How to analyse an artwork – 3 important criteria to consider


In this post we will see how to analyse an artwork and how to do its reading and interpretation. We have to take into account 3 important criteria: objective criteria, research, meanings.

how to analyse an artwork

Reading or interpreting any work of art becomes as important a step as the own artistic production, because only then we will understand and truly grasp the artist’s message.

Text: Yolanda Silva, author of the online course Analysing Art.

Cover image: Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, by Thomas Gainsborough (XVIII century) – detail.

how to analyse an artwork

When we think about how to analyse an artwork the analysis may be objective (or visual), which describes the elements as they are viewed, or subjective (or symbolic), which describes our feelings when viewing the work.

We can also analyse a work under a formal point of view (or aesthetic) that analyses all the visual syntax (composition), including historical context, theme, and organization of the elements – which involves a more comprehensive search.

base elements

Since a reading can vary according to the sensations that may be caused in each of us by the work of art, some base elements are established when reading it.

Therefore, certain common criteria must be taken into account:

  • time,
  • technique,
  • theme,
  • resources used by the artist.


Then, how to analyse an artwork using of appropriate research:

1) Gather data on the author (such as date of birth and death, social origin, training, other works);

2) Recognise the subject (religious scene, historical, mythological, allegorical, portrait, landscape, etc.; if it is part of an exhibit, and what was its first public appearance, etc.);

3) Analyse the subject (i.e.: a description of what is represented, settings, frames, characters, actions, etc.).

If it’s the case, we can also add data relating to its location, creating a brief caption: author, title, date of production, support/material, dimensions, and place of storage/display.

When we describe a work of art, we must start by writing our first impressions. These may help us further on in our analysis. However, bear in mind that we must always justify our findings so that others can relate to them and thus understand them.

We can, for example, establish comparisons between several works or even between artists and consider alternatives that could have been chosen by the artists. We may even meditate on what might have affected the artist’s choices in this or that particular work.


Finally, we must conclude with an analysis of meanings (real or symbolic) of the piece in question.

We should base this analysis on our research, on the symbols and iconography present in the work of art and, eventually, on the comparison with works by the same author and period.

Remember: anything that is actually observable in the work of art is noteworthy and reason for analysis.

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