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Visual Analysis: Writing About What You See

Stuart Davis, Blue Café, 1928

There are lots of guides to help you look at art, analyze its visual properties and write about what you see and what it might mean. Following are some of the principles Henry Sayre uses (Writing About Art, Fourth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002).

1. What is the subject matter and does the title help you understand the work?
2. Look at formal elements--that is, things that have to do with the formation or the construction of the work:

  • line: Look at the way Davis use line in Blue Café. His strong vertical and horizontal lines define a series of shapes and forms: the buildings with their windows, shutters and chimneys, the cobblestoned street. Notice how the few curved lines contrast with the rigid geometry of the city.
  • light and dark: Davis sets up the idea of a foreground and background by placing a black building behind the two pale foreground shapes.
  • predominant color scheme: Davis's colors are mostly pale: and are a mix of warm (pink, yellow) and cool (green, blue)
  • shapes: Here, the repetition of rectangles suggests the built environment of a city (Paris). Are there any organic, irregular shapes in the composition?
  • Any other  formal elements that you notice, such as texture?

3. How are the elements organized?

  • rhythm: can you find colors, shapes or lines that are repeated or used as accent notes?
  • balance: is the composition balanced?  Is it symmetrical or asymmetrically balanced? Remember that colors can be used to suggest weight. Because dark colors appear heavier, a small dark shape can balance one or more larger areas of lighter color. Try mentally removing one shape or color and see how that affects the balance of the composition.

4. How has the artist used these formal elements to give a message or meaning to the work?

Here, you can talk about the emotional or intellectual impact of the painting.

  • Does Davis's use of grids and right angles evoke a reaction to the idea of the city and of urban existence?
  • Are his colors soothing, jarring, stimulating or dull? Are they expressive or descriptive?
  • Has he made this scene inviting? If so how? If not, what is offputting about it?

OK, this is a start.



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