A formal analysis is quite simply an analysis of the forms utilized in the work of art. It is a close inspection of the artist’s use of aspects such as color, shape, line, mass, and space. The formal analysis moves beyond simple description in that it connects the elements of the work to the effects they have on the viewer.

--Undergraduate Writing Center, University of Texas at Austin

Formal Analysis

A formal analysis does NOT concentrate on subject matter, function, culture, etc., but it may consider them when they apply to decisions about formal element, things like color, line, size, etc. (See list at bottom of page.)  A clear, well-written formal analysis will contain three things: it will name the formal elements discussed, it will describe the use of the formal elements, and it will discuss the effects of that use of said formal element.  (This discussion of effect is the analysis part of the formal analysis.) 

Here’s an overly simple formal analysis:

The colors (element named) used by the artist are very bright (element described).  In fact, they are so bright that they seared the image into my eyes (effect of the use of formal element).  Now I can’t forget the painting (a bit more of the effect).


Introductory paragraph:

If you are asked to write a formal analysis, I recommend including an introductory paragraph. This paragraph should 1) name the artist, artwork, and provide the date (if known). If this information is not available, then the culture and approximate dates should be provided. and 2) gives the reader an idea of where the paper is going. This can be naming the elements covered or noting their overall effect. A brief formal analysis of the Reception Dress by Henry van de Velde (c. 1901) reveals that the structure of the dress and mechanics of the body beneath guided the design (This states  the underlying idea of the paper) of the linear (This raised the expectation that line will be covered)  decoration.

Paragraph from the body of the paper:

I recommend that your organize each paragraph of the paper's body around a formal element. This helps ensure that you 1) name the formal element, 2) describe it, and 3) discuss its effects. It also makes your paper easier for the reader (in most cases, me!) to follow. The box below contains a more professional formal element than the one above. It appears in the Applied Arts page of the AD website.

Van de Velde used soutache (appliquéed cord) as decoration on this and many other of his dresses. Soutache is essentially line as the cord essentially forms a path from one point to another.  The first thing one notices is that these lines are best described as     flowing, thus the designs that are made appear organic.  This is fitting for clothing the body, which is also organic.  Lines formed by piping at the edges of the individual pieces of fabric used to construct the dress make the overall structure of the garment more obvious.

Compositional Sketch:

A compositional sketch is very helpful when doing formal analysis.  It is especially useful when covering aspects of composition.  (See the words under Composition on the list of formal elements below). 

compositional sketch of reception dressFor instance, in reference to pattern, the repeated lines of the folds and soutache are much more obvious in the compositional sketch to the left (especially since I made them pink) than in the photograph of the garment. 

To draw a compositional sketch:
1) Draw the outline of the object (for most paintings and drawings this is a rectangle).
2) Squint. Yes, you will have to squint. The idea is to blur your vision.
3) Add the most obvious elements to the interior of the outline. For instance, you may not see every nostril on a painting, but you will most like see some outlines and color changes.

I require a compositional sketch be included with formal analysis papers because the help students distance themselves from subject matter, which often distracts from formal elements.


List of Formal (and Design) Elements:

COMPOSITION (The elements below are known as design elements or principles)
Pattern (repetition and rhythm)
Unity and Variety
Emphasis and Subordination
Directional Force

Special categories and terms
For Sculpture:
Mass and Volume