Concluding An Art Essay Outline

A good art history essay comprises a strong central thesis supported by judiciously selected evidence and critical argumentation. Your task is to critically evaluate the sources, to select the most plausible interpretations of the facts, and to present them in a logical, compelling and systematic manner so as to bolster your thesis.

Answer the Question

The first rule in writing an art history essay is to make sure that you answer the question set. This means that everything you write must be relevant to that end. Thinking hard about the question itself, about what it means, the issues it raises, and the various ways it might be answered, is far more important than most students realise.

Read Widely but Wisely

Having understood the parameters of the question, the next task is to find a way of tackling it that does more than simply regurgitate the answers you find in standard textbooks. While encyclopaedias and general textbooks are useful for gaining an initial overview of your topic, such reading does not count as citable research. The bulk of your reading should concentrate on specialised books and scholarly articles.

Art historians, like historians in general, must be sceptical. This means examining your sources critically and comparatively. As an art history student, you should weigh up the evidence used by a range of scholars and avoid over-reliance on particular texts or authors. An historical debate should first be understood before one stakes out a position within it, and this means drawing upon second, third and fourth opinions before arriving at a conclusion.

Use Evidence Critically

During your degree your examiners will be less interested in your conclusion than in how well you are able to support it. Always substantiate your claims with judicious use of relevant evidence. Sources should be examined critically rather than simply taken at face value. Vague, unsubstantiated and sweeping statements should always be avoided. As far as possible you should formulate an argument that does justice to all the information available, while also considering alternative points of view.

Avoid Narratives

A good art history essay marshals plausible evidence in support of its arguments, but is never simply a narrative of events. Generally speaking, if you find yourself telling a story, the likelihood is that you have drifted from the point. Essay questions require clear answers supported by coherent arguments. This requires you to structure your material in the best logical order, an order that will rarely if ever coincide with the chronological sequence of historical events.

Get the Introduction Right

In essay writing as in life more generally, first impressions count. An introduction is often the most difficult part to write, but it is well worth spending time getting it right. A strong introduction should grab the reader’s attention, clarify how you will tackle the question, provide a clear outline of what is to follow, and set the tone for the rest of the essay.      

Employ the Signpost Principle

Always employ the signpost principle: every step in the argument should be clearly marked out, and the reader should never be left wondering where the argument is going or why a particular point is being made. Use of rhetorical questions can be effective for this purpose: “What, then, is the nature of the evidence for the influence of the Italian masters on Dali’s work during the interwar period?” Generally speaking, the clearer your transitions the more readable your paper.


Too many student papers end abruptly without providing proper conclusions. A  conclusion should not be a word-for-word restatement of the thesis but rather a succinct summary of the main points you have made in the body of the paper. You might then briefly gesture towards the wider implications of your argument. However, a conclusion is not the place to introduce new claims, evidence or arguments, which only betrays poor planning.

Consult an Expert

If you want to learn how to write an art history essay that will earn you the grade you want, there is no better way than to consult an academic expert in the subject. At Essay Writing Service UK we can assign to you a professional art historian who will be able to help you with every aspect of your art history essay, from first draft to final submission.

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Before writing, I highly recommend that you write an outline for your paper. This is a way to organize your thoughts and to make sure that your structure is logical. It also can make the writing process much faster and easier, since you have a roadmap of where you are heading. The more detailed your outlines, the more they help! This may seem like a waste of time, but I promise you it will save you time in the end.

Thesis – You must have one! A thesis is a clear statement of what you plan to argue. It should be identifiable from your first paragraph. This thesis must be original and supportable. You should be able to connect every paragraph in your essay to this idea. If you cannot connect a passage to your thesis, it is either extraneous or in need of explanation. A thesis is a statement of the idea you will be trying to prove. An essay is an argument, an attempt to prove an original assertion through the use of various types of evidence.

Evidence – In Art History essays, there are several forms of evidence you might rely on. First and foremost, there is the visual evidence of the works of art. You may also contextualize the work with primary source texts (that is, texts from the same period as the works of art you are discussion). Then, you should read secondary sources (texts written by modern historians) about the works of art, their artists (if known) and their periods. Finally, you can read theoretical treatments of the vital themes in the works. This final category is generally not needed for introductory courses, but can be a great help in upper division work.

Argument – Be sure to venture beyond formal description of your images. Provide analysis that considers the meaning or meanings which we may draw from these works. Do not be afraid to offer multiple interpretations of an image or set of images. This can often by very effective, so long as the various interpretations are incorporated into a single, overarching argument. Most importantly, be sure that every sentence of your paper can be connected to your thesis.

Conclusion – Your papers should end with some form of concluding remarks. These need not take the form of hackneyed conventions (ie. “In conclusion, I would like to state…”), and you should avoid grand overstatements (ie. “This work shows how incredible the Middle Ages were.”) but should show the reader where they have just been and why this journey was important.

Formatting – Your professors will all have their own specifics, so be sure to read their guidelines in full. Generally, though, standard procedure is to use Times New Roman, 12-point font, 1-inch margins all around, double-spacing, and page numbers in the header or footer. See here for an example page. Papers must have regular citations. Most Art Historians will ask for footnotes in the Chicago style. The two most important aspects of citation are consistency and traceability. Can your reader easily find the text you are citing? Have you given all the necessary information? Have you been honest in giving credit where it is due?

Proofreading – Don’t rely on your spell-checking and grammar-checking software to do your proofreading for you. Many typos are also words, and therefore not picked up. I once read a paper in which the student referred repeatedly to St. Mark’s loin, intending to write about his symbol, the lion. Such errors are distracting. When proofreading, look for various issues, from spelling and grammar through language to overall essay structure. Ask yourself: Have I presented my argument in the best possible order? Are all of my main points clear and well-stated? Does one portion of my argument flow smoothly into the next? If not, try to fix it!

Title – When you have finished all of this, give your paper a title! This can be descriptive (Images of the Sword in the Bayeux Tapestry) or evocative (Slicing and Dicing) or both (Slicing and Dicing: Images of the Sword in the Bayeux Tapestry).

Images – It is often a good idea to include images of any works of art you discuss at length that are not from your class or the textbook. Be sure to clearly and carefully label your images, and put references to them in your text, as on the Example Page.

For an excellent site similarly dedicated to teaching students how to write about art, see Marjorie Munsterberg’s Writing About Art.

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