How to Analyze a Painting Lesson Plan

Instructor: John Hamilton

John has tutored algebra and SAT Prep and has a B.A. degree with a major in psychology and a minor in mathematics from Christopher Newport University.

This lesson plan will teach your students how to analyze a painting. They will also get to participate in a hands-on activity and actually analyze five prominent paintings.

Learning Objectives

After studying this lesson your students will be able to:

  • Actually analyze a painting on their own
  • Describe five elements of art
  • Explain three principles of design


1 - 1.5 Hours


  • Photo of American Gothic
  • Photo of Luncheon of the Boating Party
  • Photo of Mona Lisa
  • Photo of The Night Watch
  • Photo of The Scream
  • Internet access
  • Preprinted worksheets containing five elements of art and three principles of design

Curriculum Standards


Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.


Describe how a text presents information (e.g., sequentially, comparatively, causally).


Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

Key Vocabulary

  • Balance
  • Color
  • Emphasis
  • Line
  • Movement
  • Shape and form
  • Space
  • Texture

Instructions And Activity

  • Inform your students they are going to be learning how to analyze a painting.
  • Ask them if anyone is familiar with the topic or has even actually analyzed a painting.
  • Review the key vocabulary terms.
  • Hand out preprinted worksheets with the following information related to five elements of art and three principles of design:

Elements of Art

There are many elements to art and paintings. Formal analysis (formalism) involves both the form and style of a painting. To analyze a painting, start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • a) Color
    • Does this painting have one color as opposed to many colors?
    • What feelings do the colors evoke in you?
    • What about shading? Are there darks and lights? Are there contrasts?
  • b) Texture
    • Are there visible brush strokes or are they hidden?
    • Are the brush strokes narrow or broad?
    • Does the painting convey a certain feel?
  • c) Line
    • In what direction do the lines move?
    • Are the lines fine or thick?
    • Are the lines curved or in straight lines, such as railroad tracks that show perspective?
  • d) Shape and Form
    • Are there any circles or other geometric figures?
    • Are the forms mostly natural or man-made?
    • Do any of the forms appear to be three-dimensional?
  • e) Space
    • Is there light or dark around the objects in the painting?
    • Does the space around objects appear shallow or deep?
    • Does space appear to be stable or unstable?

Principles of Design

These principles include:

  • a) Balance
    • Does the painting appear symmetrical or asymmetrical?
    • Does the balance appear to be side-to-side or front-to-back?
  • b) Emphasis
    • Is there a definite focal point to which your eyes are drawn?
    • Is the emphasized object the largest portion of the painting?
  • c) Movement
    • Does any object appear to be in motion?
    • How has the artist conveyed this feeling of movement?


  • Inform your students they are going to be analyzing some actual famous paintings.
  • Divide your students up into small groups of 4-6.

Part I

  • Hand out copies of American Gothic, one per group.
  • Allow your students to discuss the paintings on their own. Ask them:
    • Do you see any of the five elements of art or three principles of design from your worksheets?
    • Do you think the woman is the man's wife or daughter? (It is unknown.)
    • Where is the actual house located? (Iowa)
    • On what canvas is it painted? (beaverboard)
    • Did you notice the curtains are closed during the day? (a common mourning ritual, and the woman wears a black dress)
    • Why did Iowans hate it at first? (It made them look glum and dour.)
    • When did Iowans start to like it? (It became a symbol of toughness during the Great Depression.)
    • What place did it come in when entered in a competition? (third, and it won $300, but now is worth millions)

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