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Guidelines for Image Descriptions, Web Accessibility

These guidelines 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 to improve access for people who have low vision or who are blind. These descriptions focus on the details, composition, style, and visual qualities of each work of art.
Examples

These guidelines are part of a larger training process to onboard new authors from all divisions and departments across the National Gallery. 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. When possible, 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.

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 her face is at rest.

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.

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.
  • Talk about a person, man, woman, boy, girl, or child and not a “figure.”
  • Try to 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. Never use food words to describe brown skin. 

Tips

  • Short 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 as needed. For example, "She wears a cobalt blue mantle that covers her head and drapes over her shoulders and body."
  • 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."
  • Use the first person when describing orientation: “our left;” “she faces us” (not “the viewer”).
  • Transcribe all visible text in the image, including signatures.
  • Don’t include “image of” or “picture of.” It is assumed your short description is for an image.
  • If a detail is ambiguous, don’t try to figure it out. Acknowledge what makes it ambiguous in your description. Similarly, if something becomes evident only after closer inspection, it’s okay to say something like, “Upon closer inspection…”

Color

  • 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.

Feedback

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.

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