Writing for Visual Arts

Welcome to the art department’s guide on writing and speaking about art for students. This Web page is addressed to all students who are taking classes in studio art, art education, and/or art history. The Columbia College art faculty offers explanations about writing and presentation assignments to help ease the pain of what students occasionally consider unnecessary, difficult, or even impossible tasks.


Why are writing and speaking important in art?

Learning how to write a well-defined and convincing paper and learning how to prepare and deliver an impressive speech are the two most important academic tools that you will acquire during your undergraduate studies. The better you develop these tools, the easier graduate school and/or your future professional life will be. Luckily, you have ample opportunity to practice these skills, since most classes at Columbia College require a written paper and/or in-class presentations.

Writing and presenting are actually vital in understanding. Whenever you write about an art work, the actual process of writing helps you to observe the art work more in depth. The same happens when you set out to prepare an oral presentation for your classmates. Hopefully, your thinking and writing process develop like a continually expanding spiral. The art object becomes the anchor around which the spiral is evolving. For instance, when deciding what to write or speak about, you will select an art work from any given list of works. Your selection might be influenced by your aesthetic taste, associations triggered by the work, familiarity with the work, knowledge of the work, or curiosity about it. To determine what to say, you will read as many sources as possible, such as books, magazine, journal and newspaper articles, web sites, etc. While you read you will repeatedly check the art work to ensure that you understand the literary sources. You are challenged to verify or disprove any author’s statement, as long as your observations are well-defined.

The process of going forth and back between the art work and literary sources about the work exemplify critical thinking at its best. What you are trying to do is to truly understand the art work. A genuine art work is much more than a matching decoration for your living room. It is part of history, and as such it reflects the society, politics, religion, philosophy, literature, and science of the time when it was made. It is the result of a creative process, and as such it incorporates the ideas of the artist as well as the ideas of the culture or civilization during which it was envisioned. Your attempt to understand the artwork should uncover most of these elements at least partially.

What types of writing and speaking assignments can I expect?

The department of art offers three different disciplines: studio art, art education, and art history. Studio art teaches the creation of artworks, and art education prepares the student for the teaching profession. Art history offers the scholarly approach. As an independent discipline, it prepares future museum curators, scholars, and administrators, but it also supports studio art and art education. It offers the historical background and helps us to understand art. Some of the writing and speaking assignments overlap, but others are more specifically geared to individual disciplines. The following types of writing and speaking assignments are required in the various classes of the art department:

  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Art Analysis and Interpretation
  • Artist Statement
  • Comparative Art Analysis
  • Comparative Film Analysis
  • Informal Writing
  • Journal Writing
  • Oral History Interview
  • Outline
  • Research Paper


All assignments aim at teaching critical thinking as well as organization, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation either of artworks, artists, artistic periods, or literary sources. Some of the categories require different levels, depending on the level of the course (e.g., a research paper in a 100-level class is less complex than a research paper in a 300-level class). It is crucial to understand that the process of learning how to research and write effectively stretches over several years of research and writing exercises across the curriculum. For example, what you have learned in English 101 during your freshman fall semester at Columbia College is very important in your subsequent spring semester for your first major writing course in art history (Art 100). The newly acquired knowledge and experience from Art 100 provides a wonderful resource for all future writing exercises throughout your college career. The 300-level seminar-type art history course will be a lot more enjoyable and successful for you if you can employ the research and writing techniques learned in previous classes.

Where can I find useful bibliographic sources on the topic of writing about art?

Robert A. Harris. Using Sources Effectively. Strengthening our Writing and Avoiding Plagiarism. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak, 2005.

Donna K. Reid. Thinking and Writing about Art History. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Henry M. Sayre. Writing About Art. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995.