How to Write a Visual Analysis Essay: Format, Outline, and Example

Writing a visual analysis essay is an exciting and challenging academic exercise for art students. As a priority, before writing such an essay, learners need to familiarize themselves with design elements and principles. In this case, standard design elements are color, shape, size, and line, while common principles of design are proportion, balance, texture, and contrast. Basically, understanding these concepts would help a writer to provide an in-depth description of an image. In turn, such descriptions must make it possible for the audience to develop a mental picture of an image or visual display. Hence, students need to learn how to write a visual analysis essay correctly to shape knowledge of art.

Definition of a Visual Analysis Essay

One of the essay types that students write is a visual analysis essay. Basically, this academic writing exercise requires learners to provide a detailed description of a specific image or visual display. In doing so, students analyze an image or visual display by describing this visual in detail and explaining how different concepts fit together to make a picture in a way as it appears. Moreover, these concepts include visual elements and principles of design. Therefore, when writing a visual analysis essay, students must understand these basic concepts and relate them to an image or visual display in question before providing a detailed description. In turn, the most common subjects that writers address are drawings, paintings, sculptures, and architecture objects. Besides, the time when scholars need to write a visual analysis essay is when instructions require them to describe a given or any image, taking into account visual concepts named before.

How to write a visual analysis essay

11 Visual Elements in Writing an Analysis Essay

Based on the preceding section, one of the concepts that students must consider when writing a visual analysis essay is visual elements. In essence, these elements give an image of its visual characteristics. For example, common visual elements are composition, elements of design, focal point, color, line, texture, shape, form, value, size, and symbolic elements. In turn, it is practically impossible for a student to analyze an image or visual display without describing how some of these elements exemplify the subject’s visual characteristics.

1. Composition

When analyzing a visual display, students must address how a subject is put together. Basically, this is what is termed as composition. When talking about composition by describing a visual display, a writer must cover the placement of things in an image. Also, this aspect means describing how things relate one to another within a canvas. When analyzing an image, a student must focus on answering several questions related to composition. In turn, these include what entails a primary figure, how artists place other figures relative to a primary figure, and what they left out.

2. Elements of Design

When creating an image, artists use different approaches to bring their works to life. Basically, these approaches are what entails elements of design. Therefore, when writing a visual analysis essay, students must familiarize themselves with these elements by answering specific questions. In turn, these aspects include understanding design elements – color, shape, size, form, and line – that exemplify an image or visual display the most.

3. Focal Point

By definition, a focal point is a part of an image or visual display that an artist draws the audience’s attention. In this case, when writing a visual analysis essay, students must address this visual element by understanding this focal point and design elements, such as line, form, color, and shape, that an artist has used to exemplify this part of an image. 

4. Color

When creating an image, artists use an element of color to exemplify a visual aspect of their works. In this case, the term “monochromatic” means that artists have used one color to create an image, while the term “complementary” means that they have used colors opposite each other on a color wheel. Also, when writing a visual analysis essay, students must describe how an element of color affects a visual image, focusing on colors that artists use and how they affect the tone, mood, and meaning of an image.

5. Line

An element of line entails actual lines presented in an image. Typically, these lines result from the artist’s effort to place different objects in an image or visual display in question. Hence, when writing a visual analysis essay, students must describe how lines help grab the viewer’s attention toward or away from specific parts of an image. 

6. Texture

An element of texture refers to how smooth or rough an object is or a pattern thereof. In particular, when writing a visual analysis essay, students must understand that a texture can either be real on a three-dimensional art or represented on two-dimensional art. Besides, when analyzing an image, students must focus on a place where an artist exemplifies an element of texture and how it influences the audience to expect a particular touch sensation.

7. Shape

An element of shape refers to how an artist uses various shapes, including circles, ovals, rectangles, and squares, to bring their artworks to life. Basically, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should describe specific shapes that artists use to exemplify their works and where those shapes direct the viewers’ eye. In other words, they should describe how artists use specific shapes to exemplify a focal point. 

8. Form

An element of form refers to an aspect of light and shading and how artists use them to bring their creations to life. Through this element of form, artists can make a two-dimensional object appear like a three-dimensional object. In turn, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should focus on where artists have applied light or shading to exemplify their work’s specific aspects.

9. Value

A value element refers to a degree to which an artist has exemplified light and dark aspects in specific parts of their works. Basically, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should describe how artists have applied these aspects in their works and whether there is an indication of these concepts’ symbolic use.

10. Size

An element of size refers to the overall size of an image or visual display with a relative size of figures provided in an image. In this case, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should explain why they believe an artist chose the image’s particular size and why different objects in a picture have different sizes. Notably, when an artist applies different sizes concerning lines and shapes, it means that an image is of relative significance.

11. Symbolic Elements

An element of symbolic elements refers to using objects with symbolic or historical meaning in an image or visual display. In particular, an example of these objects is the cross, which exemplifies the Christian faith. Also, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should explain whether the image has any symbolic objects and if there is, whether an artist intends to use such directly or by inverting it.

9 Visual Principles of Design in Writing an Analysis Essay

Besides visual elements described in the preceding section, artists also apply design principles when creating images or visual displays. In turn, such principles help to exemplify the visual characteristics of an image or visual display. For example, some of the common design principles include balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, proportion, variety, contrast, hierarchy, and rhythm.

1. Balance

A principle of balance refers to a distribution of different visual elements in an image or visual display to enhance stability or instability. Basically, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should describe images by addressing a symmetrical and asymmetrical balance. In this case, the former indicates that both sides of an image are even, and the latter means that a picture is weighted on one side. Moreover, radical balance means that an artist has organized objects in an image around a central point. Therefore, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should address these aspects of balance to give the audience a perfect understanding of an image.

2. Emphasis

An emphasis principle refers to an object that catches the viewers’ attention when they look at an image. In this case, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should describe how an artist in question has used elements of size, color, texture, shape, and others to exemplify one part of an image and make it a focal point. Moreover, when looking at an image, a viewer can identify an extent to which an artist has applied an emphasis principle by studying a focal point.

2. Movement

A principle of movement refers to an extent to which an image fosters a movement of the viewers’ eyes in a path as they view an image or visual display. In particular, a movement aspect explains why a viewer may focus on specific parts more than others. Besides, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should describe how an image influences a direction in which the viewer’s eyes move. In turn, they should also explain visual elements, such as line, color, shape, or size, which influence this eye movement.

3. Pattern

A principle of pattern entails the use of objects in an image repeatedly. Basically, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should identify specific objects or symbols that artists use repeatedly in their works. Typically, repetition indicates that an object bears a significant meaning, and a student must explain this meaning to the audience.

4. Proportion

A principle of proportion refers to how sizes relate one to another in an image or visual display. Moreover, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should explain this principle by addressing whether the relationship among objects in an image is realistic or distorted. In either case, they should explain the meaning that an artist intended to communicate when creating an image.

5. Variety

A principle of variety refers to an extent to which an artist uses different visual elements to influence the audience’s perception of an image as dynamic. Basically, this principle of variety enhances an active rhythm in an image or visual display. In turn, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should explain to the audience how different elements of design, such as color, size, shape, and size, are combined to create a mood or meaning.

6. Contrast

A principle of contrast refers to a juxtaposition of opposing elements. In particular, an example of contrast in an image is the use of colors opposite each other on a color wheel, like red versus green or blue versus orange. Then, another example of contrast is a tone or value in an image, such as light versus dark, and direction, such as horizontal versus vertical. Hence, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should explain to the audience abut a significant contrast in an image, which tends to be exemplified in a focal point. In turn, an image that has too much contrast undermines the quality of unity and is likely to disgust viewers.

7. Hierarchy

A principle of hierarchy refers to a degree to which people viewing an image can process it. As such, this aspect indicates the significance of color, size, line, shape, and other elements of design in an image or visual display. Moreover, visual elements that appear prominently in an image are the most significant. In this case, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should analyze the use of titles and headings in an image. For example, the term “title” denotes a significant aspect of an artwork. Hence, artists should make it a prominent element in their creations. In turn, when describing an image in an analysis essay, a student should explain this aspect with the meaning that it bears.

8. Rhythm

A principle of rhythm refers to an extent to which an artist has used spaces between repetitive elements. For example, this aspect is similar to how a musician uses spaces between notes when composing a piece of music to create rhythm. Typically, artists create five types of rhythms in an image: random, regular, alternating, flowing, and progressive. In this case, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should describe how an artist has used these rhythm types. Moreover, what they should understand is that these rhythms differ in patterns. For instance, while random rhythms lack a discernable pattern, regular rhythms have a pattern, where an artist adopts the same spacing between elements with no variation. Consequently, alternating rhythms have a pattern where an artist adopts a set of repetitive elements but with no variation between them. About flowing rhythms, an artist uses bends and curves, like sand dunes or ocean waves.

9. Layout

A principle of layout refers to how an artist has used objects in an image. In other words, it entails the placement or distribution of objects, such as symbols, in an image. In this case, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should explain specific objects that an artist has used in an image under analysis and how they are placed in the work. Also, the layout is related to other principles of design, such as pattern and proportion.

How to Analyze the Meaning of an Image for Writing a Visual Analysis Essay

Based on the preceding sections, when writing a visual analysis essay, students should consider how an artist has applied different visual elements and design principles. In turn, these elements and principles exemplify an image, bringing to life specific parts, particularly a focal point. Therefore, when analyzing the meaning of an image or visual display for their essays, students should pay attention to elements and principles of design and explain to the audience their effect on a visual.

1. Visual Composition

Visual composition entails how an artist has arranged or composed an image. Basically, when analyzing such an image in a visual analysis essay, students should explain the composition’s aspects that enhance a claim. In this case, they can describe a layout, and it means specific objects in an image that an artist has used to grab the viewers’ attention. For example, they can explain how visual lines draw the viewers’ attention to a focal point. Also, writers student can describe balance. In turn, this aspect means describing the size of images and how they compare one to another. Besides, scholars should talk about a focal point by describing its placement – centered or offset.

2. Claims

When describing an image in a visual analysis essay, students should explain the image’s claims to the audience. Typically, there are five claim types: fact, definition, cause, value, and policy. Firstly, when talking about a fact claim, writers should explain whether an image is real, and, when talking about a definition claim, they should explain its meaning. Then, when talking about a cause claim, learners should explain the causes, effects, and relationships between these effects. In turn, when talking about a value claim, students should explain the importance of an image, and it should be evaluated. Finally, when talking about a policy claim, writers should explain a solution and how it can be achieved.

3. Genre

When analyzing an image in a visual analysis essay, students should interpret its meaning by explaining its genre – whether it is a movie, fine art, poster, graphic art, photograph, or pamphlet. Consequently, they should explain to the audience whether it aligns with that genre’s rules or an artist has disregarded them. More importantly, writers should explain to the audience how a genre affects the image’s meaning.

4. Appeals

When analyzing an image in a visual analysis essay, students should address an appealing aspect. Basically, this feature means how an image appeals to the audience and influences them to believe intended claims. Here, students should explain to the audience whether an image or specific parts of it appeal to logic, emotion, authority, or character. More importantly, they should explain whether any of the appeals are deceptive.

5. Context and History

When writing a visual analysis essay, students can analyze an image by addressing its historical context. Basically, the good approach is to explain the image’s rhetorical situation to the audience. In this case, writers must familiarize themselves with the artist’s intended message and how the audience reacts when looking at this image. Moreover, the writer’s response to an image can differ from that of the initial audience. In turn, learners should use such difference as the main idea (a thesis statement) of discussion in their visual analysis essay.

Writing a Visual Analysis Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide

Like any paper, writing a visual analysis essay requires students to observe specific strategies of persuasive writing. Basically, these strategies include preparation, stage set-up, actual writing, and wrap up. Moreover, these strategies enable students to create works that satisfy academic writing conventions, such as having a thesis statement, citations, appropriate formatting, and free from errors and mistakes.

Step 1: Preparation for Writing a Visual Analysis Essay

Preparation refers to an aspect of planning how to go about executing a task. In academic writing, preparation is the main first step to persuasive writing, and it entails reading a story or reviewing an object or subject, finding a visual, defining a topic, preparing ideas, and considering the needs of the audience. Therefore, one can argue that preparation is the stage where students develop a frame of mind necessary to conduct an in-depth analysis of an image or visual display.

A. Reading A story or Reviewing an Object or Subject.

In many instances, an image that students analyze in a Visual Analysis essay is found in texts, such as books, journal articles, reports, or novels, or galleries. Therefore, reading a text is the first activity that a writer should undertake when analyzing an image. Also, students may go to museums to observe specific artworks. In turn, if it is a text, learners should read an article at least twice to grasp essential details that are pertinent to their visual analysis essay.

B. Finding a Visual

As students read a text, they should focus on identifying an image or visual display that they should analyze in a visual analysis essay. While it is standard practice for instructors to guide students on where to find an image, sometimes, they may have to choose an image for themselves. In the latter context, identifying an image that writers find understandable to them in terms of its visual elements is the best approach in writing a visual analysis essay.

C. Defining a Topic

Although the objective of a visual analysis essay is to describe an image or visual display’s visual characteristics, students should come up with a topic that best describes this endeavor. By considering the essence of elements and principles of design that apply to an in-depth analysis of an image, students have a broad scope when it comes to defining a topic for their visual analysis essays. As such, the secret to finding the right essay topics is to decide on what aspect of analysis – elements or principles – they intend to focus on.

D. Preparing Ideas

It is common practice for students to come up with ideas when writing any type of academic text. Basically, this phase of preparation helps learners to develop a mindset about a task at hand. In essence, ideas that students generate should align with a topic they have already defined. In this case, writers cannot think about aspects of writing that would not further their agenda. For example, learners cannot develop ideas about the significance of design elements when their topic is about values that principles of design provide in a visual display.

E. Considering Readers

When writing a visual analysis essay, students should not only think about an image from the perspective of elements and principles of design. Basically, writers should think about how their visual analysis essay would help the audience understand this image better. In this case, learners should understand the audience and what might be of interest to them. For example, students of history might want to know how a particular image influenced the perception of those who saw it first. To address this need, a writer may have to address the image’s rhetorical situation more than its visual characteristics.

Step 2: Stage Set-Up for Organizing a Visual Analysis Essay

After preparation, the second step in writing a visual analysis essay is setting up the stage for the actual writing. Here, students spend time finding credible sources, making notes, creating an essay outline, and writing an annotated bibliography. Moreover, it is a stage where writers get down and start doing some work to bring their goal to fruition.

A. Finding Credible Sources

Unlike other academic texts, visual analysis essays that require students to analyze an issue, phenomenon, or object require some degree of research. In particular, when writing a visual analysis essay, learners may have to find reliable sources that help them to conduct an in-depth analysis of an image at hand. For example, writers may have to find out what critics have said about an image with the meaning of applicable concepts, such as balance, movement, shape, size, and proportion. As such, finding academic sources that can provide some insight into these essential details is a crucial step when writing a visual analysis essay.

B. Making Notes

As students read through study sources that they identify for writing a visual analysis essay, they should make notes relevant to a task. In this case, learners should read through their sources while making notes about important concepts that they find relevant to their analysis, such as proportion, context, and balance. Also, these notes are essential in supporting points that writers generate, influencing new ideas.

D. Writing an Outline and Annotated Bibliography

Like any other essay, a visual analysis essay should have an outline that follows an essay structure. In this case, the standard outline for essays entails three main sections: introduction, body, and conclusion. When writing a visual analysis essay, students should follow this outline. Then, an annotated bibliography is a text that summarizes each of the sources that students have identified and used to find critical information. Generally, learners do not need to write this summary in writing a visual analysis essay. However, to simplify their work for finding information, students may write an annotated bibliography when writing a visual analysis essay.

Step 3: Actual Writing of a Visual Analysis Essay

The third step in writing a visual analysis essay involves the actual process of writing a paper. Here, students should begin with the first draft. In this case, the advantage of this draft is that it is not a final document that students submit or publish, meaning that they have an allowance of making mistakes and correcting them. In short, the first draft enables writers to organize their thoughts and arguments in a paper and develop a working thesis.

Step 4: Wrap Up

The last step in writing a visual analysis essay is where students get to wrap up their work. In this case, students identify weak points in their papers and address them to come up with high-quality essays. Moreover, such a paper must have no spelling or grammatical errors, such as missing or wrong punctuation. In turn, it must not have notable inconsistencies, such as flawed arguments and illogical conclusions. Besides, students must use this step to revise and edit their visual analysis essays and ensure their papers satisfies all academic writing rules.

A. Revisions and Editing

Since it is natural for students to make errors and mistakes when writing academic texts, the final step of writing a visual analysis essay allows authors to identify them and make corrections. Firstly, revision entails identifying and eliminating all inconsistencies that undermine a natural flow of arguments and ideas. In turn, editing helps to correct spelling and grammatical mistakes, such as missing punctuation marks.

B. Topic and Concluding Sentences

When writing a visual analysis essay, students should ensure the first draft has paragraphs in the main text (body). Basically, these paragraphs should start with a topic sentence and end with a concluding sentence. In this case, the former introduces a single idea that writers intend to focus on in one paragraph, and the latter’s function is to link this idea in a topic sentence to the paper’s thesis.

C. Transitions and Formatting

One of the aspects that determine an essay’s quality is the natural flow of arguments and ideas. For example, some elements that foster this flow are transitions, which entail words and phrases like – “consequently,” “thus,” “hence,” “ more importantly,” and “meanwhile.” Then, another aspect that students should consider in the last phase of writing a visual analysis is the paper’s formatting. In this case, writers must ensure that they have formatted their papers according to appropriate formats – APA 7, MLA 8, Harvard, and Chicago/Turabian. Also, some of the formatting rules that must satisfy are citation and use of headings and subheadings.

D. Peer Review and Final Draft

After completing the first draft and making the necessary changes, students should subject their visual analysis essays to a peer review. Basically, this aspect involves giving their works to a friend, tutor, or mentor to identify any errors and mistakes. Then, if such errors and mistakes are noted, writers should revise their papers. However, if a visual analysis essay is found perfect, learners should proceed to write the final draft, which they must read and reread to make sure no mistakes have been made in the course of typing.

Outline Template for Writing a Visual Analysis Essay

I. Introduction with a Thesis Statement
II. Body Paragraphs
III. Conclusion

1. Defining Features of a Visual Analysis Essay Outline

As indicated previously and as exemplified in the visual above, an outline of a visual analysis essay entails three main sections: introduction, body, and conclusion. Basically, this structure’s defining features are the thesis statement that must appear in the introduction, main points in body paragraphs, and a restatement of the thesis and a summary of the main points in the conclusion.

2. How to Know if a Paper is a Visual Analysis Essay

As indicated in the introduction, a visual analysis essay analyzes an image or visual display by giving an in-depth description of how an artist has applied elements and principles of design. In this case, if students want to know that their texts are visual analysis essays, they need to evaluate how they address the use of these elements and principles in their papers concerning a given image.

3. How a Visual Analysis Essay Differs From Other Essays

The central point of difference between a visual analysis essay and other types of essays is the content. For example, while the content of an argumentative essay is the writer’s arguments in favor of a particular stand, the content in a visual analysis essay is the writer’s description and analysis of an image or visual display. Moreover, in an informative essay, the content is information that authors find insightful and necessary in educating the audience about a topic or an issue.

Easy Strategy For Writing Each Section of a Visual Analysis Essay

When writing a visual analysis essay, students should adopt a strategy that makes their work high-quality, meaning it satisfies academic writing rules. These strategies are as follows:

I. Introduction

  • Introduce an image, art, object, or subject under analysis.
  • Provide a brief background of this image and author.
  • Develop a thesis.

II. Body

  • Create several paragraphs as appropriate.
  • Begin each paragraph by making a claim. It is a topic sentence.
  • End each paragraph with a concluding sentence.
  • Use transitions sufficiently and appropriately.
  • Observe a sandwich rule: introduce a claim in a topic sentence, provide supporting facts (evidence), and explain a specific connection between the claim and the thesis.

III. Conclusion

  • Restate the thesis.
  • Summarize the main points.
  • Ensure that no new information is presented.
  • Provide the writer’s objective opinion about a topic, such as new insight or criticism.

An Example of a Writing a Visual Analysis Essay

Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin by Otto Dix

Otto Dix’s (German, 1891–1969) Liegenede auf Leopardenfell (Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin), 1927. Oil on panel (70 x 99 cm), 55.031.

I. Introduction Sample of a Visual Analysis Essay

Analyzing an image or visual display is an exciting and challenging academic undertaking for many students. Unlike other academic texts that focus on what other scholars have said, written, and documented through research studies, a visual analysis focuses on an image. As such, the student’s work is to provide an in-depth description of how the artist has appropriated elements and principles of design in their work. Looking at Otto Dix’s “Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin” image above, it is evident the artist has appropriated contrast, color, size, and texture, among other elements and principles of design, to make a picture come to life.

II. Example of a Body in a Visual Analysis Essay

A. Reclining Position of a Woman

Dix’s image above reflects a woman in a dress and stockings in a reclining position. Besides two different types of textile around her, there is a leopard fur beneath her body’s upper side. Behind a woman is a snarling animal resembling a dog, and on the far right of the painting is wood flooring. Looking at the woman’s face, one can notice that this the focal point. Basically, it is where the artist has concentrated sharp detail, thus making her face confront the audience instantly. Concerning principles of contrast and emphasis, a red lipstick contrasts sharply with the woman’s light skin, while using her hand as a frame beneath her face emphasizes a focal point.

B. Colors

When it comes to design elements, the artist has used the green, red, white, and brown colors to exemplify the image. In this case, a closer look indicates that Dix has contrasted red and green, a warm and cold color, respectively, particularly on the woman’s skin and face. Moreover, he has contrasted dark and light, whereby her face and body exemplify a light theme, while other objects in a picture exemplify have a dark theme.

C. Lines

Regarding a line element, Dix has used smooth curves around the woman’s lower body, particularly around her hip and thighs. In particular, doing so has helped bring out the aspect of “femininity.” Interestingly, the use of angular lines around the face, jaw, fingers, and shoulders emphasizes the “masculine” aspect. Besides strong lines that make the cheeks and jaw prominent, the artist has also used a line element to exaggerate the woman’s eyes, which takes the shape of cat eyes or curved almonds.

D. Texture

About an element of texture, it is evident that the artist has gone into great lengths to create an illusion of texture. Notably, an image has no literal texture because it is a two-dimensional painting. Moreover, Dix’s effort in creating texture is evident by many objects that he includes in his painting. In turn, these objects include the leopard fur; the woman’s dress, stockings, and hair; the materials that look like velvet; and the fur of the dog-like animal. Besides, all these objects create a temptation to touch. In this case, the texture of the woman’s evening wear and the curtain in the background with a velvet-look suggest a sense of costume and luxury. Collectively, they enhance a visual and material richness of an image.

III. Conclusion Sample of a Visual Analysis Essay

There is doubt that analyzing an image or a visual display is an exciting and challenging academic endeavor for students of art. In particular, Dix’s “Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin” image shows a master with which the artist has appropriated contrast, color, size, and texture, among other elements and principles of design to make his work come to life. About a painting, the artist has used these concepts to exemplify the woman’s face, which is the painting’s focal point.

Summing Up on How to Write a Good Visual Analysis Essay

Writing a visual analysis essay is an essential academic exercise for students. Since such an essay aims to analyze an image or visual display, learners must familiarize themselves with elements of design, such as color, size, and texture, and principles of design, such as emphasis and contrast. In essence, students use these concepts to provide an in-depth description of an image. Hence, when writing a visual analysis essay, scholars must learn the following tips:

  • provide a vivid description of an image, so that the audience can have a mental picture of it;
  • give a rhetorical situation of an image – its historical context;
  • explain the artist’s intended message;
  • cover details about any controversy or misunderstanding regarding a visual object or subject.