art response papers which I was null about it. Thank You!

Virginia Kearney 18 months ago from United States

Excellent points, Mandi. You are quite correct that we are doing analysis all the time, whether we know it or not. Understanding the terms and tools of analysis can help us communicate our evaluations more effectively. That is the purpose of this article. Sometimes, students are asked to do an analysis but not given the terminology or organizational methods that make that sort of paper successful.

Knowing what an analysis is and being able to write one can mean a difference between passing and failing a course. In addition, here is why:

• Your professor may ask you to write an analysis without even mentioning that it is, in fact, an analysis

• Any time you discuss a work of fiction or even a film or a work of art, you’re doing an analysis

• Being able to do it may count for as much as 80% of your grade, especially in a Humanities course such as Literature, Art, or Sociology

Writing a picture analysis essay requires a basic understanding of essay structure and these visual communication techniques. Excellent picture analysis essays combine both these elements while addressing the more ephemeral ideas and experiences communicated by a picture.

Virginia Kearney 19 months ago from United States

Alex–I’m so glad you stopped by to tell me that my work helped you! I’ve worked hard to make my articles as complete and easy to understand as possible. Having used many different textbooks in my career, I’ve noticed that many of them explain how to analyze writing but are not as good at explaining how to do that sort of writing yourself. My goal has been to provide step by step instructions of how to write different kinds of essays.

Thank you so much for this article! It’s very helpful.

Mary Norton 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

I wish I had these guidelines when I was in university. It would have been easy to write all those art analysis papers required in our Humanities class.

Virginia Kearney 3 years ago from United States

Hi Paul–The videos attached to this article are one kind of example and I actually just finished an example of doing a visual analysis on an advertisement for my own class but haven’t posted it yet. I will have to do that soon. Can you tell me what your assignment is like? Are they analyzing their own photo? That would be interesting. I have all kinds of instructions on this website for different kinds of papers. Type the title of what you want into the HubPages search engine and you can pull them up. Or you can look at my "index" of articles: https://hubpages.com/literature/College-English-He.

This article is so helpful. I am teaching an Expository writing course (first time!) and i am having my kids try this, but with a personal photograph. Would you have an example essay that I can show them as a model?

Virginia Kearney 3 years ago from United States

Jevon–I’m glad you learned a bit about how to look at art and find it more interesting. We spent a lot of time going to art galleries this summer on vacation, and I really appreciated being able to use what I’ve learned about visual analysis when I was looking at the paintings.

Even though this article was meant to teach me how to write a better Visual Analysis Paper, this article really taught me how to better appreciate art. I’m not the type of person to go to an art gallery just to look at art, but now I believe I can actually give an intellectual thought on any painting I see.

Virginia Kearney 3 years ago from United States

Thanks for the comment nic. I probably need to add a link to my ariticle about organizing essays:

I also have tips on structure in most of my articles on types of essays like Argument, Problem Solution or Cause. For a full list of all of my Essay Writing Articles see:

was hoping for an essay structure but this still helped

Colin Neville 3 years ago

Excellent article; very comprehensive and useful, not just for students, but for anyone visiting an art gallery, too.

K. R. H.Grace 4 years ago from Fairbanks, AK

I had to do one of those in my English 111 class way back when. It was fun but I wish I’d read this sooner. college teachers don’t make a lick of sense :(. but good hub ;D

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How to Make a Visual Essay

VirginiaLynne has been a University English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

A Visual Essay

Uses images along with words in order to:

Tell a personal story

Explain a literary text

Illustrate a social problem

This Article Includes:

1. Types of visual essays

2. Step-by-step instructions

3. Student samples

4. Links for free use images

5. Help in finding quotes, graphs, and clip art

6. Instructions for how to use Windows Movie Maker or iMovie

Example: Depression Slideshow

Why Make a Visual Essay?

More Interesting

Sometimes this kind of essay is an assignment for a class, but it might also be an option your instructor gives you. If you have the choice, you might find making a visual presentation more interesting and more powerful than just writing a regular essay.

Emotional Impact

Why? By using music, video, quotes and powerful images, you can have a more powerful emotional effect on an audience than any written essay.

Bigger Audience

Better yet, these sorts of essays can be shared online to make your argument to a larger audience. For example, not too many people will read your essay on homelessness, but many people might want to see your essay on the lives of homeless people in your town and the people who help the homeless in a soup kitchen (see “Depression Slideshow” or “My Photo Memory: Helping Others” Video).

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

This old saying is true. A great example is the “Texting and Driving” video. The audience will understand the author’s strong stand against texting when they see this essay that includes pictures of the author’s high school friends who died because someone was texting while driving.

Example: Texting and Driving

Choosing a Topic

Thinking about moving personal experiences can help you choose a topic. The student who created “Texting and Driving” experienced the grief of losing 5 friends because of texting. He used his own emotions to help him craft a moving visual argument and included the story of his friends as part of his essay.

What to Include

Like an argument paper, visual essays can use written words and quotes, but they also can include:

  • Photos
  • Professional video
  • Personally filmed video
  • Artwork
  • Graphic Images
  • Tables, charts and graphs
  • Spoken words
  • Music
  • Sounds

Step One: You need to brainstorm, plan and research for your essay. Follow my steps below to plan your essay. I also give you links on where to find images to put in your essay and quotes to use.

Step Two: Gather your images and video. You can make your own videos and pictures, or use those available from the sites I give below. I also give you a link for software that lets you download YouTube videos that you can splice into your own essays.

Step Three: Put your essay together using iMovie, Windows Movie Maker or other video software. You can include music, your own voice, captions, and quotes.

Step Four: Publish your essay by uploading it to YouTube or showing it to your classmates and instructor.

How to Start

Visual essays are a different format from a written ones, but they require many of the same processes to make. Just like when you write, you will need to decide what you want to explain or argue.

Choose a topic and then decide what kind of essay you are writing. Here is a list of types:

1. Explaining: when you want to describe and paint a picture of something but not argue a point.

2. Analysis and Evaluation: when you want to take something apart and analyze the different parts. Often used for literature, songs or movies. Part of your analysis will be evaluating whether this is effective for the audience.

3. Argument: when you want to prove a point or move your audience to think or do something. There are several types of argument claims.Typically, argument essays make a claim which answers one of the following questions:

  • Fact: Is it true or not? Does it really exist? Did it really happen? (example: Is climate change Real? Does domestic violence happen in my community?)
  • Definition: How should we define it? What is it really? (example: What is love? or What was the great depression really like?)
  • Cause: What is the cause? What are the effects? How are these related? (example: What causes homelessness? What are the effects of teens texting and driving?)
  • Value: How important is this? How should we value it? (example: How important is Family for college students? or What is the value of a college education?)
  • Policy: What should we do about it? How can we solve the problem? (example: How can we help friends with eating disorders? How can we solve the problem of child labor?)

You may need to do some research to find the answer to your argument question. You can Google to find out some information on your topic, or look at YouTube videos. Once you find your claim answer, try to write it in a single sentence. That sentence is the thesis for your essay.

What is your Visual Essay about?

Finding Images

When you are looking for images on the Internet, you need to understand that there is a difference from just viewing those images and using them yourself. Luckily, there are many great sites with images which are offered free for anyone to use. Here are some of the best free use sites:

  1. Wikimedia Commons: All of the images on Wikimedia are available for free use and don’t have copyright. Moreover, they have a lot of interesting historical images and famous pictures and art which can really make your visual essay unique. The link lands you on the “Topic” page, but you can also use the search engine to find photos.
  2. Flickr: includes many categories of photos, including “The Commons” which are photos uploaded from collections, as well as personal photos uploaded by people around the world.
  3. Open Clip Art:a gallery of graphic clip art which is free to use. You can search for many objects here that can help you convey your story. Also includes humorous images and cartoons.
  4. Pixabay: professional photography images which are often quite stunning. These free use images can be explored by topic, by the photographer, or by searching for a term. This site also includes clip art.
  5. Slideshare: contains many PowerPoint presentations on lots of different topics. You can get ideas for your own essay as well as look for graphics and quotes you could use. This site gets many uploads from companies, professors, and businesses, so it is a great resource for charts and graphs.

Wordle Graphic Images

Finding Quotes

Need a great quote to make a point in your essay? Or maybe you remember a quote but don’t know who said it. Use one of these sites to help you out:

  • Brainy Quote: Get quotes on many topics like love, friendship, wisdom, or quotes by author. A good quote can be an excellent way to end your essay.
  • Good Reads Quotes: Another source for quotes from famous people. You type in the topic and many different quotes appear along with a picture of the person who said it.
  • Wordle:Create a beautiful design of words that are important for your topic. This can be a great graphic for an introduction or conclusion. All images you make are your own to use in any way you want.

Visual Essays and Humor

As “America Needs Nerds” demonstrates, you don’t have to be serious. Humor, satire and irony can be a great way to convince your audience about your ideas. In the case of this essay, the humor comes from the pictures and contrasts with the seriousness of the voiceover. The pictures help the audience accept the claim of the essay that “geeks” and “nerds” should be valued rather than shunned.

America Needs Nerds

Pre-Writing

Before you gather images, video, music and other research, you will need to think about what you want to say and how you want to present it. Start by writing down your main point or your claim question and answer. Then answer the following to help you develop your ideas and think about what sort of materials you need to gather for your project.

  1. What are the reasons for believing your thesis?
  2. What are some examples to back up those reasons?
  3. What are the other views on this topic?
  4. What objections would people have to your ideas?
  5. What are your most convincing arguments to refute those objections?
  6. What images would you like to find to illustrate your thesis?
  7. What quotations or phrases could you use that would be memorable?
  8. Are there any familiar sayings that you can reuse or repurpose to get your meaning across?
  9. What music (if any) could help you convey your message?
  10. Do you want to use long sequences of pictures with music, sounds or silence?
  11. Do you want to write a script that you speak over the visual images?
  12. Will you include video? If so, will you take it yourself or use clips of other videos?

Creating a Plan

Looking at your answers to your pre-writing questions, you can start to plan how you will put together your piece. Just like a written essay, you will need and introduction, body, and conclusion. You may want to think of this as a story with a beginning, middle and end. Before you start to gather images, you might want to make a rough outline of how you want your essay to come together.

Title: Often your claim question can be your title, or you may want a single word or short phrase title that tells your subject and use your question in the opening. The font, animation and color will set the tone of your piece, so spend some time trying out different styles to see what you like best.

Introduction: How will you interest your viewer? Your first few images need to tell the viewer the subject and the question and grab their attention.

Body: How will you present your thesis? Will you tell it in a voice over? Write it on a picture or on a screen by itself? Would it be more effective to tell your main reasons first and then put your main idea at the end in the conclusion?

What types of images could help you to prove your main reasons for your claim? Remember that it is usually important to order your ideas from least to most important, so put your best reasons last. You might want to make a list of the types of images you want. Be sure to indicate any images you already have.

Conclusion: What do you want your audience to think, do, or believe after they have watched your essay? How will you draw the audience with you to believe your claim at the end? Will you use a specific image? A repeated idea? A quote? A challenge? A question?

Using Images to Create an Argument

In “Religion Essay” the images about children are the argument. The arrangement of the pictures, along with the repetition of so many instances of children being exploited is a powerful argument which implies the thesis that we need to do something to stop it.

Sometimes pictures without text can be more powerful. Consider having some part of your essay being images alone.

Literature Response

Some essay assignments ask you to respond or explain some work of literature, or a quote or scene. The student making the video below was responding to an assignment to take a scene from Hamlet and explain the importance of that scene in the play. She chose Act 5, Scene 1, the suicide of Ophelia and her presentation shows how Ophelia’s death leads to much of the actions and violence in the rest of the play.

Hamlet Response

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Very useful link

This is great. Thank you for sharing this.

Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

Wow, this is a really interesting post and opens a whole new world to writing an essay for the younger generation. It would keep the interest high and promote excellent writing skills. The videos are so well done. Voting up and sharing!

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

Interesting and so very useful.

Voted up and thanks for sharing.

Levy Tate 4 years ago from California, USA

Awesome tips — and massive thanks for providing great examples! Voted up 😉

Wow, well organized hub. Thank you for sharing this

Prithima Sharma 4 years ago from Delhi, India

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