How to use Analysing Paintings: a course

Introduction to the course

Welcome to this online course, which is an introduction to the tools and techniques of formal analysis, for students and for anyone who is interested in art. It is freely available for anyone to use, and assumes no particular prior knowledge of the visual arts. The course guides you through some of the key aspects of form - from the colours in the painting to the materials used to paint it - and explores a number of examples through guided activities.

During the course, we look at over thirty examples of paintings, ranging from medieval art to works by modern artists such as Picasso and Jackson Pollock. By the end of the course, you should have the basic tools needed to analyse the form of any painting - which will, I hope, enhance your enjoyment and understanding of art.

There are twelve units in the course. Unit A1 introduces some case studies. Units A2-7 introduce particular concepts in formal analysis. Units B1-6 then examine particular genres of paintings, through case activities.  

The course should take about ten hours to complete but you can dip in and out of the course.   It was written and designed by Matthew Treherne; Dr Melissa Douglas-Caldin acted as a consultant on the project.

Enjoy the course!

Who is this course for?

I want this course to be useful and interesting to anybody who has enjoyed looking at art, and who wishes to develop further their understanding of how art "works". It does not provide detailed information about any particular artist or historical period; nor is it an introduction to the story of art. It aims, instead, to suggest ways in which, by examining the formal qualities of paintings, we can enrich our understanding and enjoyment of them.

I also intend this course to be useful to university students who may be about to study a topic in the visual arts, but who do not have any particular experience of studying art. This is the experience of the majority of the students I have taught in the Departments of Italian at the Universities of Leeds and Cambridge, who are often highly trained in literary and linguistic analysis, but who wish to enrich their understanding of Italian culture by studying visual art. I hope that this course will help students wishing to work on the visual arts in any national or historical context, both by providing them with the basic tools they need, and by giving them the confidence to approach the visual arts.

How to use the course


The course can be followed entirely online. I would suggest allowing around ten hours in total to complete the course; units 2-5 will probably take longer to work through than the other units. 

  • In Unit A1, you are invited to respond to four paintings, noting down your initial thoughts, without necessarily using any technical vocabulary. We will return to these paintings at the end of the course, so that you can assess how useful the course has been in helping you engage with them.
  • Units A2-7 introduce key aspects of artistic form: Colour and Line; Space and Perspective; Modelling and Plasticity; Composition; Medium and Support; Light.
  • Units B1-5 then build on the ideas introduced in the previous part of the course, to discuss different types of subject matter: The Human Figure; Landscape; Still Life; Action and Narrative; Portraiture
  • In Unit B6, we return to the case studies considered at the start of the course, for you to apply the techniques learned in the course.

Activities and examples:

Throughout the course, I have suggested activities; and for each activity, I have proposed my own responses. In each case, I suggest that you take plenty of time to note down your own ideas before looking at the ideas I suggest. As a rule of thumb, I suggest that you spend at least five minutes looking at each painting, and considering your own response to the questions raised. At that stage, you can turn to the answers I have proposed.

The course is intended to stand independently, so that provided you have access to the internet you will be able to view all of the paintings discussed here. However, throughout the course I suggest further reading, in case you wish to pursue further a particular idea or topic further.

The examples I have chosen are drawn primarily from Western European painting. This reflects the art that I am most familiar with, as someone who teaches Italian culture. However, the analytical techniques we are developing are intended to be useful for whatever painting you are examining.

At the end of each unit, I've also summarised the major points covered. I didn't want simply to list the points, however. Instead, I've given you a set of questions you might want to ask yourself when you're looking at a painting. And at the end of the course, I've put all those questions into a single document, so that you can practise working through them. Over time, you'll become very good at identifying the major formal features of paintings without working through the set of questions; at first, however, you might find it useful and enjoyable to try running through the questions as you look at new or familiar paintings.

Offline analysis:

Better than reading about art, of course, is looking at art; and perhaps the best way to use this course is to visit a gallery and spend some time looking at art works, and thinking about how the ideas we've covered can help you understand the works in front of you. I often find it helpful and enjoyable to jot down notes on paintings as I'm looking at them. The appendix to the course is a checklist (pdf. download), which you might find useful as a template for your notes, and a guide for your independent analysis of paintings.

Formal analysis:

This course focuses on the formal analysis of art, offering tools to help you analyse the form of paintings, rather than accounts of the history of individual artists or paintings. Formal analysis examines the visual aspects of a painting: in this course, we begin by looking at broad questions such as the use of colour and the depiction of space. The types of questions we ask in formal analysis can be asked of any painting you see, and some of the questions can also be a useful starting point when thinking about other types of visual culture, such as photography and cinema.

How does the formal analysis of a work of art affect our interpretation of it? This has been a hotly debated subject in art theory. Clearly it is very difficult to dissociate the way a painting depicts a subject (the "form") from the subject itself (the "content"). Indeed, the great twentieth-century critic and theorist Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) argued that: "In a work of art, "form" cannot be divorced from "content": the distribution of colour and lines, light and shade, volumes and planes, however delightful as a visual spectacle, must also be understood as carrying a more-than-visual meaning" (Meaning in the Visual Arts (Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 205)). It is rarely easy to separate what a painting depicts from how it depicts it.

It is probably most useful to think of the skills you'll gain in formal analysis as something you'll use in conjunction with other information. So, if you're going to an exhibition of work by a particular artist, you'll be able to read in the catalogues and side panels about the themes and subject matters which interested a particular painter, about the historical circumstances in which he or she was working, about the places where the art would have been displayed, and about who it was painting for; but you'll be able to see for yourself just how the paintings you're looking at work on a visual level. By bringing together all that outside information about a work of art, an artist, or a historical period, you'll end up with a much fuller and richer understanding of the art you're looking at.

Similarly, if you're studying a particular artist, or period of cultural history, you'll need to bring together your analysis of art with an understanding of the broader history and intellectual context of the artworks themselves. But with the tools we'll discuss in this course, you'll always be able to ground your interest in a particular artist or group of artists in their works themselves.

Further reading

There are some excellent introductions to art analysis. While compiling this course, and in teaching visual art, I have found the following two books particularly useful: Mary Acton, Learning to Look at Paintings (London and New York: Routledge, 2007); and Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen, How to Read Paintings, trans. by Richard Elliott (Edinburgh: Chambers, 2004). A classic work which also discusses how to look at art works is John Berger's Ways of Seeing (Penguin, 1990), which is one of the most widely read books on art.


I would be very happy to receive your feedback on this course. Please let me know if you found it useful, or if there are areas where you feel it could be made better. I'm certain there is room for improvement, so I'd be very glad to hear specific suggestions on how the course could be more useful. Please drop me an email at


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This resource was created with the help of a University of Leeds Faculty of Arts Enterprise Knowledge Transfer Grant.

© Matthew Treherne, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.