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, 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).
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.