Writing about Images

Find information on:

  • Critical thinking
  • Visual elements and composition
  • Semiotics
  • Vocabulary

How can I write about images?

  • You can use critical thinking. This does not mean being negative or attacking someone’s work.
  • It begins with descriptive questions such as Who? What? When? Where?
  • Go deeper by analysing and evaluating: Why? How? What if? So What? What next?
  • Look at the diagram and questions for guidance.
Critical Thinking Diagram

Critical Thinking Diagram

Step 1: Describe it

  • What is it?
  • What materials or techniques were used to create it?
  • Who created it?
  • When was it created, and what was happening around this time?
Step 2: Analyse it

  • Why was it created?
  • So what might it mean?
  • How are visual elements and composition used for effect?
Step 4: Evaluate it

  • How was it received by practitioners, critics or the general public?
  • ‘What …does this artwork or experience contribute – if anything- to the world?’ (Williams, 2014, p. 46)
  • How useful is this example to your practice?


Study Skills Toolkit


What are the key parts of an image?

  • Visual elements: these can include line, shape (2D), colour, space, texture, value and form (3D) (see below).
  • The elements change between disciplines. For an explanation, see these useful handouts on the elements of art and the visual elements in photography.
  • Composition: how elements are arranged within an image. See the principles of design from the Getty Museum (2011).


How can I read an image’s meaning?

Diagram of the sign

Diagram of the sign

  • One way is to apply semiotics, the study of signs, to aid reading an image.
  • A sign has two parts: the signifier and the signified (Saussure, 1974).
  • The signifier is the physical form (what you see, hear, touch), and the signified is the concept that it refers to (Chandler, 2007, pp. 14-15).
  • Multiple signs often work together in order to give meaning.


Example of semiotics

  • The painting below is by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Waterhouse.
  • It was created to represent lines from Tennyson’s (1832) poem, ‘The Lady of Shalott’.
  • Read the poem extract; then look at the table underneath to see how he may have achieved this.


Painting by Waterhouse - the Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1888): www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01543

And down the river’s dim expanse

Like some bold seer in a trance,

Seeing all his own mischance –

With glassy countenance

Did she look to Camelot.

And at the closing of the day

She loosed the chain, and down she lay;

The broad stream bore her far away,

The Lady of Shalott.


What can be seen? (Signifier)
What could this represent? (Signified)
White dress Purity, innocence
Long sleeves Demure, lady-like
Dark colours Sombre event, dusk
Candles blown out Finality
Boat Journey


Using correct vocabulary

  • Use specialist glossaries, encyclopedias or dictionaries to understand and learn new terms.
  • There are online glossaries available from MoMA (no date) and Tate (no date). We also subscribe to the Grove Encyclopedia of Art.


E-book resources 

Try these resources available from Ebook Central: https://tinyurl.com/vveaeus


The following sources were consulted for this page:

Baldwin, J. and Roberts, L. (2006) Visual communication from theory to practice. Lausanne: AVA.

Chandler, D. (2007) Semiotics: the basics. 2nd edn. London: Routledge.

De Saussure, F. (1974) Course in general linguistics. London: Fontana.

Plymouth University (2010) Critical thinking. Available at: www.learnhigher.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/Critical_Thinking1.pdf (Accessed: 8 April 2019).

Rideal, L. (2017) How to read paintings. London: Herbert Press.

Williams, G. (2014) How to write about contemporary art. London: Thames and Hudson.