Course Development - Sample Assignment

Visual Description

In this paper you are asked to visually descibe an art object ( fine, indigenous, naive) or a pop culture object. This excludes time-based media (films, TV, etc). You must see this object in person - you may not, for example, use a photo of a sculpture . This same object will be the subject of a research paper later in the course, so be sure it is something that interests you.

Format Guidelines

2-3 pages, typed. No title.

Start by telling me what the piece is (including what culture it is from if applicable), and in what context it is used (this should be a minority of the paper). Tell me what the medium is, and describe it's major formal elements. Then describe all the details. Then describe how the details, the form, and the medium interact to make the complete composition. Tell me what you think, but no more than a sentence or two.

Some warnings and guidelines:

Please don't try and expand the paper with huge margins, starting halfway down the page, or creative font usage. (We all tried these things, but it's so obvious, please. By the way, Courier takes up the most space).

Be sure and proofread for spelling and grammar errors! Have a friend read it, or go to the Writing Center if you're feeling unsure about your writing.

Always save your paper on a diskette, and save often!! That way, if you have a problem with a hard drive or printer, you can go immediately to another computer to finish your work.

Show your interest in the object through an evocative description. Enjoy the challenge!

Hints from class discussion - Ask questions to get answers!

  • What is it?
    When and where was the work made? Is the artist named?
    What purpose does it serve?
  • Formal Elements – Details inform the whole
    This is the majority of the paper
    Don’t use vague subjective words like "beautiful"
  • Materials / Medium - Describe them and understand them
    How do the materials effect the color and form?
    How do the materials effect the texture?
    Are the materials a part of the function?
  • Color / Line / Texture - Be specific
    Color – muted, bright, contrasting, complementary, etc. ("green" is too vague)
    Line – heavy, light, rough, smooth, broken, fine, etc.
    Texture – Coarse, smooth, patterned, stippled, worn, etc.
    How do they work together?
  • Form - Most of the works you’ll see are 3-D
    Shape – heavy, rounded, angular, negative space, etc.
    Is the form part of the function?
    Has the museum displayed the work in its intended form (blanket)?
    How does the 2-D design work with the 3-D form?
  • Naturalism and Abstraction
  • Subject matter vs. meaning / content
    Same subject matter can have different meaning - context and representation
    May not be able to get at meaning – in fact this is not the central task
  • Context – This may have changed over time
  • Style – problematic
  • How do formal elements and context work together?
    What is the overall effect?
  • Don’t get sidetracked by your emotional response


A partial list of where to find art locally:

Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
California Center for the Arts, Escondido
Mingei International Museum
San Diego Museum of Art

Museum of Photographic Arts
University Art Gallery, UCSD
and of course numerous galleries

Websites on visual literacy and art terms:

ArtLex - dictionary of visual art
The On-Line Visual Literacy Project

Some of the terms you will find on these sites are about contemporary art, or are defined in relation to contemporary art. Be sure you understand how to use them correctly if they are new to you. There are also some books in the library that are useful, look up under "art terms" and "visual literacy".

Examples of descriptive writing:
Excerpts from the catalog "Naives and Visionaries", Walker Art Center, 1974.

"Fred Smith's Concrete Park" - Judith Hoos and Gregg Blasdel

A standardized figure emerges from Smith's use of a mold. The faces, painted rather than glass covered, are virtually identical, and are characterized by large eyes that stare into space, long, straight noses and small, tightly closed mouths. These symmetrical figures stand erect with no bending or torsion. Their slightly parted feet support massive bodies, and the thin arms that issue from blocky shoulders terminate in clenched fists. The formula for male and female figures varies only to accommodate the basic poses. Some figures are seated, some raise a stiff arm to hold the reins of a team of horses or oxen. Others carry tools or extend an arm in awkward greeting. Yet, there is little variation in their ultimate effect and only their positioning and emblematic textures distinguish them from each other. Not only beer bottles but chunks of colored and clear glass, mirrors and electrical insulators are ingeniously used as integral parts of the figures. Rows of blue insulators pressed into the torso of one figure suggest a deeply textured garment, Another figure's suit, made of five-inch squares of multi-colored glass fragments arranged in shingle fashion, recalls a picador's costume.

"Herman Rusch: Prairie Moon Museum and Garden" - Judith Hoos

This fence, Rusch's most striking monument, separates the site from the road, marking his property's eastern border. Its 28 perfectly aligned posts placed six feet apart support graceful arches. Over segments of barrel hoops, that serve as the tensile forms of the arches, Rusch has smoothed red cement and embellished these surfaces with white shells. When his shell supply was exhausted he switched to fragments of white crockery, which, he points out, will last longer. At the crest of each arch rests a red-ochre cement tear-drop shape decorated with glass shards. Tapering cylindrical posts, each six feet tall, connect c the arches, and red and white bricks that alternate in a checkered pattern, for the lower sections of each post. Red concrete cones surfaced with pieces of green, brown, and red glass and surrounded by circular forms, molded in flower pots, crown each post. By dyeing rather than painting the cement, Rusch ensures even, lasting color, and this technique makes the color an inherent component of the material rather than a surface decoration. Rusch, obsessed with precision, has set the fence posts in cement platforms to facilitate lawn clipping; fixed nails deter birds from perching on the crowning points of each post and arch. The fence's posts and arches are faithfully repeated to create a continuous rhythmic sequence.