Writing About Art: Some Guidelines


Clear and fluent writing is a valued skill in today's work force. No matter how creative you are, or how adept you are at the technologies required in your field, if you cannot express yourself clearly and effectively, your future will be limited. In my classes students are asked to write short essays that describe concept development and the creative process. And by nature, these essays are in one way or another about art. In order to build effective writing skills, therefore, I require a reasonalby high level of attention to the details of the writing craft. What follows are suggestions about how to avoid many of the pitfalls lying in wait for unwary students. Attend to them carefully in order to earn the highest scores on assignments that involve written work.

Works of art are italicized (or underlined): Van Gogh’s Starry Night; The River Epte, Giverny, by John Leslie Breck. Do not use quotation marks instead of or in addition to underlining or italicizing.

Do not refer to artists by their first names. You do not know Monsieur Monet personally, so do not refer to him as “Claude.” An exception to this rule, however, applies to artists whose works were created before surnames became common (such as during the Renaissance). Most such painters, sculptors, etc. are known by nicknames (Parmigianino and Tintoretto, for example) or simply by their first names: Michelangelo (Buonorotti), Leonardo (da Vinci is a place-name, and indicates that he was born out of wedlock), Artemisia (simply calling her “Gentileschi” would confuse her with her father). Familiarize yourselves with the commonly used names of these artists, and use these in preference to full names (they will be easier to memorize that way).

For more modern artists, simply refer to them by last names–no honorific is necessary, although you may certainly refer to Rubens, Rembrandt, etc. by both their first and last names. In fact, when introducing a post-Renaissance artist for the first time in an essay, always use the full name; after that, use the last name throughout:

While Michelangelo depicts Mary with a young woman’s face on an old woman’s body in his Pieta, the light in Rembrandt van Rijn’s Descent From The Cross (1651) falls on the face and body of an aging, weary, grieving mother. Rembrandt thus provides us with a more realistic view of the Virgin than do earlier painters, such as Rogier van der Weyden, and even Peter Paul Rubens. In fact, the dead Mary in Rubens's The Assumption of the Virgin (1626), looks every bit as dewy and fresh as the much younger Mary in Filippo Lippi’s Madonna and Child of 1406.

Adopt a relaxed, but formal tone in your essays. Do not try to use a vocabulary with which you are uncomfortable or unfamiliar, but do try to acquire an appropriate personal word-stock as you read about the artists and movements we cover in these courses.

Use proper grammar, syntax, and spelling, and rely on third or first person when using pronouns. Never use second person (you) in an essay. In your critical responses to works in art history courses, express your own ideas or perspective in the first person:

I think that art requires a particular kind of skill: the ability to express an idea visually, and to convey that meaning to the viewer.

But since you must give reasons for these assessments, third person is usually preferred; if the opinion is worth anything, it can be generalized to apply to others:

Although it is often said that beauty (and, by extension, art) lies in the eye of the beholder, no “beholder” lives in a vacuum. His or her ideas about beauty are formed within a cultural context that cannot be set aside when viewing a work. The artist, in fact, depends on a common cultural vocabulary in order to communicate an interpretation of a subject on canvas, in stone, or on film. The ability of the artist to accomplish this act of communication must also require the skill to express the idea in the first place.

A simple format for citing paintings or other artworks in essays includes artist and work, with date and perhaps medium in parentheses following:

Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (1884) captures the light and stillness of a lily pond. [In an art history class it is assumed that we all know this work to have been executed in oil on canvas, and would only note information on medium when it departs from the usual.]

In her two works entitled The Bath (1891, oil on canvas and 1891, drypoint and aquatint on paper) Mary Cassatt captures in two very different media an intimate moment between a mother and child.

I should not have to mention this, but the plural of nouns that end in “ist” is “ists.” This includes the word “artist”–the plural of which is “artists.” To ignore basic rules for creating plurals is to signal your lack of concern about detail. And while I’m on the subject, English words that retain their original Latin form, such as datum (plural = data) and medium (plural = media) require consistency if not religious attention. So, if you say “data” or “media” be sure to use a corresponding verb: the data are or the media are. If you must ignore the Latin, say “mediums” or “syllabuses”–I doubt if you’ll ever find yourself saying “datums.” When uncertain, consult an unabridged dictionary (or a college-level dictionary with 20,000 to 50,000 entries).

Again on the subject of plurals, do not use an apostrophe to construct the plural of a noun. Apostrophes generally indicate that something has been left out, or that a word is possessive: don't (do not); Artemisia's (belonging to Artemisia). The plurals of English words are formed simply by adding an "s": paints, palettes, oils, etc.--except as noted above concerning English words used in their Latin form. Occasionally, we must use an apostrophe with an "s" to show that a single letter is a plural, rather than a different word: A's (to avoid confusion with "As"); but use CD-ROMs, not CD-ROM's.

Think before you write! Grandiose gestures and airy pronouncements are BS indicators. What does it mean, for example, to say “Since the beginning of time, human beings have created art”? Just exactly when was the beginning of time, anyway? What do we mean by “art” in the first place? Anyone who studies the history of art is almost immediately confronted with the prospect that art is not, nor never has been, a stable concept. It means different things to different people, and yet it’s not simply anything anybody wants it to be. As I pointed out to a student who announced in an essay (with no support to back it up) that “Art is everything around us from the time we get up to the time we head out the door” and that “Art is anything that catches the attention of an individual,” your dog's pooping on the carpet gets your attention–but that doesn’t make his poop art, nor the dog an artist.

This leads me to another point: always provide reasons for your assertions. Do not simply announce that something is the case; tell me why you think so. It is not particularly enlightening to be told that you like landscapes better than portraits, and then to be offered some nebulous reason like “portraits all tend to look the same, but maybe that’s just my taste.” In fact, portraits are often less evocative than landscapes because we don’t know anything about the people represented, while certain kinds of landscapes can evoke memories of places we’ve been or that we love. Pointing this out would help the reader understand why the preference exists, at least. I’m not looking for rock-solid logic for very personal responses, but I do want to know that yours is not simply an unthinking response to a particular work. Especially if you feel strongly about a point, be prepared to back it up. In addition, belief is a product of faith; it doesn't require reasons. Therefore, tell me what you think, not what you believe.

Introduce quotations properly. Using evidence from your sources is an effective way to support your conclusions. But do not simply "plop" quoted material down and expect it to explain all by itself. If you're unsure about how to do this, see the University of Richmond Writing Center's page on Effectively Incorporating Quotations, or Vanderbilt University's .pdf page on Introducing and Contextualizing Quotations. And at the risk of seeming nit-picky, please remember that the correct noun is "quotation," not "quote." Quote is a verb.

Always proofread your work. Let me repeat: Always proofread your work. Nothing is more frustrating to an instructor responsible for grading you on your ability to communicate your ideas than a sloppy essay full of dopey mistakes that could have been caught with a simple read-through once it was written. In these days of spell-checkers, there is no excuse for most spelling errors; but in order to catch homonyms and other words that may not be included in common computer dictionaries (such as artists’ names), you must proofread your work. In addition, if you’re not already the best writer in the world, get some editorial help on what you think is your final draft--especially on important assignments like formal analysis or concept essays. Chances are that one of the tutors in the Academic Success Center can catch errors that you haven’t noticed. If you do not take the time to go over your work carefully, you send a signal that you simply don’t care about the assignment; you should therefore be prepared to accept the corresponding grade. Please remember that as a general studies instructor, I'm responsible for helping to foster your critical thinking and writing skills. I pay attention to these matters; so should you.

Speaking of assignments: Always read instructions carefully. I am charged with helping you learn not only about the history of art, but also how to think about art and design history, and how to articulate what you learn and apply it to your field. One of the primary requirements of any job is that the applicant be able to pay “attention to detail.” That includes being able to read and interpret instructions–and not every employer will be as careful about instructions as I try to be. Read them more than once. When resources are provided, read those as well. Take advantage of the books, articles, and websites recommended in this class. They have been carefully chosen and reviewed, and included on links pages and bibliographies so that you don’t have to do a large amount of basic, general research. Save your research time for specific projects.

A final note: The history of art falls under the general mantle of the humanities; the bibliographic style used in this field has been developed by the Modern Language Association to make sure that you both give credit where credit is due, and include information that provides your reader with the means to locate your resources efficiently. Learn MLA style by making use of the resources on Purdue University's Online Writing Lab; it’s not rocket science, and fluency in its basic rules will make all our lives easier.

For high-quality, in-depth advice on writing, documentation, and related topics, consult the handouts provided by the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Their new website is well designed and easy to use; their advice is impeccable.


03.28.16