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Conceptualising the ‘Visual Essay’ as a Way of Generating and Imparting Sociological Insight: Issues, Formats and Realisations

University of Antwerp

Sociological Research Online, 17 (1) 1

Received: 22 Nov 2011 Accepted: 4 Jan 2012 Published: 28 Feb 2012

This article discusses and exemplifies a more visual and expressive way of constructing and presenting sociological insight. It seeks to articulate the specific demands, traits and potentials of the ‘visual essay’ as a societal and sociological practice and format. In particular it provides some observations, propositions and arguments that may further help to clarify what the visual sociological essay, as an unorthodox scholarly product, might entail and what place it should acquire in broader scholarly discourse. This theoretical discussion is accompanied by excerpts of concrete visual essays of both scholarly and non-scholarly origin. These examples help to show some of the basic strengths of this format which attempts to play out the synergy of the distinct forms of expression that are combined: images, words, layout and design, adding up to a scientifically informed statement.

Keywords: Visual Essay; Visual Research; Visual Sociology, Scholarly Expression

Introduction: collecting, producing and communicating visual data and insight

1.2 Fortunately the idea is gradually taking shape that visual (social) science is not just about analysing and producing visual data but also about visualising and expressing insights in novel, more experimental and experiential ways (e.g. including arts-based approaches).

1.3 This contribution therefore will try to showcase the unique potential of a more visual and expressive way of constructing and presenting sociological insight as an end product of visual research or even as a visualisation of more traditional (non-visual) research. In particular, it will focus on what has been termed the ‘visual essay’ by a number of authors (Wagner 1979; Grady 1991; Pauwels 1993). The visual essay can definitely be considered as one of the most visual forms of visual research, but also as a mode that seems very remote from traditional social scientific practice and hence likely to produce controversy, both at the level of journal boards and organisations measuring academic output. While at present this issue has barely surfaced, many journals, by default, reject these kinds of contributions as they fail to meet the required format of a scholarly contribution.

Roots and features of the visual essay format

2.2 The skilful combination of images and textual parts thoughtfully laid out to create a synergy out of the distinct contributing modes of expression can be considered the basic or most elementary – but still vigorous – form of the visual essay. The relations between visual, auditory and verbal parts can be played out in many different ways. Both tight and loose relations between these expressive systems may be accommodated. Authors may choose to steer the receiver in a specific direction by furnishing a clear verbal context for the interpretation of the visual parts, or alternatively, pursue a more reciprocal relation between text and image, granting each the possibility of contributing their own part to the overall message.

2.3 Today the visual essay seems to blossom once again in various forms and guises: in art and educational spheres as well as on social media platforms and in mass media and activist spheres. For indeed the visual essay, boosted by new media technologies and networking opportunities has developed into a contemporary vehicle for voicing and visualising all sorts of personal reflections, new ideas, arguments, experiences, and observations, thereby taking any possible hybrid variation or combination of a manifesto, a critical review, a testimony or just a compelling story. New media developments have made any description of the concrete forms a visual essay can take even more spacious. It can take almost any form (illustrated articles, exhibition, art installations) and adopt virtually any new feature of any new technology.

2.4 The visual essay preferably needs to be defined as an approach, a method or set-up that plays out different expressive modalities in a somewhat open ended/implicit manner rather than by its specific formal qualities, as new technologies indeed keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Moving images and non-linear features of contemporary technology allow for far more sophisticated combinations of text, images, sound, design etc, evolving towards audiovisual essays rather than purely visual essays. Visual essays that will be even more multimodal or multisensory by going further than ‘sight and sound’ are conceivable, but today the dominant ‘senses’ that are being addressed in both new and old media (of a non-transient nature) are still vision and hearing.

The visual ‘sociological’ essay�

3.2 Though the visual essay as a scholarly format is a ‘meeting’ of art and science practices, it still has to account to a certain degree for the exigencies (demands, norms and expectations) of the disciplines it is employed for (sociology, anthropology, cultural geography etc). This does not imply slavishly emulating the scientific demands imposed on data gathering and data representation, which are largely based on the types of data the social sciences are used to working with (verbal and numeric), since that would largely kill its unique potential, but it also doesn’t imply a liberation of any empirical reference, or methodological or theoretical standards. It is far too easy to simply adopt the attitude that ‘anything goes’. The visual essay as a form of scholarly communication would not benefit from such a ‘garbage bin’ definition. Having said this, the visual essay should certainly not try to shed its avant-garde (and thus almost by nature ‘contested’) skin or character.

3.3 Furthermore a visual essay will hardly ever be purely visual, in the same manner as visual sociology can never be only visual. I tend to maintain my earlier position (Pauwels, 1993) that a series of images alone probably cannot constitute a visual ‘social science’ essay. Notwithstanding the unique informative and expressive potential of images and other visual elements, I believe that a minimal verbal contextualisation is needed, although I am well aware this may be a point of disagreement among visual scholars. This personal stand does not imply that I would object to publishing individual pictures or a simple series of pictures as interesting forms of data in sociology journals, as long as they are not put forward as a (self-contained) visual essay.

3.4 Though having a clear narrative structure has been put forward by the few scholars who tried to theorise this approach – cf. Harper’s (1987) ‘visual ethnographic narrative’ mode, or Grady’s (1991

4.7 Talking about non-academic work with a strong scholarly inclination and an unmatched integration of different expressive systems (photography, texts, lay-out and design) the whole oeuvre of the Dutch photographer Marrie Bot ( comes to mind as a staple example of such integration. Bot produced many compelling book length visual essays about socially relevant subject matter with an important visual dimension to it: penance (‘Miserere’; Bot 1984; 1985), death rituals in ethnic communities in Rotterdam (‘The Last Farewell’; Bot 1998); love and sexuality at older age ‘Timeless Love’ (Bot 2004). My personal favourite is still Bot’s study ‘The Burden of Existence, photographs and stories about mentally handicapped (original title in Dutch: ‘Bezwaard Bestaan, foto’s en verhalen over verstandelijk gehandicapten’; Bot 1988). This book aims to counter the often uninformed and undifferentiated views on the mentally disabled by offering an informed and compassionate view of the different kinds and degrees of mental impediments. By highlighting not only differences but also the striking similarities with so-called ‘normal’ people, this work calls for a more differentiated understanding of mentally impaired people and advances a well-balanced argument for a more qualified integration of this very diverse group of people. This study truly excels in terms of its theoretical grounding and broad contextualisation (based on intensive study of the relevant literature) as well as with respect to the complementary use of verbal and visual means. As exemplary for competent visual ethnographic work are also her careful and patient ‘rapport building’ (the study took eleven years to complete!) with the field (institutional management and personnel, parents and family members, and the minor mentally deficient), and the numerous demonstrations of a reflexive and ethical attitude. Bot’s study clearly gives evidence (often visible in the pictures) of a high degree of respect and trust between the photographer/interviewer and the subjects/respondents. The author didn’t only obtain prior consent for her photography, but all texts and pictures were discussed with all parties concerned during the whole process. Moreover very strict arrangements were made regarding future uses of the verbal and visual data. The photographic language of the author is serious and informative, and not subservient to any formalist canon. The pictures offer a palpable context for the verbal information and testimonials and they also provide specific information about the complex reality of mentally impaired individuals (joy, sorrow, relationships with parents and support personnel, their areas of interest and their aspirations, the arrangement of their physical environment) that cannot be expressed in words. The ‘pay off’ or unique contribution of this visual essay is that it offers the audience a broadly contextualised type of ‘field experience’, which cannot be acquired by disjointedly reading about the subject, or simply looking at a series of pictures, and not even by spending a limited time in the field.

Visual essays in a social science context

4.8 Turning to visual essay projects that have originated in a scholarly context, I will now briefly discuss the work of a) a student of mine b) a sociology-professor-turned-documentary-photographer and c) present and provide some meta comments on a visual essay of my own.

4.9 My own practice of teaching visual sociology – which involves graduate students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds developing and executing a modest, small scale visual project – very much echoes Grady’s idea that the visual essay can revitalise sociology (Grady 1991: 32), particularly in the classroom setting, but also beyond. Though most of my students opt for more systematic approaches to visual research (playing out the basic mimetic strengths of the camera image), some venture further along the visually expressive path.

4.10 One notable example from this year’s cohort of students is a visual essay by Nannie Bronshoff entitled ‘Outgrown Rooms’ (original title in Dutch: ‘Ontgroeide Kamers’). It should immediately be conceded that this student already had a professional schooling in photography prior to enrolling for the Master program in Film Studies and Visual Culture, as the visual essay format usually requires a more advanced form of visual competency.

4.11 Nannie Bronshoff’s project was inspired by reading the PhD dissertation of sociologist Ineke Lam, about changes in relationships of couples after the children have left home (Original title in Dutch: ‘De mythe van het lege nest’, Lam 1994). The thesis contends that parenthood has changed from being an all-consuming and life-long commitment to a distinct period or just one aspect of life. Most parents whose children have left their home no longer suffer from what psychiatrists and sociologists have called ‘the empty nest syndrome’ (only 5 % of the parents in Lam’s research sample perceived their children moving out of the house as a negative experience). Parents now often have interesting jobs, a large circle of friends, and many plans to move on with their lives. This, of course, does not imply that parents are no longer there for their children when needed or that their life-long love for them has diminished in any way. Yet one might observe a form of detachment from the formerly dominant and lasting parent role. These ideas led Bronshoff to her quest to explore what happened to rooms of children once they have left home. Are they kept as they were – as a sort of shrine – or are they quickly claimed by other family members and redesigned to serve other functions? What is kept intact and what is changed? How do the children visiting their parents from time to time react to this? (Often they feel that the space is still theirs to some extent). And how do the parents react to these reactions? Bronshoff’s process of depicting the rooms with their former inhabitants spontaneously generated a sort of ‘visual interview’ process whereby the (changes in the) room began to trigger factual information, memories and projective comments of both parties present (children and parents).

4.12 At present this is still a small scale project, but its basic idea has great potential to trigger a complex problematic that centres around the question of whether and/or to what extent the physical removal of the child’s belongings and the redesign of the space previously occupied reflects the state of mind of the parents and also influences their relations towards their children. Obviously one should refrain from drawing conclusions too easily: filling the empty space that children have left in a literal sense, can have different and even opposing meanings: moving on with one’s own life or trying cope with the void that the child’s moving out has created. The project in its present state is not really capable of answering such complex questions, but one of its strengths is certainly that it is capable of generating questions such as these, by re-viewing the pictures and text combinations. This ‘inspirational’, hard to pin down quality is exactly what the visual essay format may entail. Bronshoff’s project merits further development into a full blown research project (and an excellent photo book given the high quality of the pictures), possibly including a detailed analysis of the verbal interactions between parents and children, as well as a meticulous analysis of the type of changes which were introduced after the rooms had been vacated.

Outgrown Rooms / Nannie Bronshoff

Elderly and End of Life Care

4.13 An interesting offset to social documentary photographers gradually cultivating a social science perspective (cf. Marrie Bot) is New York born sociology professor Cathy Greenblat, who in 2002 chose to retire early from Rutgers University to fully engage in socially inspired photographic projects. Though becoming a full time photographic artist is a radical career shift, her work on elderly care or end of life care remains definitely informed by her scholarly past. This trained sociologist swiftly developed her undeniable photographic talent and this resulted in books and exhibitions that are exemplary of the visual sociological essay approach. Greenblat believes her work of combining photographs and text: ‘to be the most effective vehicle to open people’s eyes, literally and figuratively, providing a better way to help them “face” issues that are generally avoided’ (

4.14 Greenblat challenges in her work on dementia (an exhibition and forthcoming, second book on dementia: ‘Love, Loss and Laughter: Seeing Alzheimer’s Differently’) the stereotype that people with Alzheimer’s disease have become ’empty shells’, completely lost in their own world. ‘The photos show what quality health care looks like and illustrate that such care allows people with Alzheimer’s disease to sustain connections to others and to their own past lives at a far higher level than is generally believed to be possible. The photographs reveal that they are capable of experiencing joy as well as sorrow, that loving care can yield loving responses and laughter’ (artist’s statement,

4.15 Another important long term photographic project of Cathy Greenblat focuses on end of life care. In ‘Alive at the End of Life’, she intends to provide ‘insight into the ways the experience of dying can be enriched, both emotionally and intellectually, for the person who is dying and for those attached to him or her’.

4.16 Greenblat sees photography as a powerful tool to fight stereotyping and to show what quality care can involve. Her pictures confront us with some of the harshest facts of life, but in a very nuanced, sensitive and warm way. Looking at these photographs, a whole array of responses are triggered almost simultaneously: feelings of sadness and maybe fear for our own future or that of our beloved ones, next to more optimistic and even activist attitudes, when realising how loving care and changing attitudes can indeed make a huge difference.

Alive with Alzheimers / Cathy Greenblat

5.2 The care at Silverado Senior Living in Escondido, California, a private residential facility for people with Alzheimer’s offers a sharp contrast, not only to the usual institutional scene, but to what home caregivers can provide. It is an impressive example of what is possible. These photographs show that people who suffer from the disease can be very much more ALIVE than is generally believed and that we can do much better than we usually do in terms of high quality Alzheimer’s care.’ (Artist’s introduction,

5.3 The final example to be discussed is my own attempt to disclose aspects of the city, and city life, through a combination of texts and unstaged aspects of urban material culture and human behaviour.

5.4 The words and the black-and-white images of this visual essay interact in three ways:

  • First an introductory essay describes and evokes the city as a hybrid semiotic place. Though this text can stand on its own, it contains multiple hints of visual aspects of experiencing the city and as such it helps to read the photographs in a certain way. Similarly the photographs provide a concrete context to the introductory text, as well as opportunities to move beyond it.
  • The introduction is then followed by a series of pictures that are accompanied by captions that refer to the visual content in different ways, ranging from more descriptive/contextualising captions to more evocative ones. The necessity or desirability of using such captions is debatable (with regard to this visual essay they yielded divergent reactions: from being ‘too explicit’ to ‘illuminating’).
  • Finally the word-image interplay is also present in the pictures themselves in the form of words from advertisements, traffic signs, graffiti).

The carefully framed instances work both to contextualise and re-contextualise: bringing aspects together (both instantaneous/fleeting ones and more permanent markers) that would easily go unnoticed, and by cutting out context, and by choosing a particular physical position and a whole array of technical choices to express a particular view.

Street Discourse: A Visual Essay on Urban Signification / Luc Pauwels

6.2 Cities serve numerous practical, functional, symbolic, ritual and ideological ends, many of which have an undeniable visual dimension. Therefore the city can be literally looked at from different angles that often refer to different orders of signification: the use of space, the types, means and degree of control, mobility, fashion, cultural diversity, entertainment, tourism, commerce, personal, interpersonal and group behaviour, the public and the private sphere. Much of this materialises in numerous artefacts and behaviours. Cities are both emanations, and reproducers, of power and control. They are sites of planning, control and conformism. Yet at the same time the urban context is a token and a breeding ground for resistance, for loss of control, for renewal, for deliverance. These multiple intermeshing discourses � the historic, the political, the social, the multicultural, the commercial, the religious etc. � provide the city with its unpredictable, multi-layered, never fully graspable character. Therefore cities constitute simultaneously a battle field for conflicting interests, a playground of ideas and a theatre for our senses, orchestrated by different agents with different temporal referents and audiences in mind.

Religious and traffic control discourses both aimed at showing citizens the ‘right way’. The divergent origins of messages and the unpredictable blend of signifiers of all kinds create unanticipated ‘third effects’ and turn the modern urban area into a surreal spectacle par excellence.

Rage against the consumer society and its ideal of youth and affluence or simply a token of vandalism? The old couple with the wheelchair mirrored to the right as a reference to the real world in fierce contrast with the dominant ideals of youth and beauty.

A compartmentalised look through a parked bus can be read as a metaphor of class and urban culture. Oppositions like rich versus poor, white versus black abound. The frames act as separators, prison bars (for the black figure). The white person – through the proximity of the advertisement for luxury apartments – is visually played out against the black man who literally has nothing (except for his Nike shoes�).

Concluding remarks and outlook

7.2 It is in the nature of the ‘essay’ (derived from the French word ‘essayer’ which means ‘to try’), to attempt to present things, ideas and events in a more challenging and less orthodox way, thus making it more prone to critique and rebuff. This article in itself took the form of an essay, a development of ideas, some of which may be rather subjective or idiosyncratic. Above all it is an effort – in words and images – to make a case for further developing this promising avenue of scholarly enquiry and communication.

7.3 Far from being a simple, unchallenged or widely acknowledged scientific practice, the ‘visual essay’ could definitely be regarded as one of the more visual -or even multimodal – and sophisticated forms of visual anthropology/sociology, as the different constitutive expressive modes are not banned from the end product, nor reduced to serve as a mere illustrative or ornamental function. The major strength of this scholarly format resides in the synergy of the distinct forms of expression that are combined: images, words, layout and design, adding up to a scientifically informed statement. The visual essay will no doubt develop into an even more hybrid category, thus moving far beyond the original photo essay format, though the latter still hasn’t lost any of its power. As an expressive format, the visual essay is a constant ‘work in progress’, a moving target. New media developments create new opportunities for the visual essay, but only to the extent that new features are carefully evaluated, selected and combined so that they make a positive contribution to the whole.

7.4 Trying to articulate or conceptualise the visual essay as a scholarly format remains a tricky venture, as every effort to elucidate its specific contribution to the understanding of society implicitly comprises a normative delineation, which in its present burgeoning state of development may not always be preferable. However, the dynamic and hybrid nature of a phenomenon does not free us from the need to be as explicit as possible about it so that it can become a subject of further constructive debate. An open – bold but critical and self-critical (!) – stance is required to further develop this format in actual practise. Another key factor in discovering its unrealised potential and in identifying its actual strength is a critical review of and subsequent theorising about these attempts – within and beyond the academic sphere.


BOT, Marrie (1984) Miserere, de grote boetebedevaarten in Europa, Dutch edition, Rotterdam: M. Bot.

BOT, Marrie (1985) Miserere, the great pilgrimages of penance in Europe, English edition (also in French and German), Rotterdam: M. Bot.

BOT, Marrie (1988) Bezwaard Bestaan, over verstandelijk gehandicapten (‘The Burden of Existence, photos and stories of mentally handicapped’), Rotterdam: M. Bot.

BOT, Marrie (1998) Een Laatste Groet, uitvaart- en rouwrituelen in multicultureel Nederland (‘A Last Farewell, death rituals in the multicultural Netherlands’) , Rotterdam: M. Bot.

BOT, Marrie (2004) ‘Geliefden’ (‘Timeless Love’), Rotterdam: M. Bot.

FRANK, Robert (1959) The Americans, New York: Grove Press

GRADY, John (1991) ‘The Visual Essay and Sociology’, Visual Sociology Vol. 6, Issue 2, pp. 23-38.

GREENBLAT, Cathy (2004) Alive with Alzheimers, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

HARPER, Douglas (1982) Good Company: A Tramp Life, 236 pp. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1982. 236 pp. (Revised version published in 2006 by Paradigm Publishers).

HARPER, Douglas (1987) ‘The Visual Ethnographic Narrative’. Visual Anthropology, Vol. 1, pp. 1-19, Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH

HARPER, Douglas (1987) Working Knowledge. Skill and Community in a Small Shop, University of Chicago Press, 224 pp

HARPER, Douglas (2001) Changing Works: Visions of a Lost Agriculture, University of Chicago Press, 304 pp.

LAM, Ineke (1994) De Mythe van het ‘Lege Nest’: over echtpaarrelaties als de kinderen het huis uit zijn, Utrecht: ISOR.

MEYER, Pedro (1995) I Photograph to Remember, Interactive CD-Rom for PC Windows (Voyager CityRom circa 1995)

NICHOLS, Bill (1994) Blurred boundaries: questions of meaning in contemporary culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

PAUWELS, Luc (1993) ‘The Visual Essay: Affinities and Divergences between the Social Scientific and the Social Documentary Modes’, Visual Anthropology, Vol. 6, Issue 2, pp. 199-210.

PAUWELS, Luc (2002) ‘The Video- and Multimedia-article as a Mode of Scholarly Communication: toward scientifically informed expression and aesthetics’, Visual Studies, Vol.17, Issue 2, pp. 150-159.

PAUWELS, Luc (2009) ‘Street Discourse: A Visual Essay on Urban Signification, Culture Unbound’, Journal of Current Cultural Research, Vol.1, pp. 263-272.

PAUWELS, Luc (2010) ‘Visual Sociology Reframed: An Analytical Synthesis and Discussion of Visual Methods in Social and Cultural Research’, Sociological Methods & Research, Vol.38, Issue 4, pp. 545�581.

PAUWELS, Luc (2011) Researching Websites as Social and Cultural Expressions: Methodological Predicaments and a Multimodal Model for Analysis in Margolis E and Pauwels L (2011) SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London/New Delhi: Sage Publications.

WAGNER, Jon (ed.) (1979) Images of Information: Still Photography in the Social Sciences. Beverly Hills/London: Sage Publications.

© Sociological Research Online, 1996-2012

Graphic Design Education

Design Pedagogy by Adjunct Professor John P Corrigan

The Visual Essay

Visual Essay

What Does Creating a Visual Essay Imply?

To begin with, a visual essay appears to stand out of the crowd. Actually, it is a totally different assignment from a classic essay. The point is that while covering this written task, you shouldn’t write anything at all except for some short informative statements!

In fact, this academic assignment requires expressing your thoughts on this or that topic using:

Moreover, to present your point of view on the required topic you may combine all above-mentioned means with some short informative statements related to the theme.

Handling Visual Assignments

Clearly, the most difficult and challenging step while fulfilling this task is finding really suitable and gripping visuals, pictures and images to use. Obviously, it presumes using creative approach and skills. In other words, ability to generate fresh ideas seems to be a determinant factor on your road to success.

Recommendations on Composing a Visual Essay

Are there any clear effective hints, which can help you to create your visual paper with ease? Of course, there are! And you shouldn’t seek for them, because they are posted below:

  • Surf the web and use camera to collect the data for your essay.
  • Incorporate thought provoking visuals, images and pictures in your paper.
  • To make your presentation more griping feel free to use graphs, various charts and bars.
  • All the data you want to use should be up-to-date and relevant.
  • Don’t forget about numerous visuals aids while defending your paper.
  • Show your paper to your relatives of friends before submitting it. They may give you favorable advice as well.

Competent Help with Visual Essays

Still feel a little bit frustrated because of these academic assignments? Don’t fall into despair! There is always a way out from any tough situation! Visual papers are not an exception.

How to Write a Visual Essay

By Marlene Inglis, eHow Contributor

Visual essays tell a story either by using text or props.

A visual essay can be a group of pictures depicting or exploring a topic without any text or it can be a combination of visuals or images plus text. Your essay can be a commentary on ideas ranging from gardening to social uprisings and can focus on political or environmental issues. Pictures used in your essay can be current pictures or ones collected over a period of time and the essay can be presented either as a word document or as a .jpeg image file format with some accompanying text.

  1. Create your visual essay by deciding which format you will be using for your essay. Remember that the purpose of your essay is to inform, persuade or enlighten your reader. Create an essay that is factual but not boring, lots of images or pictures but not enough to overwhelm, thought provoking but not thoughtless.
  2. Use charts, bars or graphs to tell your story. Select a subject such as statistical processing control (SPC), a process used in the manufacturing industry to monitor product quality, and create graphic charts, bars and graphs. Use vivid colors in your presentation so your audience can observe and compare the variations in manufacturing the product over certain times of the year. Create comparative charts and graphs to show the current year’s product quality compared to previous years. Using the appropriate visuals for your subject matter is paramount in keeping your audience interested and informed.
  3. Write your essay on a topic such as “uprisings” and use current pictures or images of an uprising in a country. Collect dozens of pictures pertinent to your subject matter and save them in a .jpeg format. Select pictures that can tell your story such as individuals looting and hauling store merchandise across their backs, people of all ages being unceremoniously dragged across roads, tanks lumbering through city streets while people run for cover and cars and buildings ablaze. Accompany the pictures with suitable background music and your visual essay would not need much text since the pictures by themselves will speak to your audience.
  4. Use visual aids or props. Purchase various fast foods such as hamburgers, fries, nachos, coke, etc. for your essay on “The obesity epidemic”. Research the fat content, the amount of sugar, salt and other ingredients contained in each food item. Prepare a power point presentation with text to accompany your visual essay and include information on the normal amount of fat, salt, sugar etc. each body requires per day compared to the amount that these items provide. Include some pictures of people in various body sizes. Your presentation should be informative but not preachy. Let your audience make their own decision.

How to Write a Picture Analysis Essay

By Tom Becker, eHow Contributor

A picture is always more than the sum of its parts.

Art moves us. Whether it makes us feel joy, sorrow or revulsion, art has the power to affect us and express ideas that transcend rational thought and language. Art communicates these primal experiences not just through an artist’s inspiration, but also through very clear, recognizable visual communication techniques. 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.

  1. Note how the picture makes you feel. Do this before you make any intellectual analysis of the picture. Immediate, unprepared and unguarded observation will often tell you more about the content communicated by the painting than rigorous analysis.
  2. Address the age of the picture. Take note of the period from which it comes, what styles dominated that era, what techniques artists used and who commissioned the work. Consider the current events going on at the time of the picture’s creation and what social or cultural elements or changes may have affected its content.
  3. Find out the dimensions of the picture. A large picture communicates very differently from a small one. Generate reasons why the picture communicates well or poorly due to its size.
  4. Look for the composition of the picture. Composition refers to the way the elements are oriented in relationship to one another. Observe if the objects seem crowded or sparse, symmetrical or asymmetrical. Consider why the objects in the picture have their specific orientation.
  5. Take note of how the picture is cropped. Cropping refers to images that only partially appear in the picture, as if someone “cropped” them out of the picture. Address how cropping focuses the viewer on certain aspects of the picture and what ideas the cropping may help communicate.
  6. Observe the levels of light in the picture. Take note of the visible and obscured objects and where the picture draws the viewer’s eye. Think of the role light and darkness play in communicating feelings or ideas in the picture.
  7. Look for color. Observe the way the picture utilizes color or lack of color. Address the effect different colors in the painting have on the ideas it communicates.
  8. Observe the form of the images in the picture. Whether an image has clearly defined lines and boundaries representing a real object, or has no defined shape can communicate very different ideas and emotions. Address the reasons why the image has or does not have a clearly defined shape.
  9. Look for texture. Pictures with completely flat surfaces may communicate differently than pictures with highly textured surfaces. Address how the texture or lack of texture conveys ideas and emotions in the picture.
  10. Take note of your gut reaction to the painting after your thorough analysis. Address how the various elements came together to help form your initial impressions and how analysis either strengthened or weakened your initial impressions.
  1. Choose a thesis. A thesis represents the main idea of your essay, the point you wish to communicate. Use your thorough analysis of the picture to make a list of opinions you wish to assert about the picture. Choose the strongest idea that most clearly communicates and unifies your assertions as your thesis.
  2. Introduce the first assertion of your essay with a topic sentence stating that assertion.
  3. Develop the assertion in the next few paragraphs by citing specific examples that back up your assertion.
  4. Conclude each assertion by restating the assertion and briefly summarizing the manner in which you have proved your assertion.
  5. Introduce your next assertion with a topic sentence and continue in this fashion until you have made all the assertions backing up your thesis.
  6. Conclude the essay with a restatement of your thesis statement, briefly restate your assertions and finish with a sentence or two stating what you have proved with the essay.

How to Start a Reflection Essay on Art

By Isaiah David, eHow Contributor

Because a reflection essay on art is your chance to go back and take an informal look at a substantial project you have completed, many people incorrectly assume that it will be the easiest part. In reality, it takes a mature perspective, a developed voice, and the ability to be simultaneously informal and articulate to write a good reflection essay on art. In this article, I assume that you are writing a reflective essay on art you have made yourself, but the instructions can be easily adapted to help you reflect on an art history unit or a report you did on an art exhibit.

  • Consult the rubric. Generally, your teacher will provide a list of points you are expected to address. Jot down a few notes on each point. Don’t try to be comprehensive – keep it light and flowing at this stage. Think of the first things that come to your mind.
  • Look at your art project. What does it make you think about? Do you like it? Hate it? Take a closer look at the details. Was there some part that you had to struggle to complete? Was there something that came easy or hit like a burst of inspiration? Write down as much or as little as you are inspired to.
  • Think about the project as a whole. Find a moment that encapsulated the whole process of creating, refining, and finishing your work of art. It could be the first moment where you really felt engaged in the project, or it could be an obstacle that nearly stopped you dead in your tracks and that you had to overcome. That is where you should start your reflective essay.
  • Use the drama of the moment you just thought of to begin your essay. You want your essay as a whole to tell the story of your project, and your first paragraph to tell a story within that story to draw the reader in. Use vivid descriptive to make the reader feel what you felt.
  • Leave the reader hanging. Don’t tell the whole story of whatever moment you chose in your introductory paragraph – leave something for the ending. Then, you can keep the reader interested in the story within the story even as you lead them through the entire process.
  • Step back to tell the rest of the story. For example, if you start with a description of a last minute problem you had to solve in your art project, you might start the next paragraph with something like “By that point, of course, I had been working on the project for 6 weeks.” This will take you right back to the beginning of the project, allowing you to reflect on each stage in order.
  • 7 As you go through, use the details you thought about in step 2. If there are some aspects of your work that you are especially proud of, tell the reader how they came about. If there are other aspects that you don’t like, tell the reader why you don’t like them. Don’t just list them, but put them in at whatever stage of your project they occurred.
  • Make sure to hit every detail on the rubric. Try to keep it in the back of your mind as you go through. Tat way, you can integrate it into the flow of your essay and make it sound more natural.
  • For your conclusion, come back to the mini story and relate it to the project as a whole. If you found you had to trust your intuition to complete one aspect of your piece, explain what the project as a whole has taught you about intuition in art. If you had to scrap it all and start over at some stressful point, you might talk about what you learned about the need to plan, or the willingness to admit to yourself when you are wrong. Be humble. Show that there is something you had to learned, and that you learned it.

How to Write an Art Essay

By Melanie Novak, eHow Contributor

Writing an essay about a piece of art is best approached by considering two things:

  1. What did the artist set out to accomplish?
  2. How well did that artist achieve her goal?

This criterion is useful in a few ways. It’s relatively fair (you won’t be holding the work to unrealistic standards), it clearly sets up the basis for your critique, and looking at a work this way avoids a thumbs-up or thumbs-down review. You can use this approach to write about a book, movie, theatrical performance, painting, piece of music or any other creative work. The bulk of the work of writing about art is actually the time it takes to analyze the work and write the outline. There are some challenging steps in the first parts of this how-to, but if you have a strong, solid outline, the writing will be easy.

Analyzing the work

  1. Write what you think the artist was trying to achieve with this work of art. The famous Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century, is a notoriously inscrutable painting. You cannot, obviously, know exactly what da Vinci intended by painting this portrait. Many accomplished art historians have written extensively about this painting. So what can there be for you to say? Plenty. In this example, an essay on the well-known painting the Mona Lisa, you might conclude that the artist was trying to paint a portrait that told a story about a particular woman. This may seem obvious, but remember that goal is quite different from, say, an instructional painting with an obvious religious allegory or an abstract modern painting, and so the evaluation of this particular work will accordingly be different.
  2. Write what you know or feel as a result of the creative work. For instance, what do you know about the woman from looking at how she was painted by da Vinci? These needn’t be facts about her identity, but rather impressions that you have of her. Be as honest and specific about your reactions as you can. Do not worry about your own authority. You don’t need to be a professional art critic or have painted an Italian masterpiece yourself to be able to write an effective essay about the Mona Lisa.
  3. Compare your answer in Step 2 to the artist’s goal in Step 1. Is your reaction what the artist intended—is the work of art successful? Remember that it doesn’t matter whether or not you “like” whatever you are writing about. Rather you are using your own responses to write an analysis of the work itself. Remember that you can write an essay that examines how the work was unsuccessful using the same method as when writing an essay on a successful work.
  4. List the variables—all the decisions the artist or artists had to make—that went into creating the work. In the example of the Mona Lisa, the variables would be subject, composition, materials (paint and surface), color palette, brush strokes and level of detail.
  5. Write next to each variable a short description. For instance, for the Mona Lisa, you would write “subject–woman,” “composition–close-up of face, centered in the frame,” “color palette–muted,” etc.

The thesis statement and finalizing the outline

  1. Write a rough thesis statement based on all the steps above. Don’t use first person, even though your own responses have informed your thinking so far. A rough thesis statement might be “Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a visually beautiful painting using Renaissance painting techniques, but its subject remains mysterious.” Your thesis statement should not be “The Mona Lisa is good.”
  2. Organize the variables in a way that supports your thesis statement. You don’t need to include every variable you listed. You may want to write one paragraph for each variable.
  3. Note how each variable contributed to the overall success (or lack of success) of the creative work.

Writing the essay

  1. Write as specifically as possible when you are describing the variables and your responses to them. It is often the description that will convince your readers of your point.
  2. Write an engaging introduction and satisfying conclusion.

The Visual Essay— collated research material

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