Visual rhetorical analysis essay (order an essay inexpensively)

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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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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:

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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Visual Rhetorical Analysis

Most of you might be familiar with literary analysis from high school: you had to write an essay about what a poem, book, or short story means. A rhetorical analysis is similar (in that you have to break something down), but different in that you are focusing on what something does, or on what and how it works orhas effects for a specific audience in a specific context. We use rhetorical analyses to examine and explain how an author attempts to influence an audience.

Purpose: Find a visual image or short (

one minute or less) video clip that makes an argument, that you deem to be interesting, and that has a persuasive aim. By “interesting,” I mean that the image/video in question should have some sophistication about it: it should be tantalizing and potentially effective at reaching its audience. (There is no point in analyzing the obvious; pick something that makes an interesting argument that readers might be resistant to.) Then write an analysis that will help your readers understand how the text works to persuade its audience.

The object you choose is entirely up to you. Here are some general ideas, but you’ll want to choose a specific image or video:

  • poster or series of posters
  • advertisement, either print or television
  • political/campaign poster/commercial
  • short YouTube clip that makes some kind of persuasive argument
  • photograph or piece of art
  • public art/graffiti
  • comic

Note Well: Your analysis should not simply paraphrase or summarize what the creator portrays or says. The reader (your audience) has already viewed the image/video and knows what it contains. Your purpose is to provide a way of understanding how the image/video persuades its audience.

Invention: The following basic questions may help you as you plan and draft your analysis. These questions are not meant to provide an outline for the paper; rather, they simply help you to think about the rhetorical aspects of the text.

  1. What is the rhetorical situation? Who is the image’s/video’s audience? What is its purpose? What is it responding to or trying to address? What does it hope to accomplish? Also, think about where the item originally appeared and when: this may help you to determine the purpose, audience, and scope of the argument. Think of the rhetorical situation as the image’s/video’s “problem”: what specific attitudes, beliefs, and values of the audience must the creator appeal to or counteract in order to succeed?
  2. How is ethos established? That is, what can you apprehend in the image/video about the creator’s character, ethics, reliability, and overall credibility? “Ethos” speaks to trustworthiness. Those who employ ethos to persuade say this: “Believe me, identify with me, because of the kind of person I am.”
  3. How would you describe the logos of the text? “Logos” speaks to the logic of the argument being made. More specifically, think about how the supporting claims and the implied claims of the image/video reinforce the overall thesis. How are they linked together? Also, how does the creator use evidence, data, to support the thesis? Those who use logos to persuade say this: “Believe me because what I say is reasonable.”
  4. How would you describe the pathos of the image/video? How does the creator appeal to emotions? “Pathos” means “feeling,” and it speaks to the desires, attitudes, and deeply engrained values of a person. Pathos is frequently communicated through vivid descriptions, images, details, and examples; pathos, like ethos and logos, is also communicated through the style and tone so pay attention to word choice, image choice, metaphors, and other stylistic features. Those who use pathos to persuade say this: “Believe me because X feels good, bad, fearful, joyful, admirable, (etc.) at the very cores of our beings.”
  5. How does the argument’s structure work? Why are the elements of the image/video arranged as they are? Could the creator have organized things in another way, and if so, why did he or she pick this arrangement?
  6. What is the role of style and tone? Style is one of the most important aspects of any rhetorical argument. Style speaks to the overall shape, mood, and atmosphere; it has to do with decisions at the sentence and word level, and is revealed through visual appearance.
  7. What seems to be the creator’s dominant strategy? Each of questions 2-6 addresses a particular kind of rhetorical strategy. All of these aspects are more than likely present in the text at issue, but in most cases, one strategy is dominant. If possible, identify the dominant strategy that the writer uses to solve the rhetorical problem that he or she faces.

Audience: Write to a specific audience that will benefit from your analysis. You may write to a friend, to a group of undergraduates, to members of an organization, to me as your teacher, to citizens in a particular area, or to any other specific person or group of people—but in any event, have in mind a particular way of reaching your audience as you write. Your audience will have seen your image/video, so assume a certain amount of knowledge on their part. Your goal is to enlighten a particular audience that needs your tutorial.

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