The National Gallery strives to provide universal access to our art collection. When we share information and images about the collection across digital platforms, we must make them available to all audiences.
Text descriptions of the object images provide visitors who are blind or have low vision access to works in the collection. These descriptions focus on each work of art's composition, details, style, and other visual qualities.
Guidelines for authors
The guidelines below are designed for use by sighted authors to write textual descriptions of images of works of art shown on the National Gallery of Art’s website. They are part of a larger framework and training process used to onboard new authors from all divisions and departments across the National Gallery. Additional descriptions are written and added monthly.
We have made our guidelines public so that any other museum or organization can apply relevant principles from this list to describing objects in their collection, and to developing their own best practices.
For more information about that onboarding process, please contact [email protected].
Writing an Image Description
Provide an overview of the entire work of art in the first sentence or two.
That way, someone who only wants a brief description can get the most important information quickly, and then those who want more detail can listen on for the remainder of the description. The overview should include the main subject, orientation (vertical or horizontal), and medium. It can also include terms like landscape, portrait, and still life; and painting, sculpture, drawing, photograph, or print.
Be sure to include what each object actually is: a painting, sculpture, drawing, photograph, print, or other designation.
Otherwise the art-making process or technique is not mentioned further unless it is visible on the surface of the work of art (Snowden, Mamie Harrington; Rodin, Katherine Seney Simpson (Mrs. John W. Simpson) or if the process is essential to understanding the visual qualities of a work of art (Rotella, Mura Romano; Richter, Abstract Painting 780-1).
Choose a pathway around the work to structure your description.
Sometimes it will make the most sense to start at the left and move to the right; or from the top and move towards the bottom; or go from the front to back; or start at the center and spiral out. Stay open to the most strategic and direct way to capture the visual information. You could start by asking yourself what you notice first.
Describe what you see in affirmative terms.
For example, rather than saying a person is not smiling, we might say the face is at rest, or that the lips are closed (Sargent, Ellen Peabody Endicott).
Consider: What is it?
The medium, material, or style can be helpful in describing a work of art unless the material is not generally known. For instance, “photograph” would be fine, but lesser known “maiolica” should be avoided or defined in a short description.
Focus on the work of art as it appears in the image on the website.
If you are familiar with the work of art, avoid basing your description on either your own knowledge or interpretation of it. These descriptions focus on the image as it appears on the website, not as the work of art appears in person.
Do not name known people in images unless needed as a reference point in your description.
Use the name of a known person if the description is complicated and it would help to use that person to orient the listener (Carracci, Venus Adorned by the Graces; Cranach the Elder, The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion). Otherwise people do not need to be identified by name, because the description focuses on the visual information in a work of art (Stuart, George Washington (Vaughn Portrait); Byzantine, Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne).
Best practices when describing people portrayed in art
- Refer to the “person” or “people” when possible. If gender is ambiguous, acknowledge it and explain what makes it unclear or avoid assigning a gender (Peckham, Hobby Horse; Ricci, The Last Communion of Saint Mary; Modigliani, Madame Kisling; Arbus, A Young Man in Curlers).
- Talk about a person, man, woman, boy, girl, or child and not a “figure.”
- Describe skin color and not race, and do so for every person. If all the people have the same color skin, you can say so in a blanket statement (Master of the Washington Coronation, The Coronation of the Virgin; Degas, The Dance Studio). Never use food words to describe brown skin.
- There are times to break this last rule, especially with black and white photographs (DeCarava, Mississippi freedom marcher, Washington, D.C.; Lange, General Strike, San Francisco). Be open to when other exceptions apply (Saint-Gaudens, The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial).
- Image descriptions must be concise and to the point. Aim for about 100–300 words but longer descriptions might be necessary.
- Write in complete sentences, not phrases or fragments.
- Do not leave out articles like “the” and “a.” It is jarring to hear sentences without these words.
- Avoid jargon. Define terms in the course of your description as needed (Giotto, Madonna and Child; Liss, The Satyr and the Peasant; Calder, Triple Gong).
- Write with active verbs as much as possible: “she stands” rather than “she is standing.”
- Do not include the photography credit, copyright information, dimensions, scale, or other information that can be found elsewhere on the object page.
- For sculptures, it can be helpful to acknowledge the orientation of the work to us in the photograph. For example, "The man’s face and body are angled slightly to our right in this photograph, and he looks down his hooked nose." (da Settignano, A Little Boy; Catlett, Reclining Female Nude)
- Use the first person when describing orientation: “our left”; “she faces us” (not “the viewer”).
- Transcribe all visible, legible text in the image, including signatures.
- Do not include “image of” or “picture of.”
- Be specific about numbers of people and objects. Avoid “large” and “a number of.” (Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altar, The Baptism of Christ; Gauguin, Still Life with Peonies)
- Comparisons to familiar objects from everyday life can be useful to describe sizes of objects (van Loo, The Camera Obscura; Mantegna, Battle of the Sea Gods) or to bring a detail to life (Italian, Walnut Savanarola Chair with Letters A.G.; Backhuysen, Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast).
- Consolidate description when you can, either because people or objects within a work of art are similar (Morisot, The Sisters; Zoffany, The Lavie Children) or because larger crowds share some features (Vanni, Scenes from the Passion of Christ; Daddi, Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels).
- If a detail is ambiguous, don’t try to figure it out. Instead, acknowledge what makes it ambiguous in your description. (Garber, South Room – Green Street; Degas, Horses in a Meadow; Turner, The Evening of the Deluge)
- If something becomes evident only after closer inspection, it’s okay to say something like, “Upon closer inspection…” (Dutch/Flemish, Trompe l’Oeil of an Etching by Ferdinand Bol; del Piombo, Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary, and Two Geographers; Haberle, Imitation)
- Similarly, if it takes time for the eye to make sense of a work of art, bring that to the description as well. (Monet, Morning Haze; Vernet, Hunting in the Pontine Marshes; Nadar, Self-Portrait with Wife Ernestine in a Balloon Gondola)
- Color can hold meaning for people with all levels of vision loss and can be especially evocative for those who have lost sight later in life.
- Be specific when describing color but use commonly used color words.
- Color and light may be likened to temperature—warmth and coolness.
Please contact [email protected] with questions and comments. We welcome your feedback and try to respond to comments within five business days.
This post was created on 18 May 2022 and updated on 28 August 2022.