Talking about Pictures: Describing and Citing Artwork

by Jonathan Adjemian

Published at 2018-08-08


The publishing world has well-developed rules and guidelines for describing and citing work that exists as printed text. Things can be less clear for a writer when dealing with other kinds of cultural production. Visual art works, for instance, pose particular questions and challenges.


Description as Interpretation and Framing

No matter how we go about describing the visual in words, the process inevitably involves imposing a certain way of looking at, dividing, or moving through the visual field. The way a writer approaches a piece of art may not match the way another viewer would take in the piece.


The conventions of art history provide standardization, but they do this by privileging some ways of seeing and describing. Even a basic terminological distinction like foreground and background, which developed alongside perspectival drawing in Europe, can become of limited use applied to styles of miniature painting that present objects at different distances with equal detail and weight.


Left and Right – but Whose?

Looking at a painting, print, or other two-dimensional artwork, there are two ways to interpret “left” and “right.” (The situation gets more complicated with three-dimensional sculptural objects.) Art history convention decides between the two based on whether or not the piece shows a human figure. For a landscape, an abstraction, or some other non-human-depicting artwork, “left” refers to the viewer’s left, as they face the picture. But where there is a human figure, “left” refers to what is called “proper left,” the figure’s own left side (something similar is done in the theatre with the terms “stage left” and “stage right”).


Prince Holding a Falcon, c. 1820, Iran. Smithsonian Public Domain Collection.So for instance, in this 19th-century Persian painting of a well-dressed young prince (Prince Holding a Falcon, c. 1820, Iran. Smithsonian Public Domain Collection.), we would refer to the falcon on his hand as being on the right: 

Certainly, this convention could have its limits (which rule should be used when dealing with pet portraiture?), but if followed consistently it’s effective in guiding a reader. But as always, it’s worth considering your audience; there are plenty of ways to provide more orienting information.


For instance, we could say that the falcon perches “on his right hand,” or that “the drooping lid of prince’s right eye is matched only by the still lower curve of his left, while the curls to the right of his face are just that much more lush than those on his other side.” Faced with a landscape, an “as we face the drawing, to our left...” is equally clear.


There are other options, too. This guide for describing artworks for the blind and visually impaired, an interesting resource for anyone thinking about describing art, suggests using clock-face numbers; other approaches might divide a piece into quadrants, and so on.


Building Interpretations

While the visual can feel self-evident compared to other kinds of information, our visual perception is informed by familiarity; we pick up things that we recognize. Once we become accustomed to a particular visual code, we begin to register it more quickly, often even without noticing. When writing about artwork you’re especially familiar with, it’s important to recognize what codes are in play and introduce them to the reader.


For instance, in this Coptic icon (St. Severus of Antioch, 19th-century Coptic icon. Wikimedia Commons), the angel above St. Severus’ head holds a wreath or martyr’s crown:


If you’re writing for an audience that will not necessarily be familiar with Coptic imagery or doctrine, you’ll need to explain this connection on first mention or risk confusion. After that, you don’t need to repeat the connection each time you discuss that part of the image – you can comfortably speak of “the crown” and expect the reader to follow.


(If you like this icon, you might be interested in a collection of contemporary icons at the St. Mark’s Coptic Museum in Scarborough; editing a catalogue for the Museum recently got us thinking about writing on images.)


Citing Artworks

Artworks are most often cited when they’re reproduced; the citation goes in the caption to the illustration. But there may also be reasons to cite an artwork even when it’s not pictured, in footnotes or in a bibliography. These citations can look many different ways, and permission to reproduce an image may dictate a particular form or text that needs to be included. (Remember that if you’re including images in your work, unless they’re in the public domain you will need to seek permission from the copyright holder. This is a service some editors will be able to help with.)


To be consistent in your style, you should include a few things:


  • The artist’s name; if this is unknown, it’s best to include some known information (“unknown Hittite artist,” “Delft School,” etc.)
  • The date; if unknown, an approximation
  • Where the work is held – this might be a museum, a collection, a religious or public building. This is important both for locating the work and for seeking permission to reproduce it. Where the work is held in a private collection and the collector prefers to remain anonymous, you can simply write “Private collection.”


Other things that might be appropriate could include:


  • The medium used (painting, mixed media, installation, etc.)
  • The dimensions of the work
  • Previous owners of the work


Exactly what to include will depend on the intended audience and publication venue. In art criticism, for instance, it’s generally standard to include medium and dimensions; in history-writing that uses artwork as illustration these details may be less necessary. A good trick often is to find a book or two that feel close to the way you are writing (or trying to write) and see what’s done there.


Always Remember …

Always remember that the point of describing or referencing the artwork is to help the reader understand your analysis and give them tools to learn more if they’d like to. Conventions and style rules exist to help ensure clarity and thoroughness – but are no substitute for your own judgment and intention as a writer.



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