3.14: Writing a Visual Analysis
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While visuals such as graphs and charts can enhance an argument when used to present evidence, visuals themselves can also present an argument. Every time you encounter an ad for a certain product, stop and consider what exactly the creators of that visual want you to believe. Who is the target audience? Does the message resonate more with one group of people than another? While most advertisements or political cartoons seem to be nebulous conveyors of commerce, if you look closely you will uncover an argument presented to you, the audience.
So how do you write a visual rhetorical analysis essay? First, you’ll want to begin by examining the rhetorical strengths and weaknesses of your chosen visual. If your purpose is to write an argument about the visual, such as what artworks are considered “fine art,” then your focus will be on demonstrating how the visual meets the criteria you establish in your thesis. To do this, try a method adapted from one on working with primary sources where you Observe, Reflect and Question.
Arguments About a Visual
Take for example Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” (Figure 3.14.1). If you want to argue that the painting is a classic example of fine art, you’ll first have to define the criteria for your terms “classic” and “fine art.” Next, you’ll want to look for elements within the painting to support your claim. As you study the painting, try the following strategy for analysis: Describe/Observe; Respond/Reflect; Analyze/Question.
First, describe what you see in the visual quite literally. Begin by focusing on colors, shading, shapes, and font if you’re analyzing an advertisement. In the case of “The Starry Night,” you might begin by describing the various shades of blue, the black figures that resemble buildings, or shades of yellow that cast light. As you describe them, observe the texture, shape, contour, etc. about each element. For this initial stage, you are simply describing what you observe. Do not look deeper at this point.
Next, respond to the ways in which the things you described have impacted you as a viewer. What emotions are evoked from the various shadings and colors used in the ad or painting? If there are words present, what does the artist’s font selection do for the image? This is where you’ll want to look for appeals to ethos and pathos. In the case of “The Starry Night,” how does the use of black create depth and for what reason? Reflect on how the intermittent use of shades of blue impacts the overall impression of the painting. At this stage, you are questioning the elements used so that you may move to the final stage of analysis.
After you’ve described and reflected upon the various elements of the visual, question what you have noted and decide if there is an argument presented by the visual. This assessment should be made based upon what you’ve observed and reflected upon in terms of the content of the image alone. Ask yourself if the arrangement of each item in the visual impacts the message? Could there be something more the artist wants you to gather from this visual besides the obvious? Question the criteria you established in your thesis and introduction to see if it holds up throughout your analysis. Now you are ready to begin writing a visual rhetorical analysis of your selected image.
Arguments Presented By/Within a Visual
In the summer of 2015, the Bureau of Land Management ran an ad campaign with the #mypubliclandsroadtrip tag. The goal of this campaign was to “explore the diverse landscapes and resources on [our] public lands, from the best camping sites to cool rock formations to ghost towns.” The photo below (Figure 3.14.2) is of the King Range National Conservation Area (NCA) in California which was the first NCA designated by Congress in 1970. Returning to the Observe, Reflect and Question method, analysis of this photo might focus on what the image presents overall as well as arguments embedded within the image.
As with “The Starry Night”, you might start by describing what you see in the visual quite literally. Begin by focusing on colors, shading, shapes, and font. With the Bureau of Land Management ad, you could begin by describing the multiple shades of blues and browns in the landscape. Next, you might focus on the contrasts between the sea and land, and the sea and sky. Making note of textures presented by various rock formations and the sand would add depth to your analysis. You might also note the solitary person walking along the shoreline. Finally, you would want to observe the placement of the sun in the sky at the horizon.
Next, respond to the ways in which the things you described have impacted you as a viewer. What emotions are evoked from the various shadings and colors used in the photo? How does the artist’s font selection impact the image? Through these observations, you will be able to identify appeals to ethos and pathos. In the Bureau of Land Management ad, you might respond to the various shades of blue as seemingly unreal yet reflect on their natural beauty as a way of creating an inviting tone. Next, reflect on the textures presented by the rocks and sand as a way of adding texture to the image. This texture further contributes to the welcoming mood of the image. By focusing on the solitary person in the image, you might respond that this landscape offers a welcoming place to reflect on life decisions or to simply enjoy the surroundings. Finally, you might respond to the placement of the sun as being either sunrise or sunset.
After describing and reflecting on the various elements of the visual, question what you have noted and decide if there is an argument presented by the image. Again, this assessment should be made based upon what you’ve observed and reflected upon in terms of the content of the image alone. Using the Bureau of Land Management ad, you might ask if the font choice was intentional to replicate the rolling waves, or if the framing around the edges of the image is done intentionally to tie back into the Bureau logo in the upper right-hand corner. Once you’ve moved beyond the surface image, question the criteria you established in your thesis and introduction to see if it holds up throughout your analysis. Now you are ready to begin writing a visual rhetorical analysis of an argument presented by/within your selected image.Pantuso, Terri, Sarah LeMire, and Kathy Anders, eds. Informed Arguments: A Guide to Writing and Research. 3rd ed. College Station: Texas A&M University, 2022. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
- This exercise was inspired by a workshop titled “Working with Primary Sources,” hosted by Meg Steele, given at the Library of Congress alongside the National Council of Teachers of English Convention in Washington, D.C. in November 2014. ↵
- Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, Wikimedia Commons, accessed November 15, 2021, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg. ↵
- "Drop A Line: Explore Your Lands! My Public Lands Summer Roadtrip 2016," Bureau of Land Management, accessed November 14, 2021, https://www.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=0d3fdf6ca0e44d258adde314479b3bdb. ↵
- Bureau of Land Management, My Public Lands Roadtrip,June 3, 2015, digital photograph, Flickr, accessed January 6, 2021, https://www.flickr.com/photos/91981596@N06/18607529954. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. ↵
- “King Range National Conservation Area,” U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management, accessed January 14, 2021, https://www.blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/california/king-range-national-conservation-area. ↵