Bamboo and rocks
Artist: Li Kan (Chinese, 1245–1320)
Period: Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
Date: dated 1318
What is a formal analysis?
A formal analysis is an analysis of the forms appearing in a work of art. These forms give the work its expression, message, or meaning. A formal analysis assumes a work of art is (1) a constructed object (2) that has been created with a stable meaning (even though it might not be clear to the viewer) (3) that can be ascertained by studying the relationships between the elements of the work. The formal analysis is more than just a descriiption of the work. It should also include a thesis statement that reflects your conclusions about the work. The thesis statement may, in general, answer a question like these: What do I think is the meaning of this work? What is the message that this work or artist sends to the viewer? What does this work accomplish and how? What’s the point of it and how do the visual elements of the work support that point? The thesis statement is an important element. It sets the tone for the entire paper, and sets it apart from being a merely descriiptive paper.
Format for the Paper: 3 pages; double spaced; Times New Roman; 1” margins; last name and page numbers on bottom footer. Make sure you proofread your papers for adhering to the information listed above, as well as incorrect grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other errors. In addition, make sure your paper includes a thesis statement. Your grade will reflect your ability to follow these guidelines.
In the first paragraph, called the introduction, you will include:
the subject being analyzed
a very brief descriiption of the work
thesis statement – usually the last line or so of your first paragraph.
From that point, the rest of the formal analysis should include not only a descriiption of the piece, but especially those details of the work that have led you to come to your thesis. Yet, your paper should not be a random flow of ideas about the work (i.e. stream of consciousness writing). Rather, your paper should have a sense of order, moving purposefully through your descriiption with regard to specific elements (ex: one paragraph may deal with composition, another with a descriiption of figures, another on the background, another about line, etc., depending on the artwork). Finally, in your conclusion (the final paragraph) you should end your paper with an elevated restatement of your thesis.
It is important to remember that your interest here is strictly formal; NO RESEARCH IS TO BE USED IN THIS PAPER. In other words, you are strictly relying on your ability to visually ‘read’ a work of art and make interpretations about it based on your analysis of it. Remember too that your analysis should not be just a mechanical, physical descriiption, though you should use descriiptive language and adjectives to situate your work in your larger argument. Begin generally, and then move on to the more specific elements of the work.
Things to consider when writing a formal analysis (in no particular order):
Keep in mind that you always need to back up your statements with visual evidence!
– Record your first impression(s) of the artwork. What stands out? Is there a focal point (an area to which the artist wants your eye to be drawn)? If so, what formal elements led you to this conclusion? Your impressions can help you reach your thesis.
– What is the subject of the artwork?
– Composition: How are the parts of the work arranged? Is there a stable or unstable composition? Is it dynamic? Full of movement? Or is it static?
– Pose: If the work has figures, are the proportions believable? Realistic? Describe the pose(s). Is the figure active, calm, graceful, stiff, tense, or relaxed? Does the figure convey a mood? If there are several figures, how do they relate to each other (do they interact? not?)?
– Proportions: Does the whole or even individual parts of the figure(s) or natural objects in the work look natural? Why did you come to this conclusion?
– Line: Are the outlines (whether perceived or actual) smooth, fuzzy, clear? Are the main lines vertical, horizontal, diagonal, or curved, or a combination of any of these? Are the lines jagged and full of energy? Sketchy? Geometric? Curvilinear? Bold? Subtle?
– Space: If the artist conveys space, what type of space is used? What is the relation of the main figure to the space around it? Are the main figures entirely within the space (if the artwork is a painting), or are parts of the bodies cut off by the edge of the artwork? Is the setting illusionistic, as if one could enter the space of the painting, or is it flat and two-dimensional, a space that one could not possibly enter?
– Texture: If a sculpture, is the surface smooth and polished or rough? Are there several textures conveyed? Where and How? If a painting, is there any texture to the paint surface? Are the brushstrokes invisible? Brushy? Sketchy? Loose and flowing? Or tight and controlled?
– Light and Shadow: Are shadows visible? Where? Are there dark shadows, light shadows, or both? How do the shadows affect the work?
– Size: How big is the artwork? Are the figures or objects in the work life-sized, larger or smaller than life? How does the size affect the work?
– Color: What type of colors are used in the work? Bright? Dull? Complimentary? Does the artist use colors to draw your attention to specific areas of the work? How? If a sculpture, examine the color(s) of the medium and how it affects the work.
– Mood: Do you sense an overall mood in the artwork? Perhaps several different moods? If so, describe them. How does the mood interpret how you view the work?
Is it dynamic?
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Bamboo and rocks
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