Analyzing an Image

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SWBAT develop analytical skills by collaborating to analyze an image and using that as a model to analyze another image on their own.

Big Idea

We can read images, much like we can read a text.



15 minutes

I explain to students that our approach to images is not entirely different than that of written texts. Like texts, we analyze images to make meaning of them. We also formulate claims and support these with specific evidence from an image.  An image also has the equivalent of an author, an artist. I distribute the image I selected for this unit, a painting by Frida Kahlo titled “My Dress Hangs There.” Besides this general introduction to images, I give students background information about the painting and the artist and make it clear that this information is essential in making meaning of her painting. Most of my students know very little about Frida Kahlo, contrary to what I expected considering that she has become such a cultural icon and that her image is quite common in this city. There is an incredible amount of information about Frida Kahlo in several websites on the internet. I begin by using the information I included in the student copy. This brief introduction of the painting allows me to tell them about her husband, Diego Rivera and to place her in the company of the most prominent figures in Mexican art. Frida Kahlo had a fascinating life and this part of the lesson is very engaging for students. A brief introduction to her always turns into something much longer because students begin to ask so many questions. Still, I make sure to keep this part down to 15 minutes. During that time, I cover the following points:

  • Diego Rivera was considered a master muralist and continues to be central in the history of muralism, which is very relevant in my students lives given that they live in one of the cities that enjoys a vast collection of public murals.
  • When Frida Kahlo was a teenager, she was in a terrible bus accident. A metal bar pierced her body and damaged her womb and spine. She miraculously survived, but lived in pain the rest of her life. She was never able to have children.
  • She wore a cast on her torso repeatedly throughout her life in an attempt to heal her back. There are pictures of her painting on these.
  • She very much wanted to have a child and got pregnant several times, but was never able to carry the pregnancy to term. She explores this in several of her paintings. 
  • She made traditional Mexican clothing part of her daily attire. There is a large collection of photographs of her wearing dresses from every regional part of Mexico. She painted many self portraits and usually painted herself in one of the many traditional dresses she owned. 

I turn back to "My Dress Hangs There" and point out that Frida actually painted this during an extended stay in the United States and that she was eager to go back to Mexico. It is important for students to understand that Diego Rivera was excited about being in the US and that he was portraying what he perceived as progress stemming from the Industrial Revolution in a very positive light in the mural he was commissioned to complete. This is quite the opposite of how Frida Kahlo felt. This information is in the short description students have on their copy and it is clearly leading them to understand one aspect of the painting. I believe it is not very difficult to arrive at the conclusion that Frida Kahlo painted her colorful dress in the center as an expression of her identity, that she painted several iconic US buildings in a negative light, and that this is a portrayal of how badly she wanted to go back to her home country and how out-of-place she felt in this country. Still, I selected this painting because it is rich in details students can analyze, which I believe we need for our first lesson on reading images.

Elements and Principles of Art

5 minutes

I tell students that when we analyze written texts, one thing we talk about are the elements of literature and the writing tools a writer employs. Similarly, to analyze images, it is important to talk about an artist's tools. I give students a brief overview of the elements of art and the principles of design. I have an Elements of Art poster and a Principles of Design poster, with a brief explanation and sample images to illustrate each element and principle. I don't intend to get students to study these in depth. I am mainly interested in making the students aware of the fact that these are the aspects of an image we discuss when making meaning of it. I expect they can easily apply the elements of art immediately because they are basic. The principles of design will be a bit harder, but I plan on guiding them to connect their responses to the painting to the principles of design as well as to any elements they may be shying away from.

I explain that the elements of art are the most basic elements an artist uses. I tell them that this may sound way too basic, but that they need to imagine a blank canvas and an artist reaching for lines and colors to create shapes and arrange them purposefully in the space within the frame. I emphasize that every single thing inside the frame was controlled by the artist and we can potentially make meaning from it. I then explain that the principles of art refer to how an artist uses the elements of art within the frame. I briefly go over each and point to the sample images. I make sure to communicate to them that they will find it very easy to apply some of these to their analysis of the painting and rather challenging to apply others. I urge them to look at the sample images as often as possible and make an effort to apply them. 

Applying Knowledge of Elements of Art and Principles of Design

15 minutes

I tell students they will be examining "My Dress Hangs There" and selecting three details that stand out. There is a certain criteria I want them to apply as they make their selection. The detail they select should stand out because of one of the elements or principles I introduced. It should also stand out because it can helps us make meaning of the painting. To illustrate, I use another painting by Frida Kahlo, "Roots."  This, I project on the board and I tell them that one detail that stands out is the dry, cracked earth in the background. I use a dry erase marker to circle this part of the image on the board. I point to the elements of art poster and identify color, shape and value as reasons why this detail stands out. I ask students to do the same on their paper with "My Dress Hangs There" and give them a few minutes to put something on their paper. I then ask for their attention and request sharing. Students will volunteer to identity things like the toilet and state that it stands out because of its size and the place where she put it. I refer the student and the class to the elements and principles of art posters and guide them to realize this student is talking about space and possibly emphasis. A few more students share. Most will begin to interpret the detail they selected but I ask them to hold on to that thought for later in the lesson. The next step is specifically going to ask for analysis, but I know that if we do both parts at the same time, most will just want to ignore the elements of art and principles of design and I want to push them to pay attention to them because these are the specific tools of an artist and are important in analyzing an image. 


Analyzing Details in the Painting

20 minutes

The next step is for students to use the selected detail to make meaning of any aspect of the painting. I illustrate with the same sample painting, "Roots." I discuss the connection I make between the way Kahlo painted the background and what I know about her failed attempts to have a child. I point out that the roots coming out of her stomach support my analysis. I end up writing the following sentences on the board, below the note I already made where I listed color, shape and value.

  • The viewer can connect this detail to the artist's failed attempts to have a child in that she was unable to sustain life, which the viewer assumes of that dry and cracked land. The dark colors she used to paint this land help her express the hopelessness she experienced because of this difficult situation.

I explicitly point out the analytical verbs I used: connect, assume, express. I tell students to do the same on their paper with "My Dress Hangs There." At this point, I have explicitly made use of two visual resources that are posted on my wall, the elements and principles of art posters and the list of Verbs that help in Analysis. I urge students to use these on their paper. 

Once students have been working on this for a while, I ask for their attention and ask them to share what meaning they have made of the painting so far. As they share, students add to each other's analysis, agree, disagree, thus turning this into an organic discussion about the painting.

Many of my students struggle to formulate the kind of analysis this assignment calls for. Many did not finish analyzing all three elements. I assign these for homework. I tell students that they will be working with this painting again in the next lesson.