2. Visual Description

A visual description is a complete documentary account of an artwork using clear, unbiased, and unambiguous language. It is an act of translating a personal visual experience into a written document. The visual description should enable the reader to imagine the work of art without having first seen it. This genre of writing, therefore, must adhere to a rational organization and clear structure.

As a fundamental element to your research project, a visual description will force you to look closely, articulate the features of your object, and raise critical questions about its visual structure. Consider drawing and diagramming your object. This allows you to physically engage with your object and, in turn, see things that you may otherwise overlook. As you write and draw, keep a list of your questions so that you can discuss them with your professor.

How to write a visual description

  • READ
    • Marjorie Munsterberg, “Visual Description,” Writing About Art.
    • Sample Visual Description from Paul Underwood, The Kariye Djami, vol. 1 (Pantheon Books, 1966), 282.
    • Starter Kit,” from Marilyn Stokstad and Michael Cothren, Art History, 5th ed. (Pearson, 2013), xxii–xxv.
  • OBSERVE
    • Before you begin writing, consider the following questions about your object. What are the materials and how it is made? How would you describe its size in relationship to you? What is the subject matter (who or what is depicted)? How are the figures and scenes organized? How is space and depth rendered? What lines, shapes, colors, and patterns do you see, and how are they organized? How would you describe its style (representational, abstract, linear, painterly, etc)?
  • WRITE
    • When you write, present your object according to a logical structure. Begin by mentioning the title, artist (if known), date, dimensions, materials, and where the object is located (owner, museum, or collection). Describe the overall composition and zoom into the smallest details. Identify the subject matter depicted on the object so that you can quickly ground your reader. Describe the specific figures, shapes, and patterns: where they are placed, how they are composed into scenes, and how those scenes run together into a narrative. Woven into this visual description should be a discussion of style, citing specific visual evidence. If necessary, you might also want to weave in remarks about issues of craftsmanship and the artwork’s condition. Make this visual description as detailed as you can. Leave no stone unturned. Describe everything in a systematic and orderly manner—from outside in, from inside out, from top to bottom, from left to right, or some other logical sequence.