Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

3 Approaching analysis

3.1 Why analyse?

Whatever kind of text you study, one of your main tasks is to try to understand it ‘as it is in itself’. That means analysing it. You have to examine it in detail so that you can see what it is made up of and how it ‘works’.

Just as you read, view or listen to different kinds of text in different ways, so you approach your analysis of them differently. In each case, you ask particular types of question using a specialised analytical language. We have just seen the sort of questions you will have in mind when approaching an historical document. Let's take another example.

Look at Raphael's Madonna and Child (see Figure 1). We have only been able to reproduce the painting in black and white, so, among other things, you wouldn't be able to analyse the artist's use of colour. This is only one reason why you should always try to examine original paintings when you can. It is also difficult to get a sense of the scale and texture of a painting from a reproduction, however good it is. Of course, you will often have to use reproductions. When you do, you should always read the captions, which give you important information about a painting, including its size. To understand how it is ‘put together’ you need to ask the following kinds of question about it, using some of the terms that appear in italics here.

  • How much of the picture space is taken up by the three figures and how much by the background to them?

  • Where are the figures positioned on the canvas and what are their poses?

  • What is ‘in’ the background and how is this related to the figures in the foreground?

  • Which parts of the painting are in light and which in shade, and where is the source of light – where is the light supposed to be coming from?

  • What is the painting's tonal range; are there any striking uses of colour in it?

  • How is the two-dimensional (flat) painted surface made to look as if it has a third dimension, of depth, so that the figures appear life-like?

  • What is the relationship of the figures to you, the viewer – at your eye-level, ‘looking’ down, away, or what?

In the process of analysing the painting you study as many aspects of it as you can – not only the picture surface itself (the first four questions), but also your (the viewer's) relationship to it. All this gives you important clues to how the painting works. When you then combine the results of this analysis with what you have discovered about both the type of painting you are dealing with and the conditions in which it was painted and viewed, you are able to reach some informed and appropriate interpretation of its meanings and values, and to communicate your judgements to other people.

The Madonna and Child with the Infant Baptist (The Garvagh Madonna), provably 1509, oil on wood, 39 by 33 cm. Reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees, The National Gallery, London.)
Figure 1: Raphael, The Madonna and Child with the Infant Baptist (The Garvagh Madonna), probably 1509–10, oil on wood, 39 × 33 cm. (Reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees, The National Gallery, London)

Key points

When you analyse a text you break it down into parts and examine each part in detail, so that you can see how the text ‘works’ as a whole. According to the type of text you are analysing, you:

  • ask particular kinds of question

  • use the appropriate language of analysis.

Let's see how these processes of analysis–interpretation–evaluation and communication actually work in practice. To do this we will separate them out and illustrate each one, taking a short poem as a working example. As we discuss the poem, I hope you will be able to see how to apply what we are doing to other kinds of text you may be particularly interested in. From time to time I will draw out some of these implications.


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