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Compare and Contrast: Preparing for an Art History Essay Exam

Compare and Contrast: Preparing for an Art History Essay Exam

Author: UKy UndergraduateEd

The goal of this activity is to promote a more thoughtful, active, and in-depth approach to studying in general and exam preparation more specifically.  This exercise requires you to focus on the creation (and presentation) of a sample art history exam essay in which you are required to compare and contrast two pieces of art with a good attempt at critical thinking and analysis.  This will also invite you to think in detail about how a typical college exam essay tests you on learned material as well as how your answers would include information ideally addressed.  By focusing on what it takes to craft an effective exam essay question, you will think more deeply and with more subtlety about the material on an upcoming exam.  Perhaps most importantly, going through this exercise should also discourage the dreaded “cram the night before” approach to studying undertaken by too many students.

Each step of this activity encourages an active approach to the material learned in class and to the processes of both preparing for and taking an exam successfully.  By completing this activity early in the course, the hope is that students will be more aware before their first exam of the kind of information and level of thinking they will be expected to exhibit in their essay answers, and will also give them practice with how to consolidate and organize discrete bits of information and the larger, more abstract concepts they are expected to learn, into a well-crafted exam essay. 

The exercise has the added benefit of becoming an in-class exam review much more effective than having an instructor re-teach material already taught in class.  The exercise is almost completely led and directed by the students themselves.  Furthermore, the instructor could decide to expand the exercise by introducing and starting it in one class, but conducting the presentations in a later class meeting.  In this way the presentations could be more formal, and it would meet the goal of having students work together outside of the classroom if this were a particular goal of an instructor.

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Kathleen Wheeler

Kathleen Wheeler, Senior Lecturer in Art History & Visual Studies,
University of Kentucky

Courses in this area are hands-on courses that enable students to present and critically evaluate competing interpretations through written and oral analysis. Students are expected to distinguish between different artistic and historical schools or periods using the varying approaches and viewpoints characterized by those periods under study. In addition, these courses encourage students to identify the values that underlie the world-views of different cultures and peoples, as well as their own culture(s) over time.

This learning activity supports the preparation of students in the UK Core Program  to conduct a sustained piece of analysis of a work of art, in this case, and that makes use of logical argument, coherent theses and evidence of art history, ideally with an informed, appropriate use of library sources. In a course fulfilling the Intellectual Inquiry in the Humanities, students learn to interpret, evaluate and analyze creations of the human intellect while recognizing the validity of different points of view.

Step 1: Choose two art pieces to analyze

Do this exercise a week or so before your exam, using material already covered in class so that it is related to the material on which you will be tested for that exam. 

First, read some blogs about art history. Check out Masterpiece Cards website where there are many images of interest to art historians. Under the “Blog” tab, you'll find the “Famous Painters Blogroll” that lists many excellent blogs there.

Now, choose a few pieces of art that you like or are curious about – maybe you like the colors or the theme of the piece. Once you have selected several works of art, think about which two have similarities: is it the subject matter? the colors? the size? texture? Are they both sculptures,or both landscape paintings, for example? Perhaps they both manage to evoke a particular feeling in you. It’s important that you choose two that you are interested in personally for some reason. They should “speak” to you – not just emotionally, but intellectually as well.

Here’s an example of a compare-and-contrast essay <> using two works from the Renaissance and Neoclassicism eras: Michelangelo’s David and Antonio Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss. Notice that these two pieces were chosen because they both are considered by scholars to be representative of their time periods and that both of the artists used unconventional ideas in their depiction of the current political and social conditions of the day.  It’s important that you choose two pieces that allow you to make appropriate comparisons relating to the concepts you are learning in your art history class.  This is an important first step as you prepare to write an effective essay that covers multiple main issues covered in class.

Now that you’ve chosen your two art pieces, be sure and write down the most important ways by which you want to identify them.  You can use a local library and online museums (check out, for example, the ArtCylopedia's Art Museums Worldwide website) to get this information:

  • Artist’s full name

  • Title of the art piece

  • Year of production, country/location/culture

  • Size of the art piece

  • Materials/medium used to create it

  • Formal elements such as line, color, composition

  • Art style or school the piece comes from (with some basic descriptors of the hallmarks of that art style in general)

  • Subject matter of the piece

Step 2: Choose 5 elements, items, topics for a comparison chart

In order for you to create an art history exam question yourself, start first with a detailed list of at least five elements, items, or topics you expect to use in your comparison.  In addition to the characteristics and elements listed in Step 1 above, you might also consider using the following in your comparison list:

  • Style of the piece, e.g., abstract, naturalistic, idealistic, realistic

  • Function or symbolism of the piece (What was it used for? Does it communicate a message? Is it asking for something? Is it sacred or secular)

  • Cultural context, e.g., how might the quality of life at the time and place the piece was created affected its function and style? Do historical events relate to the image or story depicted?

Step 3: Brainstorm to compare and contrast the two art pieces

Download and use th Venn Diagram below to help you start brainstorming – put the similarities in the middle and differences to either side. 

Or you can use the Read-Write-Think Interactive Venn Diagram online:

This will help you visualize how much the two art pieces have in common and how much difference there is.

Now, revise and sharpen.  You must decide which of the characteristics you’ve listed are interesting, important, and relevant enough to be included in an essay. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s relevant to the course I’m taking? Why did I choose these two pieces of art?

  • What’s interesting and most revealing to my readers?

  • What matters most to the argument I am going to make?

  • What’s the most basic or central idea (and needs to be mentioned, even if obvious)?

  • Overall, what’s more important—the similarities or the differences?


Charts to download and use

Step 4: Create a Chart with 5 Main Elements to Analyze

Now, list on a chart those 5 main elements you’ve chosen to focus in on and compile detailed notes for each piece in relation to those elements, items or topics to expand upon in the comparison essay. 

You can use a Double Cell Diagram (see for example the bubble graphic organizer at and start making your own for free online at or at  Or you can use the simple chart, available for download above.

Be sure to use the appropriate terminology and skills from the course readings and specific to the discipline of art history.  For example, in introductory art history courses, students are required in their exam essays typically to compare and contrast different works demonstrating not only their learned skills of formal visual analysis, but also their ability to place works and monuments in a historical context.  This means comparing works not only in terms of the differences in their formal elements, but also in terms of the socio-political, theological, regional or cultural reasons behind those differences.

Step 5: Write Your Own Essay Exam Question

Now that you have the information and key information for a good essay answer, what is the question?  Spend some time thinking from your instructor’s perspective and develop a good essay exam question that would be the prompt for you to write an essay from your brainstorming and chart developed in Steps 3 and 4.

Good essay exam questions are hard to write.  Review some basics on how to write ideal test items here at the Study Guides and Strategies Website: Constructing Essay Exams.  Be sure and use precise directives in your question – review these good tips for definitions associated with the verbs used in essay exams.

Now post your exam question and your chart for others to see and comment on.