Writing about Images

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, forms, space, colour and texture (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).
Line, shape, form, space, colour, texture

The Visual Elements


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.


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.