visual analysis

visual analysis Essay Examples

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Published: Friday 25th of January 2013


When getting a task to write a visual analysis essay for the first time, the very term is enough to get an inexperienced writer confused. So, what is a visual analysis essay? Putting it briefly, it is exactly what one may think just reading the term: it is an essay where you analyze a visual piece. Such essays are usually assigned in English, History, or Art History classes. You discuss the visual piece, as well as the tools and technique(s) that the author used to create it. You also have to try and reveal the message that the author put into this work at the time of creation, how well it worked then, and how well it holds up today. Visual analysis essays can be quite diverse in terms of their purpose and focus of interest. For example, you can talk about Botticelli’s art and explain how it works as a prism that allows us to look into the historical events which served as its context. Alternatively, you can take a look at some of the more modern pieces, like Jeff Soto’s “Last Voyage” and try to see in which interior this painting will work best to please the eye.


The only thing that makes any visual piece (basically, anything you see) worth discussing and analyzing in an essay is the meaning that you, as an observer, see or are supposed to see in it. Sometimes, this meaning is rather subtle, and one must make an effort to have it revealed – as in most works of art. In other instances, this meaning is straightforward because the author intends to get a particular message through to the audience without requiring too much effort from the latter – for example, an advertisement. So, how exactly does one analyze a visual object. There are several key elements to consider here:
  1. The goal that the author puts in his or her work
  2. The audience at whom the work is primarily aimed
  3. The composition elements of the visual object in question
  4. The historical, social, and other background details of the subject’s creation and original presentation to the audience


Just as any other essay, a visual analysis essay will begin with an introduction. The introduction here has the same purpose as in any other type of essay – to present your subject to your reader and to get them interested. There are several most common ways to achieve this:
  • To describe the visual piece in question in such an expressive language that your reader has a vivid picture of it
  • To give a brief historical overview of the creation of the visual piece in question
  • To talk about the motivation that drove the author into creating such a piece
  • To mention some exciting trivia about the piece
  • To make a claim that this particular work was (or still is) misunderstood and promise to explain to your reader the true meaning behind the visual piece in question
Mind that these methods are not mutually exclusive. Your visual analysis essay will be your original piece of work, you are the author, and you are welcome to combine two or more of these methods in the introduction to your essay. The introduction also has to include the thesis statement which presents the main idea of your essay. Here, your thesis statement will be the claim you make regarding the meaning of the visual piece under analysis. The introduction is always followed by the main body paragraphs. Each of the main body paragraphs is devoted to a particular point of discussion. In this case, the points of discussion may be the key elements of visual analysis that we have discussed earlier in this article. Usually, the sufficient number of main body paragraphs in an essay is three, but you may want to specify it with your instructor to be perfectly sure. Concluding your visual analysis essay, you can always stay on the safe side and use framing technique – just restate your introduction. If you have written many essays throughout your years as a student, you know that this is the safest and most obvious way to conclude pretty much any essay you write. In this case, you will also probably think that this approach is boring. With visual analysis essays, there are several ways to make your conclusion more creative and exciting both to read and to write. Here is what you can do:
  • Compare your first reaction to the visual piece in question to the one that its original audience had
  • Try to imagine what the author would have to say about how the piece is perceived today
  • Put the piece in the context of the variety of other similar artworks and define its place in this context
  • Focus on the elements that reveal this piece as one belonging to this particular author


One may think that a proper education in art is necessary for putting together a visual analysis essay worth reading and that one cannot possibly analyze a visual piece properly without such an education. This is not entirely true. The truth is that, unless you are blind, you are surrounded by visual pieces all the time throughout your life – so, you should have a thing or two to say about how they look and why. Moreover – once again – you are the writer here, and this is your writing. So, if you were assigned to write a visual analysis essay, it means that your instructor is particularly interested in what you have to say about a visual object, how you perceive it through the lens of your experience, skills, traits, etc. So, it is wrong to feel unfit or unprepared to write a visual analysis essay just because you are not entirely familiar with all the "artsy" terminology. Even if you are, there are surely some tricks that you have noticed creators of visual pieces (artists, advertisers, designers, etc.) use to achieve a particular effect on the audience. For instance, how they make the objects that they want you to notice first bigger and lighter, and how they minimize and fade out the rest of the picture. You are also sure to have some ideas about what colors can symbolize what objects or emotions – for example, how red color is associated with blood and symbolizes danger, how blue associates with the sea and symbolizes peace and tranquility, how green associates with nature, etc. If you want to create a winning description of a visual piece, you need to make it as vivid as possible. To achieve this, you need to mention some details that one does not pay too much attention to at a glance, but yet they are so meaningful that you can claim that they create the meaning of the piece. To notice these details, you need to take a scrupulous look at the visual piece that you are analyzing and look for them specifically. Curiously, many experts who specialize in analyzing visual pieces agree that it is best to put away the research about the history of the visual piece, its context, the author’s intentions, etc. It is your visual analysis essay, so your perception of the visual piece should be the focus of your writing. In other words, you should trust your eyes about what you have to write in your essay, rather than anything that other people may have to say on the subject. Of course, it may be beneficial to look for prompts and ideas in other people’s opinions and studies, but not before you take a scrupulous look at your subject yourself and come up with some conclusions of your own.


The meaningful details that make up the overall meaning of the visual piece that we have talked about earlier in this article may be somewhat challenging to spot with an untrained eye. One needs to know where to look for them. So, here are some prompts and brief descriptions of the design elements of any visual piece that one needs to consider when analyzing it:
  • Composition. Just as one may guess, it is how the author has put the visual piece together. It has to do with the placement of the things in relation to one another. In other words, when looking at the composition of a visual piece, you pay attention to the central figure in the picture, to its relation to other figures, as well as to what might have been on the picture but was (deliberately) left out by the author. This helps you understand what the author wanted you to see on the picture, thus installing a particular meaning, as well as mood and tone, in it. One may say that the focal point of the picture is the focal point of the author’s message.
  • ]Colors. The visual piece under your analysis may be monochromatic (using only one color). If it is not, then you will have to keep the color wheel in mind (if you are not familiar with what it is, it is crucial for your visual analysis essay that you look it up). If the colors used (or dominating) on the picture are placed opposite on the color wheel, then you know that this is complementary coloring. Generally, you have to pay close attention and notice all the colors that you can see in the given visual piece, including black and white. You should also ponder about how the used colors contribute to the mood and tone of the visual piece. If you think long enough, you may also notice whether or not the colors and the associations they give you are obvious and predictable. An example of how a particular color can be used in a picture is the highlighting or outlining a particular object in a particular mood.
  • Texture. You may have encountered this term quite frequently, but never wondered about its definition. Basically, it means the degree of smoothness (or roughness) of something, as well as the way this degree changes throughout (in our case) the visual piece. Also, with visual objects, a texture can be real (3-d) or projected (2-d). The function of the texture in a visual piece is to connect it to reality by appealing to the viewer's other senses expect sight – primarily, the tactile sense. When analyzing your visual image in terms of texture, you pay attention to whether or not the texture changes on various sections of the picture, in which sections it varies, and what tactile expectations it inspires.
  • Shapes. Here, you look at the shapes that the author chose to use in this piece – circles, squares, triangles, etc. Namely, you should see how exactly the use of particular shapes points the viewer's attention in particular direction(s). Importantly, the shapes do not necessarily have to be drawn with distinct lines - they may as well be suggested by the variations of shades and colors.
  • Forms. One should not confuse shapes with forms. We have already discussed shapes, and the difference between them and forms lie in the fact that forms are more complex. For example, they can make a two-dimensional image look like a three-dimensional object. Often, they are also used to underline a particular section of the picture.
  • Value. When we talk about visual objects under analysis, the term "value" is quite specific and refers to the variation of light and dark that the author chose to use in different parts of the image. The variation of value may create contrast, which can be meaningful itself, as well as its lack. The author may use values for highlighting a particular part of the picture or even put some deeper symbolism into them.
  • Sizes. Here, you inspect everything in the visual piece that can be measured in inches or centimeters. You mention the size of the picture itself and the objects in it and try to answer why the author chose to have them this way. Sometimes, it may seem to you that the answers to such questions are self-explanatory, but nevertheless, these questions deserve attention and answers.
  • Symbols. Here, you look at particular objects on the picture that may hint at a different or broader meaning than the one you see at first glance (which is, arguably, the definition of a symbol). For instance, a cross often refers to Christ figure or Christianity, a triangle may refer to Trinity, etc. It may be insightful to discuss how the same symbols may have different meaning for viewers from different cultural backgrounds.
  • Combination of various elements. Throughout your scrutinizing process, you need to remember that what you are looking at is a whole piece, even if you are grasping only its particular element(s) at a time. None of these elements are independent and self-sufficient here, they all only exist in relation with one another. So, you should look at how the author chooses to combine various elements and which of them s/he could have used but chose to omit.


We have discussed that not being familiar with “artsy” terminology should not stand in your way of writing your visual analysis essay. However, you should not understand it as though you should not use any specific terminology at all. Quite the contrary, the use of terminology is beneficial for convincing your reader of your authority to speak about particular matters. It is essential, though, that you only use a specific word when you are 100% positive that you know its meaning correctly and that it fits well in the particular context, as opposed to mindless throwing the “smart” vocabulary at your reader. In case you were not familiar with any of such terminology related to visual analysis when you started reading our article, you are already a great deal more educated than you were because we have already given brief and comprehensive explanations of some terms, as you have noticed. Here are a few more that should help you with your visual analysis essay:
  • Balance. Usually, various elements that we have discussed earlier are distributed evenly on a picture for the sake of creating an overall impression. It also not uncommon, however, that the author chooses to distribute these elements unevenly or off-balance, which can also be viewed as a means to achieve a particular impression. The three common kinds of balance are radical (with all objects on the picture organized around a particular point), symmetrical (when things are placed evenly on both left and right sides), and asymmetrical (when one of the sides has more objects, gaining more “weight”).
  • Emphasis. An emphasis is usually placed on a particular section or object on the picture to draw the viewer’s attention to it. To achieve this, the author uses one or more of the elements that we have discussed above: colors, shapes, sizes, texture, etc.
  • Movement. This has to do with the way that the author manipulates your attention, leading it in a particular direction as you are looking at this visual piece. Once again, this effect is achieved through the application of the elements, such as shapes, colors, and/or other.
  • Repetition. The author of a visual piece can draw your attention to a particular object by placing it in several places on the picture. If you find it on the visual piece that you are analyzing, it is necessary for you to research and find out why the author deemed this object so important and what it means in the given context.
  • Variety. This is basically the combination of particular elements and the effect on the viewer that it achieves. The variety may lead to the viewer perceiving the picture as static or dynamic, and if it is dynamic, there can be a particular rhythm to it.


Throughout your work on a visual analysis essay, you will inevitably notice that there are so many details that draw your attention. You will focus on the details that you deem most exciting in the main body paragraphs of your essay. It is, however, very easy to get carried away and forget about the overall meaning or message of the visual piece, which you still need to determine and analyze to write the thesis statement of your essay. There are several ways to approach this objective:
  • Focus on what the message was at the time when the visual piece was created
  • Focus on what message you and your contemporaries get from this visual object today
  • Analyze how the perception of this visual piece has changed through the time between its creation and today
  • Look at how various audiences may react to this visual piece
  • Compare the author’s intended message to the one that the viewers (including yourself) get out of this visual piece and see how effective it is
Once again, there is no rule saying that you should pick only one approach. You can combine two of them or as many as you like for your thesis statement. All you need to remember is that the thesis statement cannot be too lengthy – usually, it will not exceed two sentences. So, your thesis statement needs to be laconic and concise.


Rather than moving on directly to writing such a massive (or relatively massive) piece of work that your visual analysis essay is, it is way more comfortable to divide the body of work into smaller auxiliary questions. By answering these questions, you can put together your essay with much less effort.
  • What does the image claim? Is the claim true or false? What led to this claim and what are its outcomes? How high are the stakes regarding this claim? Does it include any call to action?
  • How is the visual piece composed? What is the function of color, texture, symbols, etc.?
  • Does this visual piece belong to any particular genre? Which genre rules it adheres to and which it breaks? How does it influence the viewer’s impression of the piece?
  • Is there any text on the picture? How does it facilitate our understanding of the picture?
  • Does the visual piece appeal to the viewer? Is the appeal logical, emotional, or ethical? Is it real or deceiving?
  • Does it create a cultural value or exploits the existing one(s)?
  • Is there a distinct story that this visual piece tells or does the author leave determining this story to the viewer?