Teaching Visual and Comparative Analysis in AP® Art History 

Dr. Allison Lee Palmer is a professor of art history in the School of Visual Arts at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches two versions of introduction to art history: one a chronological survey, and one a thematic overview taught in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the university. She also wrote several chapters of The History of Art: A Global View, published by Thames & Hudson. 

Allison Lee Palmer
Image Credit: Bolt Photography

As students prepare for the AP® exam in Art History, studying the list of images and a barrage of historical information can be overwhelming. The first free response question, allotted 30 minutes, is challenging because students must immediately dive into a prompt that requires a multi-focused perspective: they compare an artwork of their choice with an artwork provided for them in an image set. Students must clearly explain the significance of the similarities and differences between the works, both visually and culturally, and they must cite evidence to support their claim. Now, they can look online for ample examples of practice tests and responses. But how can students hone these skills in a more engaging way in the classroom that is both fun and instructional and brings the artwork back to the forefront of a classroom discussion, where it belongs? 

Teaching Visual Analysis 

The best way to start this process is to practice close, sustained looking. Students don’t always take the time to intentionally observe an artwork, so specific classroom activities can help them develop this skill. Not only is visual analysis for AP® test takers, but it benefits all art and art history students, and should be practiced throughout the semester. A visual analysis is an examination of how materials are used to create design elements such as composition, color, line, texture, scale, proportion, balance, contrast, and rhythm.  What is the subject? What is the style? The art object is a series of decisions the artist has made, and the student’s job is to figure out, describe, explain, and interpret those decisions.  

To make this observational task interesting, I ask students to look around their community to locate an artwork for a visual analysis. Is there a local museum nearby? A public sculpture in a park? A public mural? Art in a gallery or store? A local church? Something in the YMCA? The post office? Shopping mall? Airport? Campus? Students are always surprised to find that art exists everywhere.  

Once they locate an art object, I ask them to stand in front of it with no distractions, observing it carefully to interrogate its appearance. After a few minutes, they can begin to take notes that will form a description to bring back to the classroom to share with others, together with a personal photograph of the artwork, a selfie. When students present their artwork to the class, I make sure they use key terms in their descriptions: subject matter, composition, setting, foreground and background, narrative, medium (painting, sculpture, print, photograph, architecture, textile), materials (oil on canvas, bronze, stone, wood, ceramic, paper, mixed media), color (palette, hue, intensity), line and shape, pattern, light and shadow, objects (such as figures with posture, gesture, and expression), style (realistic, nonrepresentational, abstract), and so on. 

Teaching Comparative Analysis 

Students will need more information for the first free response comparison question. Learning the historical and cultural circumstances of an artwork can be daunting. For this next step, I have students break into small groups to brainstorm a list of recurring themes we find that span various cultures and eras throughout art history. With each theme, students should consult the AP® artwork list and work together to create a comparison to be shared in the classroom if time permits, or in a shared study guide.  

To begin the brainstorm, I suggest a theme, such as the artistic representation of different religious beliefs, or different ideas about spirituality among different cultures. This could include the function and meaning of religious art in different eras. As an example, students can make a list of how deities are represented in different cultures. 

Other major themes include power and politics. Art depicts political conflicts as well as triumphs, and art can reflect a certain political ideology as a type of propaganda. How else is power depicted, and for what reasons? Still working in groups, students can now brainstorm examples of political art and the depiction of power in different cultures. They should make sure to think through the various artistic media and consider how some artworks are realistic narratives while others are abstract, so they can make sure to include a broad variety of types and styles. 

Art can also reveal social relationships or provide a social commentary. Family relationships are reflected in group portraiture among different cultures, and art can also explore socioeconomic identity, gender identity, issues of race, communal identity, or national identity, among other things. Here students can create another broad list of comparisons to discuss. Art also shows a strong relationship between humans and nature. This is an important topic that can generate an interesting class discussion. What other themes can students think of? 

Setting Your Students Up for Success 

Lastly, these AP® exam questions are timed, so the pace of writing is a key feature of the test, which makes these classroom discussions an important entry point into this first free response question. For the test, I suggest students spend the first 5 minutes thinking about their comparative examples, jotting down notes and an outline. Then they should spend the next 8–10 minutes (checking time with a watch) writing a detailed description and clear analysis of the first artwork, then 8–10 minutes for the second artwork, and finally a 5-minute summary comparison. Students should spend the last few minutes reviewing the question and writing a one-sentence conclusion. To help practice this pacing, I give an occasional 10-minute descriptive writing exercise, either of one artwork or a comparison, at the beginning or end of class. This allows students to practice their knowledge in small increments, and in a way that is easily integrated into the classroom.  

Art history is a fantastic discipline to learn, so studying for the AP® exam needn’t be a chore. It can include engaging group activities offered throughout the semester, where students take the lead in presenting their observations and ideas. Good luck! 

AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product. 

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