An essay-writing guide for History of Art students
Posted by Katie in History of Art on December 5, 2015
About 2,500 words later and I’ve just finished writing my essay for Conceptual Art and its Aftermath in Britain.
It’s that time of year when the library starts getting busier, most of the books you need are on-loan, and the books you have taken out are being recalled (the other day I took a book out and one day later it was recalled. Ridiculous). And it’s all because most of us are busy with writing our pre-Christmas essays. Yay.
Seeing as I’ve just finished my essay, I’m going to give you some pointers on how I think a good History of Art essay should be written! Obviously each and everyone of us has their own way of doing things, and I may have missed some things out, so don’t take what I say as gospel. This is just how I go about it! Here goes…
- Find out which artist(s)/movement/period interests you. I recommend writing about a topic that actually interests you, because it makes everything so much more bearable. Going to lectures and seminars should help you decide which artists or movements you like the most.
- Do your research. This is an obvious one I guess. Have a look at the reading list provided by your professor for an idea on which books to take out the library. The David Wilson Library has loads of art history books, so really make the most of it. Also have a look online. Art museum websites are fairly good, such as the Tate, but avoid doing your research on unofficial websites that aren’t reliable. When doing research, try to learn as much as you can about the historical context and the biography of the artist(s) you’re focusing on, because this will help when analysing specific artworks. Look for things that you can discuss in your essay.
- Decide on a specific, interesting argument to discuss in your essay. For some modules, your tutor will provide you with a list of titles to choose from when writing your essay – this makes choosing a line of argument fairly easy. However, for Conceptual Art I had to come up with my own essay title. I really struggled at first to come up with an interesting line of argument that would make for a good, thought-provoking read. The best piece of advice I can give at this point is to make sure you have something to say. It sounds a bit obvious, I know, but you need to make sure that your reader has actually learned something after reading your essay. Focus on something specific about the artist, avoid talking generally about them, and avoid reciting their biography. Try to write critically and avoid being too descriptive.
- Choose a few artworks to discuss in your essay. With History of Art you’re going to want to analyse some artworks to back up your points. I think around four, maybe five artworks is enough if you want to go into quite a lot of depth for each one. The artworks you choose should provide a lot of scope for discussion and be relevant to your line of argument. When I choose artworks for my essays, I don’t necessarily choose the ones that I like most. I choose them based on whether they will help me develop my argument.
- Make an essay plan. Plan and structure what you’re going to say into an introduction, middle, and conclusion. You can even plan each individual paragraph if you want. I think a lot of people rush over essay planning and go straight into writing the real thing, which doesn’t work for everyone. Making a plan will help you to give your thoughts and ideas a bit more structure and coherence.
- Write your essay. Obviously quite an important part of the essay-writing process. I don’t really know what else to say apart from: write! I should mention at this point about coming up with an essay title. A lot of professors will tell you to write your essay and then come up with a title afterwards. While this can work for a lot of people, I like to have a good idea of what my title is going to be before I start writing. So, do whatever suits you best. Come up with a title either before or after writing the essay. Both ways work. If you come up with a title before writing, just make sure that when you do start writing, you stick to what the title is asking you to write. Coming up with a title afterwards is fairly easy as you can tailor it towards what you’ve discussed in the essay.
- Cite the sources you use and provide a bibliography. This can be tedious but it’s important that you don’t neglect this part. You don’t want to be penalised for plagiarism. Each department varies with the type of referencing they prefer, so make sure to ask your professor if you have any doubts.
- Check your work. Make sure what you’ve written is clear and makes sense. Make sure the information you provided is accurate. Check your grammar. Check for any spelling mistakes. You know the drill.
- Complete the final touches. Make sure your essay is paragraphed and double-spaced. Choose a simple, readable font. Add headers and footers for your student number, name of module, page numbers, etc.
- Submit your essay. You finished your essay! Woo! Once you’re completely happy with it, you’ll be ready to submit it. You’ll need to submit a hard copy and an electronic copy on Turnitin.
There we have it! Thank you for reading and I hope some of you found this useful!
Posted in Essay, Studying, Uncategorized| Tagged art, art history, essay, history of art, leicester, student blogs, university, university of leicester, UoL
Hey I'm Katie and I study Modern Languages with History of Art. I'll be blogging about my experiences as a final year student at the University of Leicester and letting you know how I'm coping after having just spent a year abroad in Italy! Alongside my studies I'll be spending my 4th year as Secretary for the Erasmus and Exchange Society, so you can expect an insight into both the academic and social side of Leicester. I love art, travelling and meeting new people.
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Writing Essays in Art History
These OWL resources provide guidance on typical genres with the art history discipline that may appear in professional settings or academic assignments, including museum catalog entries, museum title cards, art history analysis, notetaking, and art history exams.
Last Edited: 2016-03-01 09:17:11
Art History Analysis – Formal Analysis and Stylistic Analysis
Typically in an art history class the main essay students will need to write for a final paper or for an exam is a formal or stylistic analysis.
A formal analysis is just what it sounds like – you need to analyze the form of the artwork. This includes the individual design elements – composition, color, line, texture, scale, contrast, etc. Questions to consider in a formal analysis is how do all these elements come together to create this work of art? Think of formal analysis in relation to literature – authors give descriptions of characters or places through the written word. How does an artist convey this same information?
Organize your information and focus on each feature before moving onto the text – it is not ideal to discuss color and jump from line to then in the conclusion discuss color again. First summarize the overall appearance of the work of art – is this a painting? Does the artist use only dark colors? Why heavy brushstrokes? etc and then discuss details of the object – this specific animal is gray, the sky is missing a moon, etc. Again, it is best to be organized and focused in your writing – if you discuss the animals and then the individuals and go back to the animals you run the risk of making your writing unorganized and hard to read. It is also ideal to discuss the focal of the piece – what is in the center? What stands out the most in the piece or takes up most of the composition?
A stylistic approach can be described as an indicator of unique characteristics that analyzes and uses the formal elements (2-D: Line, color, value, shape and 3-D all of those and mass).The point of style is to see all the commonalities in a person’s works, such as the use of paint and brush strokes in Van Gogh’s work. Style can distinguish an artist’s work from others and within their own timeline, geographical regions, etc.
Methods & Theories To Consider:
Social Art History
Visual Cultural Studies
Stylistic Analysis Example:
The following is a brief stylistic analysis of two Greek statues, an example of how style has changed because of the “essence of the age.” Over the years, sculptures of women started off as being plain and fully clothed with no distinct features, to the beautiful Venus/Aphrodite figures most people recognize today. In the mid-seventh century to the early fifth, life-sized standing marble statues of young women, often elaborately dress in gaily painted garments were created known as korai. The earliest korai is a Naxian women to Artemis. The statue wears a tight-fitted, belted peplos, giving the body a very plain look. The earliest korai wore the simpler Dorian peplos, which was a heavy woolen garment. From about 530, most wear a thinner, more elaborate, and brightly painted Ionic linen and himation. A largely contrasting Greek statue to the korai is the Venus de Milo. The Venus from head to toe is six feet seven inches tall. Her hips suggest that she has had several children. Though her body shows to be heavy, she still seems to almost be weightless. Viewing the Venus de Milo, she changes from side to side. From her right side she seems almost like a pillar and her leg bears most of the weight. She seems be firmly planted into the earth, and since she is looking at the left, her big features such as her waist define her. The Venus de Milo had a band around her right bicep. She had earrings that were brutally stolen, ripping her ears away. Venus was noted for loving necklaces, so it is very possibly she would have had one. It is also possible she had a tiara and bracelets. Venus was normally defined as “golden,” so her hair would have been painted. Two statues in the same region, have throughout history, changed in their style.
Compare and Contrast Essay
Most introductory art history classes will ask students to write a compare and contrast essay about two pieces – examples include comparing and contrasting a medieval to a renaissance painting. It is always best to start with smaller comparisons between the two works of art such as the medium of the piece. Then the comparison can include attention to detail so use of color, subject matter, or iconography. Do the same for contrasting the two pieces – start small. After the foundation is set move on to the analysis and what these comparisons or contrasting material mean – ‘what is the bigger picture here?’ Consider why one artist would wish to show the same subject matter in a different way, how, when, etc are all questions to ask in the compare and contrast essay. If during an exam it would be best to quickly outline the points to make before tackling writing the essay.
Compare and Contrast Example:
Stele of Hammurabi from Susa (modern Shush, Iran), ca. 1792 – 1750 BCE, Basalt, height of stele approx. 7’ height of relief 28’
Stele, relief sculpture, Art as propaganda – Hammurabi shows that his law code is approved by the gods, depiction of land in background, Hammurabi on the same place of importance as the god, etc.
Top of this stele shows the relief image of Hammurabi receiving the law code from Shamash, god of justice, Code of Babylonian social law, only two figures shown, different area and time period, etc.
Stele of Naram-sin, Sippar Found at Susa c. 2220 - 2184 bce. Limestone, height 6'6"
Stele, relief sculpture, Example of propaganda because the ruler (like the Stele of Hammurabi) shows his power through divine authority, Naramsin is the main character due to his large size, depiction of land in background, etc.
Akkadian art, made of limestone, the stele commemorates a victory of Naramsin, multiple figures are shown specifically soldiers, different area and time period, etc.
Regardless of what essay approach you take in class it is absolutely necessary to understand how to analyze the iconography of a work of art and to incorporate into your paper. Iconography is defined as subject matter, what the image means. For example, why do things such as a small dog in a painting in early Northern Renaissance paintings represent sexuality? Additionally, how can an individual perhaps identify these motifs that keep coming up?
The following is a list of symbols and their meaning in Marriage a la Mode by William Hogarth (1743) that is a series of six paintings that show the story of marriage in Hogarth’s eyes.
- Man has pockets turned out symbolizing he has lost money and was recently in a fight by the state of his clothes.
- Lap dog shows loyalty but sniffs at woman’s hat in the husband’s pocket showing sexual exploits.
- Black dot on husband’s neck believed to be symbol of syphilis.
- Mantel full of ugly Chinese porcelain statues symbolizing that the couple has no class.
- Butler had to go pay bills, you can tell this by the distasteful look on his face and that his pockets are stuffed with bills and papers.
- Card game just finished up, women has directions to game under foot, shows her easily cheating nature.
- Paintings of saints line a wall of the background room, isolated from the living, shows the couple’s complete disregard to faith and religion.
- The dangers of sexual excess are underscored in the Hograth by placing Cupid among ruins, foreshadowing the inevitable ruin of the marriage.
- Eventually the series (other five paintings) shows that the woman has an affair, the men duel and die, the woman hangs herself and the father takes her ring off her finger symbolizing the one thing he could salvage from the marriage.