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Searching for artworks to write about


Network 2013

Thomas J. Price (b.1981)

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

If you already have an artwork or artist in mind, you can use Art UK's artist search or artwork search to find them. But if you're not sure what you're looking for yet, there are lots of places to start your quest on Art UK. You could choose an art movement that sparks your interest. Or a topic that is close to your heart. Or pick an artwork completely at random with artwork shuffle.

Our page, tips for writing, offers more help with searching for art, and previous winner Viola Harrin Turrell has some tips too:


Choosing an artwork

Once your search is underway, it might be useful to keep a shortlist by creating a Curation, which is an online space to collect and keep notes on the artworks you find on Art UK.

When you have a shortlist, it's time to choose the work you will write about. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Look through your shortlist, then spend some time away from it. Which shortlisted artwork can you picture most clearly in your mind? Can you draw any of them from memory?
  • Annotate your shortlisted artworks with questions. Which artwork provokes the most questions? Which artwork raises questions that really stir your curiosity?
  • Work through your shortlist, noting down one word you associate with each artwork in turn. Repeat this a few times (or keep going until your run out of words). Review your lists of words – do you have a favourite?

Looking at your chosen artwork

You will draw upon your observations of the artwork in your writing, so, as previous second-place winner Felicity Mackenzie points out in her video, you need to really look at the artwork you have picked. Editor of Apollo art magazine Thomas Marks' advice on writing about art is to 'start with the experience of your eyes', but the average time a gallery visitor will spend looking at one artwork is 32 seconds, so looking long and hard doesn't come naturally to most of us. Here are some exercises you can try to practice your observation skills.

Compare pairs

As a warm-up, test your observation skills by choosing a pair of similar artworks from the selection below and comparing them.

  • What do both artworks share in common?
  • How are they different?
  • Do they make you feel the same way?
  • If not, can you identify why not?
  • Which do you prefer, and why? 

Try to replicate the artwork you have picked

You could do this with art materials in a sketchbook, or in three-dimensional space with people and objects. To create a convincing recreation, you need to carefully observe not only what is in the artwork, but also the artists' use of light, space and colour.

If your chosen artwork includes people, physically recreating their poses can help you observe them, and also examine the artist's intentions behind the pose, as artist Hazel Reeves demonstrates in this video about her statue of Emmeline Pankhurst.


Describe to observe

Describing an artwork is a great way to flex your observation skills. Describe your artwork to a friend over the phone (or hide the artwork from them if they're in the room with you) in enough detail that they can draw it, or pick it out of a group of artworks.

Alternatively, describe the artwork from the point of view of an object, person or another detail in the artwork. This can help you think about the composition, and how the elements of the artwork relate to each other.


Formal analysis

One way that some art historians look at artwork – particularly Western art – is by conducting a formal analysis.

The questions included in our Superpower of Looking Kit will help you decode and unlock the power of the image you have chosen. Consider which aspects are relevant (e.g. colour, composition, figures, etc.) and then try and answers the questions listed beneath.

Here are some examples of formal analysis in action from the Getty Museum to give you some ideas.


Reflect on what it all means

You might want to reflect on the messages or meanings the artist is communicating to the viewer through their artwork, but it is particularly important to reflect on what it all means to you. The choices the artist made shaped your experience of the artwork, but your reaction to it, and your personal understanding of it, is all your own. As previous second-place winner Grace Page says, 'sometimes the most interesting discussion comes from different interpretations of an artwork.'


Some questions to consider:

  • What was your reaction to the artwork when you first saw it?
  • Has your opinion of it remained the same or changed over time? Why?
  • Why does this artwork interest you?
  • What does this artwork say to you about the time it was made in, the person who made it, or the subject?
  • Did you learn anything about yourself from looking at the artwork?
  • What does the artwork mean to you?

Get writing

If you're looking for tips on writing in a way that will persuade people to share your interest and enthusiasm, writer and art history teacher Rose Aidin has plenty for you in her article 'How to write about art'. It includes advice from previous winners too.

A final reminder from art history student and writer Remi: 'enjoy the process – it's sharing ultimately your passion, through (critical) praise and sharing your emotional response to works.'

Enjoy writing and good luck!

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