What Is a Visual Analysis Essay?

Visual analysis is a distinct form of analysis dedicated to works of visual art. It presents your visual information derived from observing a painting, a sculpture, or any other piece of art, organized in line with academic writing conventions. In this way, you use a visual analysis essay to express what you saw in the written form, trying to express what you believe the artist meant in their work, what their core message is, how their work of art is consistent with the dominant genre/style of that time, and what visual means they chose to express their message. 

On the one hand, performing such a task seems exciting because you need to analyze a visual piece and translate your experiences into words, which is a self-discovery journey and a training session for your artistic taste. At the same time, not all people are visually receptive or artistically competent to compose a solid analytical piece. So, we have composed this guidance to help you out with visual analysis writing. 

How to Write a Visual Analysis Essay? 

Those interested in how to write a visual analysis essay may find this section helpful. Here are the key points to follow in the pre-writing process

  • #1. Determine the art object’s central message. Whether it is a painting, a photo, or a sculpture, there is a central message behind it – something that the creator wanted to say. 
  • #2. Compare the form of presentation with the message. For instance, if the painting depicts a mourning woman, you may find supportive details to present in your essay, e.g., her hand gestures, a pale face, the traces of tears on her face, black clothing, etc.
  • #3. Find any icons or symbols relevant to the central message. It’s very exciting to decipher complex visual works, such as, for instance, Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Here, you can conduct an investigation of the atmosphere by looking beyond images, and you’ll find some hints at the concealed content in small details. 
  • #4. Research the context of the work to understand it better. For instance, The Last Supper depicts a moment after Jesus reveals to his disciples that he knows about the coming treason of one of them. Once the reviewer understands the momentum, they can understand the agitated gestures and facial expressions of the disciples much better.  
  • #5. Think of what you feel. It’s better to do this twice – first, stop and view the object of art carefully before you research about it, so that the information from other sources doesn’t distract you. Second, you may take a closer look at the object after you’ve learned much about it, so that the new knowledge informs you and you find intricate details. 


What Can I Write about? 

As its title suggests, visual analysis is about translating what you see (the visual component of something) into words. As a rule, the components to include in such a paper are as follows: 

  • Lines are usually the starting point of analysis. Any object has lines as its basic building blocks, so it is easy to discern these components in the overall composition and present your evaluation in the analysis. Indicate whether lines are simple or complex, sharp or elegant, thick or thin, etc. These descriptions can contribute to the readers’ initial understanding of the object. 
  • Shapes are the object’s elements created with the help of lines. The simplest shapes are squares, circles, triangles, or rectangles (geometric ones), or the artist can derive shapes from the surrounding nature (e.g., leaves, waves, drops, etc.). 
  • Forms are three-dimensional shapes. They possess not only width and length, but also depth. Such forms can be created with the help of visual means even on two-dimensional surfaces, such as canvas. The most common forms include balls, cylinders, pyramids, etc., as well as a realm of more complex shapes found in the surrounding environment. 
  • Color is an essential element of any visual composition. The artist’s choice of color palette, the intensity of colors, the shades of color, etc. – this aspect offers a rich field for analysis. 
  • Texture can be real (with sculptural objects) and implied (as depicted in the paintings or images). Surfaces possess certain textures that can be felt with your hand or visually. 
  • The light-dark ratio (which is value). Value is the degree of light and dark, as well as contrast between them, present in the visual object. 

Visual Analysis Essay Outline 

Those unsure about how to start off a visual analysis essay may find our universal outline helpful. Here are the key points to cover in such an assignment – follow this template and adjust it to whatever topic you have received from your tutor. 


In the introductory section, you should present your visual object, tell what it is, when and by whom it was created, and how it reveals the historical or socio-cultural context of those times. Then you should offer a thesis statement encapsulating the object’s key message or your impression about it, indicating how you will examine the object in greater detail below. 


You are free to create as many paragraphs as you need. In a classical 5-paragraph visual analysis essay, you’ll have three body paragraphs. Dedicate each of them to a specific element of your object; e.g., you can write one paragraph about lines, one about values, and one about color.


In this section, you can sum up the visual components you reviewed in the body parts and express how they combine to create an overall impression on the viewer. You can also talk about whether the creator’s central message is clear from a visual examination and inform the audience about your personal experience and opinion about the piece. 

Visual Analysis Essay Sample 

Our writing pros have also prepared a brief visual analysis essay example for your guidance. Make sure to review it critically to discern the logic behind its composition. You can use this sample as guidance for your own essay’s completion as well. 

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the world’s greatest masters of visual art, and his works still serve as immortal specimen of his genius. One such masterpieces is The Last Supper, the painting created by da Vinci on the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery’s refectory in Milan. The painting depicts Jesus’s last supper with his disciples and Virgin Mary during which he informs them that he knows about the upcoming betrayal by one of them. So, the moment da Vinci captures in his painting is his vision of the disciples’ reaction to this news. Besides being a vital religious painting for centuries to come and a specimen of da Vinci’s talent, The Last Supper at the same time serves as an exhibit of Renaissance visual art traditions and innovations. 

The typical Renaissance features are first felt in the way da Vinci structures the room in which Jesus has supper with his disciples. The characters are seated in a rectangular room with tapestries on both sides, coffers on the ceiling, and three windows located at the background. The pale, grayish horizon that the viewer can see through the windows is called the “aerial perspective” that Renaissance painters often used to create the feel of depth on the images.

Jesus Christ is visually the center of the painting. An innovative technique da Vinci was one of the first to implement was the one-point linear perspective with a vanishing point at Christ’s head. The perspective is evident because of Christ’s centrality in the image and is reinforced by the visual lines created by tapestries. This technique was quite new for da Vinci’s times, and in this form, da Vinci was experimenting with innovative artistic tools developed in the Quattrocento. 

Besides being physically central, Jesus Christ also shapes the psychological center of the painting. Da Vinci dwelt on a Biblical fragment that no other artist had painted before him – the moment after Jesus revealed to his disciples that one of them would soon betray him. So, his serene, accepting face stands in a sharp contrast with a palette of emotional reactions expressed by his disciples. The responses range from resentment about this possibility to shock and disappointment among the guests, which is a fruitful visual analysis object.

Thus, as one can see, The Last Supper is both a tribute to the Renaissance visual tradition and a unique experiment of da Vinci with new artistic techniques and unexplored themes. The combination of aerial perspective and the one-point linear perspective mark the broader transition in the artistic techniques of the Renaissance period and exemplify da Vinci’s visual mastery. Though the piece was not evaluated as highly by his contemporaries as it is now, da Vinci’s heritage remains available to the modern public and represents a rich source of visual analysis material. 

Popular Mistakes when Writing a Visual Analysis Essay 

Now that you know what is a visual analysis essay, you’re sure to move on with this writing task more confidently. However, we can’t help mentioning some stumbling stones that can prevent you from getting a grade you deserve. Here are some most common mistakes that writers make when writing visual analysis essays. 

  1. Don’t be opinionated. Art is subjective, but only by saying whether you liked or didn’t like the piece, you can’t create a worthy, interesting visual analysis essay. Be sure to include a discussion of visual elements into analysis and back your opinions with evidence. 
  2. Don’t use contractions. Contractions are fine for more informal writing, like this blog. In academic writing, only full verb forms are used. 
  3. Mind your tense use. Jumping from past to present and back is a wrong decision. Your essay should be consistent throughout. You can use both tenses, but make sure you distinguish the sections well. For instance, you can first say what the creator included in the work of art and then proceed to the present-tense analysis of what you see and feel about it now. 
  4. Use professional vocabulary. As you might have seen in this article, there are specific terms designating visual elements. Don’t confuse them and operate the visual analysis vocabulary competently so that the audience knows what you mean. 

Avoid these writer’s foes, and you’re sure to get a high score for the hard work you did. Good luck!