Grossmont College Donatello Mary Magdelene 1455 Wood Sculpture Discussion

Deborah Butterfield, Rory, 1992, Assemblage


The way an artist manipulates form (medium, visual elements, design principles) in a work of art directly impacts the content, or how the work is understood by the viewer. Moreover, great masters such as Donatello, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh often pushed the boundaries of materials to explore creative approaches that were very different from prevailing trends.

Many artists after World War II also became disenchanted with conventional approaches to making art. They couldn’t see themselves painting something as banal as a vase of flowers or a reclining nude after witnessing the atomic bomb, global destruction, and the death of millions during the Holocaust. As a result, artists began to look for new materials and approaches to help them celebrate their identity and better express how they felt about the world. New content called for a new expressive approach.


The assemblage was the most important new approach, but it was not a medium in the traditional sense. Assemblage artists work extensively with found, recycled, and discarded materials. Pablo Picasso, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Conner, Betye Saar, and Edward Kienholz, among others, are all notable artists who worked in Assemblage.

To help inform your Discussion post, please watch this short video about Assemblage:

Your Assignment

In this Discussion, you will write and post a 550-750 word Formal Analysis (also referred to as Visual Analysis) in which you describe and examine the form of a work of art, especially what the medium and composition contribute to its visual power and meaning. Learning how to correctly write a Formal Analysis is a key skill you will develop during this course.

This is not a research paper but is a paper based on your observations and original thought. I want you to learn to write about art because it forces you to think critically about what you see, what is visually evident, then examine your thoughts and articulate them clearly. Clear writing issues from clear thinking! 

This Discussion is worth 100 points. Please read the instructions and Grading Rubric before you begin.

Due Date

  • Your first post to this Discussion is due by Sunday, Sept. 26 at 11:59 p.m. 
  • Your responses to posts by at least two different classmates are due by Sunday, Oct. 3 at 11:59 p.m. 

You must post in the Discussion before you can read your classmates’ posts.

Instructions and Grading Criteria

Before you begin, be sure to review the entire weekly module to better understand the Formal Analysis process. Take notes as you watch each of the videos, and carefully read the entire written commentary on each page in the module. If you are not clear about any of the concepts, or if you are unsure about how to complete this assignment, don’t hesitate to contact me via Canvas Inbox and I will help you.

To earn a high grade, I expect you to correctly apply concepts and terminology from the readings and videos. In addition, you are required to support your key points with frequent observations of the work of art.

For more help, refer to this Guide to the Visual Elements and Principles of Design

Important! Approach this discussion as you would if you were writing a college paper. In other words, don’t just start writing on the discussion board without having a plan. I recommend that you open a Word document and write a polished 550-750 word paper, then copy and paste this into your discussion post. 

Step One: Select an Artist (listed below)

In each of the images listed at the bottom of this page, the artist has used materials in a unique way that makes a powerful visual statement. 

Before you make your selection or write your post, scroll to the bottom of this page and review all the images and linked content, and videos. As you review the content, take notes. Then select a work of art that you find engaging or that piques your curiosity. Write about the work of art because you care.

Step Two: Post in the Class Discussion

Your post is worth 80 possible points

After you select a work of art, write and post a 550-750 word Formal Analysis (Visual Analysis) in which you describe and examine the form of the work of art, especially what the medium, visual elements, and principles of design contribute to its visual power and meaning. Organize your analysis into four paragraphs, listed below, and follow the instructions. Although not required, it may be helpful to use headings. 

At the beginning of each paragraph, write a concise topic sentence that clearly states what the paragraph is about. This topic sentence will help frame the controlling argument for each paragraph and will help your reader follow your key ideas.

Paragraph One: Description of Subject

This paragraph should be between 150-200 words

Post an image of the work of art you are writing about.

In your topic sentence, clearly state the subject and/or identify the main issue, key theme, or narrative (story) the artist is working with. Do this in one sentence. Please note that in non-objective works, the primary subject can often be found among the visual elements of design principles (e.g. color, scale, etc.).

For example:The Thinker, by French artist Auguste Rodin, is a sculpture of a pensive, yet powerful, male nude.”

Next, describe the overall work as you would to someone who hasn’t seen it. Paint a detailed picture with words. Your description should be so clear and specific that the reader can imagine the work of art in their mind as they read. Do not simply list what you see, but thoroughly describe the different areas of the work. Use lots of adjectives and avoid naming. Move from general to specific observations. If human figures are represented, describe their most dominant characteristics, including expressions, poses, gestures, and how they are placed about one another.

Remember, this is an opening paragraph and you can go into more depth about the medium in the second paragraph.

Paragraph Two: Medium and Materials

This paragraph should be between 150-200 words.

In your topic sentence, summarize the artist’s unique approach to using their medium and materials to create their work. Do this in one sentence. Remember that this paragraph is about the physical process of making the work and not the visual elements or design principles.

For example: “Rodin’s expressive approach to modeling his sculpture makes the subject feel more human.”

Next, describe this unique approach in detail, and explain how it impacts or is integral to, the viewer’s experience of the work. What is the artist trying to say or express by doing it this way? In other words, explain how this approach reinforces the message, theme, or narrative (story) in the work and contributes to making a powerful visual statement.

You must include 2-3 specific supporting observations from your chosen art object. Each sentence must be clear and descriptive. 

Paragraph Three: Composition

This paragraph should be between 150-200 words.

In your topic sentence, clearly state the most dominant visual element or principle of design used to compose the work. Do this in one sentence. Please refer to this helpful guide to the Visual Elements and Principles of Design.

For example: “Rodin’s exaggeration of the proportions of the hands and feet make the figure seem physically powerful when seen from below.”  (In this example, “proportion” is a principle of design.)

Next, describe in rich detail how the artist used this specific visual element or principle of design to organize the work of art. How did the artist’s use of this element or principle underpin the composition and/or become an integral part of what the artist was trying to say or express? In other words, explain how it reinforces the message, theme, or narrative (story) in the work and contributes to making a powerful visual statement.

You must include 2-3 specific supporting observations from your chosen art object. Each sentence must be clear and descriptive. 

Paragraph Four: Evaluation

This paragraph should be between 100-150 words

In your topic sentence, briefly summarize whether or not you think the work of art was effective or successful, and why. Do this in one sentence. After writing the previous three paragraphs, you should be better able to interpret and understand the work of art.

For example: “In The Thinker, Rodin successfully depicts a man who thinks deeply, yet has the physical power to act.”

Next, analyze your reaction to the work of art and evaluate its effectiveness in more detail. You will explain the reasons why you think the work is successful and support your reasoning with 2-3 direct references to the work of art you selected. 

You may wish to consider the following:

  • What initial ideas or feelings come to mind after experiencing the work of art?
  • Do you identify with the work? Based on your life experiences, is it personally relevant to you?
  • What is it about the work of art that you like the most? The message? The way it was made or composed? 
  • Are you engaged by the formal characteristics, such as the way the artist used light, color, texture, space, scale, etc?
  • Do you think your experience of the work is the same as what the artist intended?

Step Three: Respond to Two Classmates

Each post is worth 10 possible points (20 points total)

Next, review the posts of your classmates. Post a thorough and cogent response to a post by two different classmates (at least 100 words each).  Add a new insight to the discussion that helps the reader better understand the work of art. To do this consider the following:

  • Do you agree with your classmate’s analysis and interpretation? Why or why not?
  • Did they leave out something important? If you think so, introduce this to the discussion.
  • Did you find something interesting in the post, but you don’t fully understand? Politely ask them to clarify for you.

Earn a High GradeBefore you begin, read all of the instructions, as well as the rubric.Focus on the key ideas contained in the weekly reading, videos, and links to this page.Start with an outline and organize your main points into separate topical paragraphs.Write concise and complete sentences that clearly convey what you intend to say.Write in third person, present tense, as much as possible.Support your statements with careful observations about each work of art.Include your own insights that support your main points.ResearchThis is not a research paper. However, it may be beneficial for you to do some very basic research about the artist and the image. If you do, look at other works by the artist to gain insights about their artistic vision. Try to identify and include at least one big idea you find. Be sure to cite your sources and paraphrase this idea in your own words. Contact me and I can show you how to do this. In most cases you can cite the url for an online source in parentheses after the section in your paper where the reference occurs. ImagesI’ve selected these works of art because they represent a diverse range of materials, artists, and viewpoints. Another big reason is because they include many of my personal favorites and I can’t wait to read what you have to say about them!Tara DonovanClick this image to watch a video about the work of Tara Donovan.Tara Walker, Untitled (Styrofoam Cups), 2004-2008, Installation Kara WalkerClick this image to watch a video about the work of Kara Walker.Kara Walker, Renaissance society installation, 1997Alex CouwenbergClick either image below to watch a really terrific short video about how Alex makes his work.Alex Couwenberg, Starwood, 2008, Acrylic on canvasAlex Couwenberg, Kona, 2006, Acrylic on canvasDeborah ButterfieldClick the image below and go to the Artnet website where you can explore Butterfield’s work.Deborah Butterfield, Yellow River, 1984, AssemblageClick the image below to watch a short video about the work of Debra Butterfield.Debra Butterfield, Silver Star, 2013, Cast bronze with patinaJoseph CornellClick the image, below, for a link to a website about Joseph Cornell and his art.Joseph Cornell,  Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945, box art assemblageClick the image, below, for a link to a terrific article about Joseph Cornell.Joseph Cornell, Medici Boy, 1952, Box art assemblageClick this image (below) to go to an amazing interactive website based on Cornell’s artwork.Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), 1936, Box art assemblageKäthe Kollwitz Click the image below to read a good article about Käthe Kollwitz.Käthe Kolwitz, Battlefield, 1907, Etching, The Art Institute of ChicagoRembrandt van RijnClick the image below and go to the Norton Simon Museum website. When you arrive, click the image again to take a closer look. This is considered to be one of the most dynamic prints ever made.Rembrandt van Rijn, Three Crosses, third state, 1653, DrypointUnlike other printmaking processes, Intaglio printing allows the artist to make changes to the printing plate between proofs. Notice the dramatic changes that occur between the early and later states of this image. Rembrandt pioneered this process. Click the image, below, to watch a video that will help you interpret Rembrandt.Rembrandt van Rijn, Three Crosses, fourth state, 1653, DrypointDonatello Click this image, below, to watch a video about Donatello’s Mary Magdalene.Donatello, Mary Magdelene, 1455, Wood sculptureVincent Van GoghClick this image to watch a first rate biography of Vincent Van Gogh. Watch at least the first two episodes (15 minutes each). If you want to learn about what drove Vincent to paint, this is the video to watch.Vincent Van Gogh, The Night Cafe, 1888, Oil on canvasDavid Alfaro Siqueiros Click the image, below, for a link to a website about Siquieros and his art.David Alfaro Siqueiros, Echo of a Scream, 1937, enamel on woodBanksyClick this image to watch a terrific video about Banksy (14 minutes).Banksy, Stop and Search (Girl and a Soldier), Bethlehem, 2007 (Links to an external site.)Banksy, Cameraman and Flower, Park City, 2010Banksy, Umbrella Girl, New OrleansBanksy, No Trespassing, San Francisco, 2010James Turrell – Roden Crater (earthwork)Click the image below to watch a video about the Roden Crater (LACMA).James Turrell, Roden Crater, interior, EarthworkPlease click the image below to visit the Roden Crater website.James Turrell, Roden Crater, interior, EarthworkPlease click the image below to visit the James Turrell website.James Turrell, Roden Crater, interior, EarthworkJames Turrell, Roden Crater, exterior, Earthwork

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