• Course Introduction

        • Time: 33 hours
        • Free Certificate
        This course explores visual art forms and their cultural connections across historical periods, designed for students with little experience in the visual arts. It includes brief studies in art history and in-depth inquiry into the elements, media, and methods used in a range of creative processes. At the beginning of this course, we will study a five-step system for developing an understanding of visual art in all forms, based on:

        • Description: A work of art from an objective point of view – its physical attributes and formal construction.
        • Analysis: A detailed look at a work of art that combines physical attributes with subjective statements based on the viewer's reaction to the work.
        • Context: Historical, religious, or environmental information that surrounds a particular work of art and which helps to understand the work's meaning.
        • Meaning: A statement of the work's content. A message or narrative to express the subject matter.
        • Judgment: A critical point of view about a work of art concerning its aesthetic or cultural value.

        After completing this course, you will be able to interpret works of art based on this five-step system, explain the processes involved in artistic production, identify the many kinds of issues that artists examine in their work, and explain the role and effect of the visual arts in different social, historical and cultural contexts.

        • Course Syllabus

          First, read the course syllabus. Then, enroll in the course by clicking "Enroll me". Click Unit 1 to read its introduction and learning outcomes. You will then see the learning materials and instructions on how to use them.

        • Unit 1: Defining Art

          How do we define art? For many people, art is a tangible thing: a painting, sculpture, photograph, dance, poem, or play. Art is uniquely human and tied directly to culture. As an expressive medium, art allows us to experience a wide range of emotions, such as joy or sorrow, confusion or clarity. Art gives voice to ideas and feelings, connects us to the past, reflects the present, and anticipates the future. Visual art is a rich and complex subject, and its definition is in flux as the culture around it changes. This unit examines how art is defined and the different ways it functions in societies and cultures.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 2 hours.

        • Unit 2: Who Makes Art – Process and Training

          In this unit, we explore artistic processes in their social contexts, covering individual artists turning their ideas into works of art, forms of collaborative creative projects, public art, and the role of the viewer.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 1 hour.

        • Unit 3: How Art Speaks – Finding Meaning

          Art asks us questions and conveys meaning. It expresses ideas, uncovers truths, manifests what is beautiful, and tells stories. In this unit, we begin to explore the meaning behind particular works of art within the context of various styles and cultures. We introduce the conceptual tools professional art critics use to interpret art. During this activity, you will provide your own interpretation of a piece of art. You should return to this activity after you have completed this course and review your response.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 1 hour.

          • 3.1: Objective vs. Subjective Meaning

            The distinction between subjective and objective information was key to the development of science and the philosophies that emerged during the Enlightenment (1685–1815). René Descartes (1596–1650), the French philosopher, clearly articulated this concept when he famously stated "I think, therefore I am". We realize the objective dimension of the world through our senses and through instruments that measure our environment. For example, using methods such as carbon dating, we can analyze the pigments artists used when they created cave paintings and arrive at objective determinations about when they were produced. We can also agree that certain stylistic features belong to a particular period of time. The subjective dimension is less tangible and rooted in our personal experiences. We not only encounter art as raw sensory data, but we also bring our own biases, expectations, needs, and prior art education when we formulate our judgments.

            • Make forum posts: 1
            • View
          • 3.2: The Four Levels of Meaning: Formal, Subject, Context, and Iconography

            When we see any object, we can immediately understand its form: the physical attributes of size, shape, and mass. With art, this may first appear simple: we can separate out each artistic element and discover how the artist used it in their work. You practiced doing this in the last two units. The importance of this formal level of meaning is that it allows us to look at any artwork from an objective viewpoint. Artists use specific processes to create their artwork to achieve a certain perceptual effect. Most artists are keenly aware of the material properties of the media they work with. They understand the objective qualities and anticipate the subjective responses people will likely experience as they view the work.

            • View
            • View
            • View
            • View
            • View
          • 3.3: Critical Perspectives

            Art criticism is part of the intellectual tradition in most cultures. Each of these traditions provides key concepts and methods of analysis.

            • Structural criticism considers art as a system of elements that are composed together, like a language or set of repeating forms. Artworks are comprised of stable, recurring cultural codes that an art critic decodes.
            • Deconstructive criticism focuses on the differences among artworks that prevent them from forming stable structures of meaning.
            • Formalist criticism analyses the material and perceptual attributes of art and its associated experiences.
            • Ideological criticism seeks out power and social imbalances. For the artist, art is a way to perpetuate worldviews that need to be challenged.
            • Feminist criticism focuses on gender inequality and roots out forms of patriarchy that appear in art.
            • Psychoanalytic criticism traces the patterns of conflict between consciousness and the unconscious and seeks aspects of personality in the art that are beyond subjective control and which subvert social personas.
            • View
          • Unit 3 Assessment

            • Receive a grade
        • Unit 4: How Art Works – The Principles of Visual Language

          In this unit, we study the terms used to describe and analyze any work of art. We will explore the principles of design – how the artist arranges and orchestrates the elements they use. Just as spoken language is based on phonemes, syntax, and semantics, visual art is based on elements and principles that, when used together, create works that communicate ideas and meaning to the viewer. We can think of them as the building blocks of an artwork's composition – the organized layout of an image or object according to the principles of design.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 3 hours.

        • Unit 5: Artistic Media

          Artists find all sorts of ways to express themselves and use almost any resource that is available. Making extraordinary images and objects from various but somewhat ordinary materials is a mark of creativity. Using charcoal, paper, thread, paint, ink – and even found objects such as leaves – artists continue to search for ways to construct and deliver their message. In this unit, we look at artworks created from two- and three-dimensional media and artworks made using different types of cameras.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 4 hours.

        • Unit 6: Architecture

          In this unit, we explore architecture, its history, and its relation to visual art. Architecture is the art and science of designing structures and spaces for human use. Architectural design is an art form realized through considerations of spatial design and aesthetics. Related to sculpture, architecture creates three-dimensional objects that serve human purposes and form visual relationships with the surrounding areas.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 2 hours.

        • Unit 7: Our World – Nature, the Body, Identity, Sexuality, Politics, and Power

          In this unit, we explore how artists express and interpret our world. If nothing else, visual art provides an avenue for self-expression. As a primary source of inspiration, artists express attitudes, feelings, and sentiments about their environment through personal experiences, social interaction, and relationships with the natural world. In short, art helps us perceive and react to our place in the world. In Unit 1, we referred to description as one of many roles art adopts, but description is often imbued with the artist's subjective take on the world. In this unit, we examine how art operates as a vehicle for human expression – a kind of collective visual metaphor that helps us define who we are.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 2 hours.

        • Unit 8: Other Worlds – Mortality, the Spirit, and Fantasy

          Humans use art to capture ideas about worlds outside our own. Art can be a vehicle for myth, which uses narrative to convey truths about human nature. Art also expresses hard-to-articulate aspects of spiritual worlds, which are products of religious practices. Cultures use iconography to symbolize abstract ideas, such as dreams, love, power, and emotion, and societies call on the artist to create them. Art also plays a significant role in rituals and ceremonies. In this unit, we explore how artists materialize human thought, belief, and imagination through art.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 3 hours.

        • Unit 9: Art in Time and Place – The Western and Near Eastern World

          The era and location where a work of art was created often determine the formal and stylistic aspects of the piece. In this unit, we study the evolution of art in time and place in the Western world. We will help you develop the tools you need to identify major formal and stylistic trends that punctuate the timeline of Western art history. This approach will allow you to witness the relationship between works of art and their specific social-historical contexts. You will also see a certain continuum that runs through Western art from Ancient Greece to modern times.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 14 hours.

        • Study Guide

          This study guide will help you get ready for the final exam. It discusses the key topics in each unit, walks through the learning outcomes, and lists important vocabulary. It is not meant to replace the course materials!

        • Course Feedback Survey

          Please take a few minutes to give us feedback about this course. We appreciate your feedback, whether you completed the whole course or even just a few resources. Your feedback will help us make our courses better, and we use your feedback each time we make updates to our courses. If you come across any urgent problems, email contact@saylor.org.

        • Certificate Final Exam

          Take this exam if you want to earn a free Course Completion Certificate.

          To receive a free Course Completion Certificate, you will need to earn a grade of 70% or higher on this final exam. Your grade for the exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you can take it again as many times as you want, with a 7-day waiting period between each attempt.

          Once you pass this final exam, you will be awarded a free Course Completion Certificate.

        • Saylor Direct Credit

          Take this exam if you want to earn college credit for this course. This course is eligible for college credit through Saylor Academy's Saylor Direct Credit Program.

          The Saylor Direct Credit Final Exam requires a proctoring fee of $5. To pass this course and earn a Credly Badge and official transcript, you will need to earn a grade of 70% or higher on the Saylor Direct Credit Final Exam. Your grade for this exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you can take it again a maximum of 3 times, with a 14-day waiting period between each attempt.

          We are partnering with SmarterProctoring to help make the proctoring fee more affordable. We will be recording you, your screen, and the audio in your room during the exam. This is an automated proctoring service, but no decisions are automated; recordings are only viewed by our staff with the purpose of making sure it is you taking the exam and verifying any questions about exam integrity. We understand that there are challenges with learning at home - we won't invalidate your exam just because your child ran into the room!


          1. Desktop Computer
          2. Chrome (v74+)
          3. Webcam + Microphone
          4. 1mbps+ Internet Connection

          Once you pass this final exam, you will be awarded a Credly Badge and can request an official transcript.