Hi there! I’m sorry for replying so late. I just got back from vacation and the dust has finally settled.
Art history papers are definitely among the hardest kind of paper to write. I’ve found that in order to simplify the writing process, it’s best to do as much as you can before you actually begin writing. Here’s what I mean:
- Look at the object: Spend a lot of time looking at the artwork you’re writing about. Write down what stands out to you. Start with the basics: artist, title, medium, date, genre. Then think about what makes the artwork unique. How does the artist choose to represent their subject? Are there any symbols present? How would the artwork have been displayed in its original time period? Who was it commissioned for (e.g., was it a church commission, private commission, public beautification project, etc)? What does that tell you, if anything, about how the work would have been interpreted in its time? Are there any ‘modern’ or revolutionary elements in the work? Does the artist make any references to other artworks, artists, themes, or antiquity?
- Research: Everyone works differently when writing research papers, so this method might not work for you. But… Before I start writing a single sentence, I always have all of my research done. Meaning, I have read and taken notes on every book in my bibliography. I usually have 2 bibliographic “drafts” before the final paper is completed, so I start writing after I’ve finished with the first biblio. The second biblio contains everything I forgot, recommendations from professors, and sources found in sources from the first biblio. One bonus of doing your research before you start writing is that you can see what other art historians have compared your artwork (or theme or whatever) to. (Helpful for the next bullet point below.) Of course, this all varies depending on how much scholarship has been written about a particular topic, but that’s the general idea. TL;DR: Do your research before you start writing or you might get stuck in a continual process of additions and revisions. Or the worst thing ever: you might even find out someone else already argued what you want to prove, meaning you have to come up with a new argument all over again. Edit: Here’s a list of some great websites to find primary sources online.
- Find comparisons: Look for similar artworks you can compare your artwork to. You might want to use artworks by the same artist, or do comparisons by theme within a certain time period, or something else entirely, depending on what the goals of your paper are. Use comparisons to drive your argument about an artwork, and weave them into the discussion of the artwork you’re writing about so that your piece is always at the forefront of thought.
- Think about the historical context: What was happening in the work’s country of origin - and in the world - at the time this artwork was being made? Think about how local issues (such as poverty, plague, local wars, local religious reforms, etc.) and global issues might have affected how the artist chose to represent their subject.
- Decide what the goal of your paper is & make an outline: Have a clear idea of what you want to say about the artwork you’re writing about (thesis statement). Make a list of the comparisons you’ll be using and write down how each comparison corresponds to your image in such a way that it bolsters your argument. Finally, make an outline of your paper. There are tons of different methods for outlining, so you might need to experiment before you find a method that works for you. Because I’m driven by my images, I always make at least one outline for my papers in PowerPoint so that I can see how the paper will flow visually. But sometimes what looks best isn’t what best supports an argument. Once you have a thesis statement and an outline, see if a trusted classmate or professor would be willing to look it over.
It’s easy to be intimidated, but try not to be too nervous. Hopefully you’ll feel confident and prepared once you have a plan written down. When you’ve conquered your outline, have your images selected, and have done your research, start writing! (Edit: If you would like to improve your writing, take a look at Strunk & White’s short book Elements of Style).
You can do it! :)
If I think of anything else, I’ll edit this. And of course, followers - feel free to weigh in.
Related Ask/post: Advice for writing a research paper or thesis.
For you fellow art history students out there - this is some great advice. Note what Amy (of caravaggista) says: “Spend a lot of time looking at the artwork you’re writing about.” and “Write down what stands out to you.”
Doesn’t that sound like an argument increased visual literacy to you?
Incorporate slow looking into your academic routine and it will work wonders. Increasing your visual awareness will help you verbally articulate what you see.