How to Annotate a Famous Historical Painting Images

Annotation (adding explanatory notes or comments) requires the close reading of a narrative. A history painting is a narrative without words -- the story of a historical event told in a picture. To annotate a history painting, you must know how to "read" it. Observe how the artist uses colour, scale, light and movement. In a good history painting, the artist will use these as clues to help us read the story and understand its meaning.

Download an image of a history painting from the Internet. Museum and historical society websites are good sources for images, as well as useful information to help you analyse, interpret and annotate the painting. The National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art websites have thousands of images you can download, along with reliable information about the painting, the artist, the owners of the painting and the culture in which it was made (see Resources).

Annotate with Mac OS X Preview. It comes with the Mac OS X operating system. Open your image with Preview and click "Annotate" to reveal annotation tools below the image. Click the box shape, then drag your pointer to draw an outline around each area you want to annotate. Click "Aa" (in a box), then click inside the annotation box to add text.

Annotate with MS Paint. It comes with the Windows operating system. Open your image with Paint and click the box shape (unfilled) to draw an outline around each area you want to annotate. Click "A," then click inside the annotation box to add text.

Annotate with MS Word. Create a new document with Word and click "Insert," "Picture" and "From File" to place the picture into your document. Click "Insert," "Shapes" then select the box shape from "Callouts." Click the area of the picture you want to annotate to add a callout. Make sure the fill colour (paint can) is set to "No Fill."

Annotate with pencil and paper. You don't need to use software tools. Print out the image or photocopy a picture from a book or magazine. You can also put tracing paper over the picture and make a simple outline drawing -- it's an excellent way to make sure you look at the painting closely. Use pencil or marker to make your annotations.

Scan the painting quickly with your eyes, from left to right, top to bottom.

Scan the painting again, slowly and carefully this time.

Make an empty annotation box over each detail you think is significant. Look for possible clues to important parts of the story. What is the brightest part of the painting? Are some people or objects larger or placed higher than others, so you notice them more? Does a highlight colour, such as red, draw your attention to certain details? Do people or objects move in a strong diagonal direction, and where do they lead your eye? Do any people depicted in the painting seem to be looking out at you?

Write what you see in each annotation box. Describe the place, objects, time of day and weather. Describe what the people are doing. Name any people you recognise.

Read the information about the painting provided by the image source.

Research the history of the time and place the painting was made. This will give you the proper context for interpreting the details you annotated.

Think about the subject of the painting. If it was made for a public place, what purpose did it serve to people of the artist's time? Did the artist paint a story of an older time because it had a metaphorical connection to events of the time it was painted?

Check the painting for historical accuracy. Are all the details true to the time and place of the event depicted? Does the artist include fictional or anachronistic details and, if so, why? Do they strengthen the moral or lesson of the story?

Reflect on the meaning of each detail and why the artist included it in the story. Add your interpretation after the description in the annotation box.

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