Composition Formal Analysis Essay

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:


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.

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.

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). 

For 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


It answers the question, "What do you see?"


The various elements that constitute a description include:

a. Form of art whether architecture, sculpture, painting or one of the minor arts

b. Medium of work whether clay, stone, steel, paint, etc., and technique (tools used)

c. Size and scale of work (relationship to person and/or frame and/or context)

d. Elements or general shapes (architectural structural system) within the composition, including building of post-lintel construction or painting with several figures lined up in a row; identification of objects

e. Description of axis whether vertical, diagonal, horizontal, etc.

f. Description of line, including contour as soft, planar, jagged, etc.

g. Description of how line describes shape and space (volume); distinguish between lines of objects and lines of composition, e.g., thick, thin, variable, irregular, intermittent, indistinct, etc.

h. Relationships between shapes, e.g., large and small, overlapping, etc.

i. Description of color and color scheme = palette

j. Texture of surface or other comments about execution of work

k. Context of object: original location and date

2. Analysis = determining what the features suggest and deciding why the artist used such features to convey specific ideas.


It answers the question, "How did the artist do it?"


The various elements that constitute analysis include:

a. Determination of subject matter through naming iconographic elements, e.g., historical event, allegory, mythology, etc.

b. Selection of most distinctive features or characteristics whether line, shape, color, texture, etc.

c. Analysis of the principles of design or composition, e.g., stable,

repetitious, rhythmic, unified, symmetrical, harmonious, geometric, varied, chaotic, horizontal or vertically oriented, etc.

d. Discussion of how elements or structural system contribute to appearance of image or function

e. Analysis of use of light and role of color, e.g., contrasty, shadowy,

illogical, warm, cool, symbolic, etc.

f. Treatment of space and landscape, both real and illusionary (including use of perspective), e.g., compact, deep, shallow, naturalistic, random

g. Portrayal of movement and how it is achieved

h. Effect of particular medium(s) used

i. Your perceptions of balance, proportion and scale (relationships of each part of the composition to the whole and to each other part) and your emotional

j. Reaction to object or monument

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