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How to annotate art

Annotations are an integral part of an artist's sketchbook. Artists use annotation, or written notes, to describe, analyse and evaluate their work and to develop creative projects from an early stage. Student artists can boost their grades by annotating drawings or images in their coursework, to show their understanding of art techniques, their insight into why images are effective and their ideas for developing art projects of their own.

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How to annotate

  1. Collect images in a sketchbook. These could include your own rough drawings for a more finished piece of work, sketches made quickly in the field, or images and photographs you have cut from magazines with scissors and then glued onto the page. Use only one side of the page and leave wide margins around your images, so there is plenty of space for annotation.

  2. Write notes in pencil alongside your chosen images. Put short notes in the margin and longer ones on the blank leaf facing the image. Draw lines or arrows to link a note and image when you need to make it clear to which image your comments apply.

  3. Vary your pencil notes with others written in a wide range of styles and media. The UK examinations board Edexcel gives examples of annotation written along the lines of images, across images, in the spaces inside images, scratched into paint and layered over other writing. It advises students to be "playful" with annotation and think of it as: "An extension to the creative process".

  4. Write your notes as your image collection develops, rather than leave the annotation until your sketchbook is full. According to Edexcel, it is best to jot down ideas as soon as they occur to you. That way, your annotations become part of the creative process and help to explain the development of your thoughts. Think of your notes as a kind of artistic diary.

  5. Use short phrases and key words rather than full sentences, to save on space. There is no set format for annotations, but aim to keep them brief. You do not have to write about the same points in each annotation. Instead, try to cover a variety of topics.

Topics to cover

  1. Record what type of image you have chosen, its source and the date it was created. For example, you might write: "Charcoal and chalk, butterfly on lavender, 10 July 2010", or "Photograph, butterfly on lavender from 'Nature' magazine, July 2010 issue". Annotations like this help distinguish your own ideas from the sources you used for inspiration.

  2. Explain why you included an image in your sketchbook. For instance, it may be an example of a technique you plan to try, a pattern or colour you wish to reproduce, or a sketched detail for a larger painting. Note any links the image has with others in the sketchbook. For example, you might write: "Branching veins, see also butterfly wing detail, p. 6".

  3. Add key words to describe the image itself or the mood or "feel" that it convey. The butterfly's wing, for example, might generate the following key words: fragile, transitory , bright, trembling, fearful, powdery and stained-glass. Sometimes, a key word will provide you with the title for an artwork.

  4. Describe what you plan to do next and how you intend to use your chosen image for an art project. For example: "I plan to use butterfly wing patterns to design a stained-glass panel."


  1. Add technical terms to your annotation where you can.Using the correct vocabulary for artistic techniques and materials shows you take the creative process seriously. You can find a glossary of suitable terms in the "Resources" section of this article.

  2. Mention the "composition" or arrangement of different elements in the image. Use terms such as: foreground, background, balanced or unbalanced groupings, symmetry, asymmetry, focal point, motif, or repeated pattern. For example, you might write: "The focal point of the butterfly, placed at the far edge of the image, creates an unbalanced composition, suggesting crazy, erratic flight."

  3. Comment on the type of lines used in a sketch. For example, you might note the presence of converging or diverging lines in a design, or of heavy "hatched" areas of shading.

  4. Comment on the "texture" or way things seem to feel in the image. You might use terms such as: rough, coarse, smooth, silky, prickly or yielding.

  5. Comment on the use of colour in the image. You might use terms such as: subdued, vibrant, brilliant, dull, intense, washed-out, base colour or highlights.

  6. Tip

    Experiment with fonts and lettering design in your annotations, to make them part of your sketchbook's visual appeal.

    Tour a gallery with a notebook and take down examples of the way images are described on their accompanying labels. This helps you extend your vocabulary of suitable terms to use when annotating art.

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Things You'll Need

  • Pencil or pen
  • Sketchbook
  • Images from various sources
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Letter stencils
  • Paints
  • Inks
  • Pastels
  • Charcoal
  • Notebook

About the Author

Martin Malcolm

British writer Martin Malcolm specializes in children's nonfiction. His books include "A Giant in Ancient Egypt" and "Poetry By Numbers." His schoolkids' campaign for the Red Cross won the 2008 Charity Award. A qualified teacher, he has written for the BBC and MTV. He holds a Master of Arts in English from the University of London.

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