Online Accessibility Training

ABS's Guidelines for Verbal Description

Elisabeth Salzhauer Axel, Virginia Hooper, Teresa Kardoulias, Sarah Stephenson Keyes, and Francesca Rosenberg

Verbal description is a way of using words to represent the visual world. This kind of description enables persons who are blind or visually impaired to form a mental image of what they cannot see. Verbal description has been used to make visual information accessible in film, television, and, more recently, in museums. In museums, verbal description may be used before, after, or during a standard gallery tour. Having a lecturer who can respond to particular questions and engage museum visitors in thought-provoking conversation is one way of providing descriptions of works of art. Additionally, descriptions may be provided in the form of an audioguide, enabling museums to develop an archive of narratives for specific works of art. In the best scenario, these two resources are used in a complementary manner.

The following guidelines comprise a basic methodology that museum educators and art teachers can use to create successful verbal descriptions of painting, sculpture, and architecture, as well as works in other media. Accompanying this section are passages excerpted from Art History Through Touch and Sound: A Multisensory Guide for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a twenty-one-volume audio-book series developed by Art Beyond Sight, Inc. These excerpted passages suggest a few of the ways an educator can create successful verbal descriptions of visual art.

1. Standard Information

Verbal description starts with the standard information found on a museum's object label: artist, nationality, title, date, mediums, dimensions, and the custodian or location of the work. While not necessarily descriptive, this basic information provides blind and visually impaired individuals with the same information available to sighted viewers. Additionally, object-label information places the work in an historical context and establishes a foundation for much of the information that follows. The example below is a straightforward way of imparting the information.

  • This sculpture is from ancient Egypt, and the artist is unknown. The work has been given the title Scribe Statue of General Horemhab. The sculpture was made during Dynasty 18, around 1333 to 1323 B.C.E. The medium is granite. The work measures 46 inches high, or 117 centimeters. The sculpture is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.
    -Art Beyond Sight (ABS) and Marsha Hill, The Art of Ancient Egypt

If the size of a work is important, draw the viewer's attention to this feature and provide a familiar analogy. Relative size is particularly useful because everyone can identify with the size of a familiar object. For instance, Jackson Pollock's painting One, which measures 8 ft. 10 in. x 17 ft. 5 in., can be compared to the size of six single mattresses placed side by side.

2. General Overview: Subject, Form, and Color

The basic object-label information is followed by a general overview of the subject matter and composition of the work. Generally, a coherent description should provide visual information in a sequence, allowing a blind person to assemble, piece by piece, an image of a highly complex work of art. First describe the explicit subject, that is, what is represented in the work. For example, "This painting features a recycled Savarin coffee can filled with about eighteen paintbrushes." Next describe the composition and give an overall impression of the work. Include in this description the color tones and the mood or atmosphere. Many people who have lost their sight have a visual memory of colors. In the passage below, a general description of Masaccio's fresco The Expulsion from Eden (c. 1425) introduces the basic scene.

  • We see two nudes, a man and a woman, in obvious emotional distress, walking from the center of the painting to the right across a bleak brown landscape free of any vegetation. Above them, we see an angel wearing bright-red robes, carrying a sword, hurrying them on their way. They are leaving Paradise , as the title suggests. Within the barely suggested gate on the left, we see rays of light, which represent the presence of the Lord. These light rays resemble straight lines that are pulled together at one end, as they would be in a broom. The man and the woman are being banished from Paradise . The warm peach flesh tones of their bodies contrast with the blue sky.
    -ABS and Fredericka Foster Shapiro, Fifteenth-Century Italian Art

3. Orient the Viewer with Directions

Specific and concrete information is required to indicate the location of objects or figures in a work of art. A useful directional method is to refer to the positions of the numbers on a clock. Most blind people are familiar with this method of providing direction. For example, in referring to a person's face, you would describe the mouth as being at six o'clock. Also, when describing a figure depicted in a work of art, remember that the image is the equivalent of a mirror image. Right and left can be very ambiguous terms unless they are qualified. Accordingly, you should describe the figure according to its right or left, and always qualify this description. Refer to the viewer's orientation to right and left, as well. For example, "The woman's right hand, which is on your left, holds a small goblet."

4. Describe the Importance of the Technique or Medium

Sometimes, there is an important relationship between the implicit content and the technique or medium employed to make the work. Detailed information on these topics enables a blind viewer to understand the ways in which meaning, style, or both are generated from the materials. Technique and medium are functions of each other, and, typically, discussion of one must include the other. Because this kind of information can be very technical, you may want to ask blind viewers how interested they are in this subject. The first passage below describes the impact of the oil-painting technique on the art of the northern Renaissance. The second passage, in a discussion of King Khafra and Horus (2550 B.C.E.), conveys relevant information on the stone.

  • In the fifteenth century, artists such as Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck realized the advantages of the oil-painting medium. With oil paint, colored pigment is suspended in a viscous oil medium that is slow to dry. Because the oil paint is slow to dry, it is easily manipulated by the brush on a wood panel or canvas surface. This flexibility enables the artist to blend colors easily. And by the subtle blending of colors, the painter is able to model forms, and suggest light and shadow. The illusion of light and shadow makes the forms appear more three-dimensional. As a result of this technique, fifteenth-century artists rendered the natural volumes of a cheek or an arm in a more convincing manner than their predecessors.
    -ABS and Toby Falk, The Renaissance Outside of Italy
  • In this statue, the pharaoh is seated on a throne. The statue is carved in an extremely hard, dense stone called gneiss. The Egyptians sought out this stone in quarries along the desert valleys, where they also collected many other unusual and beautiful stones. To the touch, the stone feels extremely smooth and cool. It is blackish-gray, with streaks and strands of white. And so the surface does not really look like flesh. After it is carved, the surface is given a polish so that it reflects a soft light. The soft gleam and the unusual coloration give this statue a restrained, but palpable, sense of light.
    -ABS and Marsha Hill, The Art of Ancient Egypt

5. Focus on the Style

When we talk about the style of a work of art, we are referring to the features that identify a work as being by a particular artist or school, or of a movement, period, or geographical region. Style is the cumulative result of many characteristics, including brushwork, use of tone and color, choice of different motifs, and the treatment of the subject. After the basic information about subject, composition, and mediums have been conveyed, the verbal description can focus on how these many elements contribute to the whole. In a tour that includes several works of art, comparisons are an effective way of making stylistic features tangible. In the following passage, the style of a Roman sculpture, Augustus of Primaporta (c. 20 B.C.E.), is compared to that of an earlier Greek work, Polykleitos' Spear Bearer (c. 450-440 B.C.E.).

  • The head of Augustus combines an idealizing tendency in the style of Greek prototypes with realistic features of the emperor. The arrangement of Augustus' hair reflects the influence of Polykleitos' Spear Bearer. For, like the hair of the Spear Bearer, Augustus' hair is short and curly. The curls on both statues do not stand up from the head. They lie flat like a close-fitting cap. Augustus' hair differs from that of the Spear Bearer in that the hair is slightly longer, and it is combed both forward and backward, rather than simply being combed forward. The overall effect of the arrangement of Augustus' hair is orderly but at the same time dynamic. The orderliness of the hair seems to indicate that it has been intentionally idealized in the Primaporta portrait and in other portraits of Augustus, which all exhibit the same hair treatment.
    -ABS and Frances Van Keuren, Etruscan and Roman Art

6. Use Specific Words

Clear and precise language is crucial to any good description. In describing visual art to a blind audience, you must be careful to avoid ambiguous and figurative language. The blind listener can take words very literally. For instance, saying "light falls on an object" has no meaning for the congenitally blind individual. In general, you should not make assumptions about the viewer's knowledge of any aspect of art making. Accordingly, art terms and pictorial conventions such as perspective, focal point, picture plane, foreground, and background should always be defined for your audience. Typically, it is useful to introduce the definition or concept when the discussion turns to that aspect of the work of art. In the passage below, a discussion of Perugino's fresco Christ Delivering the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter (1481-83) introduces the convention of one-point perspective. Notice how an understanding of this pictorial formula allows the blind viewer to grasp the spatial dynamic of this painting, which is one of its most astonishing features.

  • The scene shows Christ and Peter placed in the center foreground, with disciples and contemporary citizens arranged in rows on either side of them. In a brilliant piece of stagecraft, Perugino directs the spectator to focus on the heart of the painting-the transferring of the keys. Perugino does this by skillfully exploiting the pictorial convention of one-point perspective. Let's recall the definition of one-point perspective, which is a way of projecting an illusion of the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface. In this formula for rendering spatial recession, all parallel lines appear to converge at a single point on the horizon, called the vanishing point. Perugino has used this system both to create a sense of spatial recession and to focus our attention on a single point. Generally, compositions of large assemblies filled with many donors and friends are confusing or boring. Perugino, however, solved this problem when he set the event in an enormous square or piazza. Jesus is presenting the large gold key to the kneeling Peter. In the space between the two figures, a silver key hangs from the same chain at the very center of the composition. The perspective lines of the pavement, comprising the brickwork design, lead the spectator's eyes into the distance, converging at the door of the centrally placed temple. And immediately below the temple door is Christ delivering the keys to St. Peter. The composition is so skillfully designed that our eyes follow movement in several directions. We follow activity laterally on the horizontal, and upward on the vertical, as well as diagonally into the picture plane. While we explore all the parts of the fresco, Perugino always brings our eyes back to the main event in the center.
    -Fredericka Foster Shapiro, Fifteenth-Century Italian Art

7. Provide Vivid Details

After the general idea of the work is conveyed, the description should be more vivid and particularized. Describe pertinent details, and focus on different parts of the work. Remember that the listener is depending on you to give an accurate description. Try to use objective references rather than ones that might sway a blind person's point of view. Give enough information so that listeners can form an image in their minds, and come to their own opinions and conclusions about a work of art. The following passage describes Jean-Honoré Fragonard's The Swing (1766). Notice how the vivid description brings the scene to life.

  • The scene is set in a lush, overgrown garden. Billowing clouds of leaves on the twisted branches of ancient trees almost overwhelm the composition. Greens and blues lit by golden sunlight fill the canvas. The girl is dressed in a pink silk confection. She sits on a very plush swing, which has a gilded wooden seat upholstered in red velvet. One of her tiny feet kicks off a small, pink mule, sending it flying into midair. This gesture reveals her plump legs covered in white stockings, which are fastened by a pink garter. Only the young man, lying in the undergrowth with a rapturous expression on his face, can see any more. Perhaps she has kicked her shoe into the bushes as an excuse to join the young man. The only other witnesses to the scene are statues. A cherub crouches on the pedestal behind the young man. He holds a finger to his lips, urging two smaller stone putti to keep their silence about the young man's presence. The smaller putti nestle among the bushes underneath the swinging mistress.
    -ABS and Leslie Streitweiser, The Art of the Eighteenth Century

8. Indicate Where the Curators Have Installed a Work

Generally, a work's placement in an art institution reveals important information about its meaning, as well as its relationship to other works in the collection. Tell the blind viewer where the work is located in the institution. Include in your discussion a description of the gallery or sculpture garden where the work is installed, and mention the surrounding artworks. Describe how the work under discussion relates to these other works, as well as to the viewer and the surrounding space. For example, the work may confront the viewer or it may be installed off to the side. The passage below describes the location of Auguste Rodin's sculpture St. John the Baptist (1878-80) in the Museum of Modern Art, New York .

  • St. John is located on the second floor of the museum. When you get off the escalator, the sculpture is about twenty feet to your left. St. John stands alone, and he is just to the right of the entrance to the sculpture and painting galleries. His right arm, on our left, points up to Heaven. However, because of the sculpture's placement in the museum, St. John also beckons the visitor into the galleries to see the permanent collection.
    -Francesca Rosenberg, Museum of Modern Art , New York

9. Refer to Other Senses as Analogues for Vision

Try to translate a visual experience into another sense. Although blind viewers are without sight, their other senses, such as touch or hearing, enable them to construct highly detailed impressions of a work of visual art. For instance, refer to the sense of touch when describing the surface of a sculpture. A comparison between the rough-hewn texture of Auguste Rodin's Balzac (1892-97) and the glasslike finish of Constantin Brancusi's Bird in Space (c. 1927) can be very instructive. Or compare a Japanese tea-ceremony jar, with its irregular shape and unfinished surface, with a highly refined Chinese white-porcelain statuette from the eighteenth century. In both of these ceramic works, the degree of surface refinement is an integral part of the work's formal value, as well as of its meaning. There are many ways to utilize senses other than sight when describing a work of art, and any discussion of materials is rich with possibilities. The following passage draws upon the sense of hearing to experience the grandeur and sensual richness of Annibale Carracci's ceiling decoration (1597-1601) for the Palazzo Farnese, in Rome.

  • Imagine being in a very large room with superb sound speakers placed just below the ceiling. The sound from the speakers is exactly what you might hear in a garden. Imagine hearing plants rustling in the wind, birds singing, and the splashing water of the fountains. In addition to these natural sounds, you hear snatches of conversations and the cheerful laughter of children playing. Imagine these sounds coming from many different directions. These outdoor sounds are so faithfully reproduced that you feel as though an outdoor garden is directly above you. And yet, you know you are in a room. The temperature is that of a room. And the air within these four walls is still. There is no breeze. And yet, you are astonished. This evocation of nature is similar to the experience of seeing a seventeenth-century ceiling painting. Reality and illusion artfully merge.
    -ABS and Paula Gerson with Virginia Hooper, Baroque Art in the Seventeenth Century

10. Explain Intangible Concepts with Analogies

Certain kinds of visual phenomena, such as shadows or clouds, may be difficult to describe objectively. In the case of congenitally blind or early-blind individuals with no visual memory, it may be impossible to convey a sighted person's visual experience of certain kinds of phenomena. However, a well-chosen analogy can be just as effective. To construct a helpful analogy, choose objects or experiences from everyone's common experience. In a description of Pablo Picasso's Cubist painting Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier) (1910), you might compare the image of the figure to a shattered wine bottle whose fragments have been reassembled in different positions. In the passage below, two very effective analogies are used to explain the concept of light and shadow.

  • Use of light and shadow in a painting can be explained by referring to the feeling one has when sitting in front of a window on a sunny day. The parts of the face and body that feel the warmth are said to be in the light. Those parts not being warmed by the sun are said to be in shade or shadow. To understand the concept of a cast shadow, imagine yourself standing in the kind of shower where the water comes out in a fairly narrow spray. As you stand in front of this spray, the front of your body gets wet, but not your back. If the water were a light source, the front of your body would be highlighted, and the back would be in shadow. Additionally, because the front of your body blocks the water, there would be a spot on the shower floor behind you where water does not fall. If the water were a light source, your body would block the flow of light, and the light would not reach the area of the shower floor behind you. The dark area behind you is called a cast shadow.
    -ABS and Paula Gerson, The Building Blocks of Art

11. Encourage Understanding through Reenactment

Sometimes, no matter how precisely you describe the physical posture of a figure depicted in a painting or sculpture, the image that you see is not transmitted to the viewer. In these cases, you may want to give instructions that will allow the blind person to mimic the depicted figure's pose. Since everyone is aware of his or her own body, this activity provides a concrete way of understanding difficult poses depicted in the painting. Additionally, by assuming the pose, the blind viewer can directly perceive important formal characteristics of the work, such as symmetry or asymmetry; open or closed forms; implied action or repose; smooth, flowing lines or angular ones; and the degree of engagement with the viewer. The following passage gives instructions on assuming the action-packed pose of Gianlorenzo Bernini's sculpture David (1623). As you may recall, David is shown in the split second before he will begin the violent pivoting motion that will release the stone that kills the giant Goliath.

  • Let's try to stand the same way David is standing. The implied action of this form will become apparent. Stand up to do this. Place your feet about two feet apart. Your right leg is forward. Your left leg is two feet diagonally behind you. Stand with your weight tilted slightly forward. Now pivot at the waist about forty-five degrees to your right. Your weight should still rest on both feet. Put your arms down in front of you. Pretend that you are holding a one-foot-long rubber band. Each hand holds one end. This large rubber band is David's slingshot. Now keep your right foot solidly on the floor, but allow your left heel to rise. Bend slightly forward, and twist your upper torso to the right. Twist it far enough so that your left shoulder is aligned over your right knee. You are looking over your left shoulder. Now, you are standing the way David is standing. This is the moment before the slingshot's missile flies out at Goliath. Another way to understand this pose is to imagine yourself heaving a heavy weight. If you are standing, you would swing the weight back in order to gain momentum. Then, you would reverse direction and toss the weight forward. David is portrayed in the moment before you would reverse direction and toss the weight forward.
    -ABS and Paula Gerson with Virginia Hooper, Baroque Art in the Seventeenth Century

12. Provide Information on the Historical and Social Context

As in any museum tour or art history lesson, you should provide information on the historical and social context of the works of art. Many visual artifacts, particularly those from non-European cultures, have ritualistic functions. Understanding these functions is an integral aspect of understanding the work itself. In some cultures, the visual artifacts were made to be seen in a specific kind of light. For example, early Japanese Buddhist sculptures were meant to be viewed in candlelit shrines, where the soft light would have reflected off the shiny gold-covered surface of the back-pieces. By describing this sacred setting, you provide the blind viewer with a sense of how the work functioned in the lives of the people who saw it on a daily basis. In other cultures, music accompanied the rituals in which the visual artifacts were used, and you may want to offer examples of this music, such as medieval plainsong or tribal drum rhythms. In the passage below, the cultural function of an antelope headdress, called a Chi Wara, used by the Bamana people of Mali, is discussed.

  • For the Bamana, art is an integral part of everyday life and society. An example of this is the role of the Chi Wara. In Bamana, chi means "work," and wara means "wild animal." While chi wara literally means the laboring beast, the phrase has other meanings in Bamana culture. For example, the phrase may refer to a mythical creature. It may also refer to a man's association or a headdress worn by the Bamana people. Chi Wara is the name of a mythical creature thought to be half antelope and half-man. According to Bamana cultural tradition, the mythical Chi Wara possessed the secret of agriculture and passed this knowledge on to humans. Chi Wara is also the name of the young men's association concerned with farming and the development of agricultural skills. Every season, neighboring villages have a hoeing contest. The winner from each village earns the right to dance during the agricultural festival while wearing one of the Chi Wara headdresses. These wooden headdresses, sculpted in the form of an antelope, are attached to a cap made of basket material. The Chi Wara headdresses always appear at the agricultural festivals in pairs of male and female. Male dancers, who alone can earn the right to dance with them, wear both types of Chi Wara headdresses.
    -ABS and Teri Sowell, The Native Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas

13. Incorporate Sound in Creative Ways

In addition to reconstructing an historical or cultural setting, sound can serve an interpretive purpose. For instance, sound can be used as an auditory analogue for a work of visual art. In Art History Through Touch and Sound, an original electronic musical composition was created to explore Peter Paul Rubens' painting The Gathering of the Manna (c. 1625-27). This soundscape evokes the dramatically charged scene of Moses and his people gathering food in the desert. In another example, a festive party atmosphere and the tinkling sounds of silver and crystal set the mood for Jan De Heem's sumptuous vanitas painting Still Life with Parrots (late 1640s).

Another way to use sound creatively is to provide on-site recordings of architectural spaces. For instance, in Art History Through Touch and Sound, the listener hears the bustling sounds of St. Peter's piazza, in Rome . By imaginatively walking through the arms of the oval colonnade and hearing the echoes of footfalls, the listener acquires a sense of the spatial dynamics of Gianlorenzo Bernini's remarkable outdoor space.

14. Allow People to Touch Artworks

Providing an opportunity to touch three-dimensional works gives visitors who are blind or visually impaired an immediate, personal experience with an original work of art. Direct touch is the best way to explore an object. For conservation reasons, however, some museums require people to wear thin gloves made of cotton or plastic. An informal poll at the Museum of Modern Art , New York , indicated that most people prefer plastic to cotton because the texture and temperature of the work's material can be felt.

15. Alternative Touchable Materials

When it is not possible to touch original works of art, alternative touchable materials can be provided. In some instances, alternative materials can provide a fuller and more complete understanding of a work because they can be touched without gloves. These auxiliary aids include three-dimensional reproductions; samples of art-making materials such as marble, bronze, clay, and canvas; examples of the tools used in various media, such as paintbrushes, chisels, and hammers; and replicas of the objects depicted in the artwork. Additionally, it is helpful to have a range of information available on the unique characteristics of the materials and the way in which the medium dictates the form.

16. Tactile Illustrations of Artworks

Most museum visitors want as much information as possible. Tactile diagrams are a very effective way of making visual art accessible. These diagrams are tactile illustrations of artworks, and they are essentially relief images. These kinds of black-and-white relief images are schematic diagrams, and they do not represent the actual object in every detail. Tactile diagrams are always used in conjunction with a verbal narrative that guides the person through the diagram, and provides additional descriptive and historical information. Art Beyond Sight uses a lexicon of seven standardized tactile patterns, as well as five standardized lines and five informational icons.

Adapted from Making Visual Art Accessible to People Who Are Blind and Visually Impaired, © 1996 Art Beyond Sight


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