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Formal analysis is visual analysis.  A formal analysis statement takes stock of the visual properties of a work of art, or what the eye sees.  The word “formal” is not the opposite of the word “informal;” rather, it comes from the word “form,” which is another word for shape – one of the most important “formal” traits.

What is a formal analysis not?  First, a formal analysis does not make use of research.  You will not need to find outside materials to help you understand the historical or cultural relevance of the work of art.  Second, this type of analysis does not take into account viewer response.  Judgments such as “it makes me feel…,” or “I like/dislike the object because…,” although an important component of the total experience of art, are not part of the assignment.  Last, a formal analysis is not an interpretive essay.  It is not the place to read the artwork for intended or unintended meaning, or to explore what the artist was thinking when he or she created the piece.

1. Choose your topics from the following list:

• medium (painting, sculpture, drawing, weaving, photography, mixed-media, etc.)
• color (red, blue, green, etc.; primary/secondary/ tertiary colors; neutral colors; earth tones;    dark colors; light colors;  bright colors; dull colors, etc.)
• shape (square, circle, rectangle, organic or natural-looking shapes, angular shapes, etc.)
• volumes (sphere, ovoid, pyramid, cylinder, etc.)
• composition (how forms and shapes work together to create a whole)
• materials used (paint, paper, canvas, stone, papier mache, wood, ink, etc.)
• iconography, or what is portrayed (sailboats, trees, people, abstract shapes, etc.)
• depth, if any, and method of creating depth (overlapping shapes, orthogonals pointing back    into space, brighter colors in the foreground and paler colors in the distance, etc.)
• light source (sun, lamp, candle, fireplace, no light source, etc.)
• light direction (from left, right, top, bottom, or from outside the work of art)
• texture (actual or the illusion of texture; rough smooth, silky, soft, bumpy, grainy, sinewy, etc.)
• lines (implied, contour, curving, angular, thick, thin, flowing, jagged, disconnected, wavy,    dotted, etc.)
• gestalt effects (how our brain connects areas to create overall shapes or lines)
• repetition (motifs, forms, shapes, or iconographical elements, that appear three or more times)
• overall shape and size of the entire piece

If you use any information from the walltext or gallery book about the artist or the work of art in the introduction to your essay (nowhere else is appropriate), be sure to credit the source in parentheses. For ex. (artist’s statement, gallery book) or (walltext).  Remember that outside information should not be a part of the thesis statement or body of your essay.You are only to discuss what you see.

Student Formal Analysis Example #1

Format:  discussion of three separate formal elements—1. iconography, 2. depth, 3. texture

Iconography, Depth, and Texture in Tommye McClure Scanlin’s
Landscape Interrupted (2005)

By Julianne McGrath (freshman)

Tommye McClure Scanlin’s textile-art piece is currently on display at the Fulton Cotton Mill Art Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia.  The artwork is modest in size—approximately eight inches by ten inches, yet it makes use of several important design elements.   This formal analysis statement will discuss Scanlin’s use of iconography, depth, and texture.
Iconography is a noticeable aspect of the piece.  The artwork portrays a landscape divided by a highway that narrows as it proceeds into the distance.  A grassy, rising hillside hugs the right side of the road and is peppered with berries and shrubbery.  The hillside gently ascends towards a thick line of trees.  The artist positions a small, square, building towards the back of the landscape.  A retaining wall follows the left edge of the highway.  Last, there is a blue sky filled with billowing white clouds.
Depth is also a major design element in Scanlin’s piece.  Object size is used to create the illusion of depth.  For instance the trees that are closer to the viewer are larger than those that appear to be further away.  Likewise, the road and the retaining wall decrease in size as they travel into the distance.  Finally, the clouds in the foreground are much larger than those in the background, which resemble the tiniest specks of white.
The last formal element for discussion in relation to Scanlin’s textile piece is texture.  Scanlin invites the viewed to actually touch the piece, thus we can get a sense of the work’s actual (as opposed to the illusion of) texture.  The rising hillside and road feel fuzzy due to the artist’s use of a wide, yarn-like thread.  The clouds feel soft because they are made from actual cotton balls.  The least-textured area is the blue of the sky, which is made from a smooth, silky-feeling thread.
To conclude, Landscape Interrupted contains the formal design elements of iconography, depth, and texture.  The piece portrays a simple outdoor scene.  Depth is created using objects size.  The piece’s texture is varied due to the materials used.  All of these elements are readily observed by the viewer.

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