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.
|Step 1: Describe it
|Step 2: Analyse it
|Step 4: Evaluate it
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?
- 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.
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|
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.