Art history can be intimidating for students new to the discipline of studying artworks for their historical and stylistic context. Each semester, I begin class with handouts that include definitions of art, art history and the methodologies used by art historians including examples of formal, stylistic and contextual, iconographical and critical theory analyses. I introduce the language of art history that includes the basic elements and principles of art.

I also provide students with a list of questions as preparation for discussing artworks and for writing a three-page museum paper based on an artwork of their choosing. I ask students to take the same approach to the study of art and art history as the stars of their favorite investigative television shows—they explore the Who, What, When, Where and Why of an artwork.

The following list of questions helps students begin the process of contextual analysis:

  • Who is the artist?
  • What is happening within the work—i.e. myth, story, iconography, history, portrait, still life, etc.?
  • When was the artwork created?
  • Where was the artwork created and what was happening in the culture during this period in history? Where is the artwork located now?
  • Why was the artwork created—i.e. patronage: church, royalty, private commission?

Additional investigative questions guide students into a formal analysis:

  • What medium is used?
  • If a drawing, describe the line quality.
  • If a painting, describe the paint application.
  • Describe the colors used—warm and cool.
  • What values are used—e.g. dark to light, or chiaroscuro?
  • If a sculpture, describe the surface as Classicism—highly refined, usually noble content—or rough expressionistic—varying surfaces are present, as in the work of Auguste Rodin?
  • Is the sculpture a carving, cast, modeling or assemblage?
  • What form is used—length, width, height—to create an object with volume and depth?
  • What shapes are used—biomorphic or geometric?
  • What is the surface texture—actual and implied?
  • What space is created in the work—positive/negative space—or illusion of depth—linear perspective?

Questions like these can help students begin to gather information important to the understanding of an artwork. Last, students can be guided during a library session to research at least two academic sources of analysis and critical writings about the work chosen.

This is just one example of how to assign writing projects according to your discipline. Learn how my fellow Faculty Partners are integrating writing into their curriculums and how you can successfully incorporate writing into your own.