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Art and Art History Resources

Formulating a Research Question

What makes a research question strong?

  • It is interesting to YOU!
  • It is related to the course.
  • It is well defined/scoped out (not too narrow, not too broad).
  • You have verified that there is enough credible information on the topic to support your research.

Finding a topic

  • List your interests and connect them with your course.
  • Scan the textbook or other readings and explore a topic further or from a different angle.
  • Browse the table of contents and abstracts of scholarly journals.
  • Mix your course with another field you are familiar with (ex: The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries and religion).
  • Brainstorm and discuss with your classmates and professor.

Scoping your topic – Narrowing or broadening

You will need to narrow or broaden your research question to make sure you have enough supporting information to write an essay that fits with the requirements. Make sure you understand the assignment's guidelines and talk to your professor if you are unsure! Limit your research question by adding more context to it and visually analyzing the work(s). Ask yourself the following questions to help gather context and limit the scope of your research:

  • Who is represented in this artwork? Who used this object?
  • Who was this created for? Who created this?
  • Who influenced this object/artwork?
  • What movements and art styles does this artwork or object fall into?
  • What materials and methods were used to create this?
  • What was or are the critical responses to this work?
  • What uses or utility does this have?
  • When was this piece created? What is the historical context of this work?
  • What were the key events happening during this time? How was this art influenced by the key events of this period?
  • Where was this created? What is the cultural context of this artwork or object?
  • Is there a religion or set of beliefs that influenced this artwork or object?

Below is an example of applying these strategies to the topic of religion in medieval art and narrowing it down to something more manageable:

  • Historical/religious context: Christianity
  • Art piece: Unicorn Tapestries
  • Art style/movement: Gothic

Now: How do the Unicorn Tapestries reflect the entanglement of Christian and pagan beliefs in Gothic art?

How and why to test your topic right from the start?

  • Why? Make sure there is enough background information and that research on the broad topic has been done before.
  • How? Write down a few keywords and their synonyms. Conduct preliminary research in the catalogue or in a database.


Once you start testing your research question, you might find that you narrowed it down too much. If that’s the case, you can use opposite strategies or remove one component to broaden it.

Example of broadening the research question above:

Which elements of the Gothic art style reflected the entanglement of Christian and pagan beliefs? (Removed: art piece)

Start your research!

Let your research question evolve naturally as you research.