Welcome to Coyote!
This introduction to describing images, an institutional supplement to the Art Beyond Sight guidelines, is posted here for MCA Coyote team members. The guidelines are in development and changing regularly. Check back here for updates.
MCA Guidelines for Describing
Guidelines for writing alt descriptions
- Alt descriptions: one sentence, preferably without dependent clauses (max 30 words) > Example: A black-and-white photograph depicts smoke billowing from a body-sized trench in a clearing with weeds and trees on the horizon.
- Do not start descriptions with “This is an image of”, “A view of”, “You see”, “This is an installation view of”, etc., simply start describing the content.
- Describe the objects/information most important to understanding the image.
Guidelines for writing long descriptions
- Long descriptions: can be of any length; style, voice, or storytelling approach may vary. >Example: In the photograph you seem to stand in a small clearing sparsely populated with flattened weeds in the fore and middle grounds and with an uneven arc of wild grass two-thirds up the image. An impenetrably dark row of trees fills the horizon. The photograph is black and white and strongly lit, so that each blade of grass and clump of dirt casts an intense shadow. At your feet lies a short, crudely dug body-sized trench, whose excavated soil remains, forming a rim around it. The shallow slit, dug from bone-dry earth, lies in the middle of the image and tapers at the end nearest you. From the trench’s pitch-black interior, a blast of opaque, white smoke streams out, billowing directly up and off the photograph’s top edge.
- All entries should be written in complete sentences.
- Do not repeat caption information in the description, and do not repeat alt text in the long description.
- Do not write anything that you do not see, e.g. do not describe the back of an artwork, its specific location, or a material that isn’t visibly understandable.
- Focus on the essential information of the image, not peripheral content.
- In general, you should describe the objects/information most important to understanding the image; typically this means the foreground first and the background last.
- Demographics: race. This is in development, but for the time being identify clearly visible visual appearance when it is important to the understanding of the content. Default to "light-skinned" and "dark-skinned," when clearly visible. Where obvious and known, use more definite terms; e.g. black, Latino, Asian, etc.
- Demographics: gender. Where necessary for understanding content gender may be described, but no assumptions should be made. Our default should be "person" except where gender is clearly evident and verifiable.
- Use terms that indicate age: baby, toddler, child, youth, teen, young adult, adult, older person. (need to create reference list for age indicators/hair color/skin tone)
- Use terms for art genres: portrait, landscape, seascape, still life, nude, etc.
- Reserve “installation” to describe an artwork type.
- Use media (when not part of caption): watercolor, painting, photograph, sculpture, film still, drawing, installation, etc. Do not use "Photograph of . . . " unless it's a photographic art work Specify colors when possible/important to understand the image.
- Use precise terms but avoid excessive specificity and jargon, for example you could say "schooner" rather than "boat" but not describe the “bermuda rig” of the schooner.
- Transcribe text as it appears in the image. Use quotation marks and follow the typographic style. For example: an image of an e. e. cummings poem should spell the text in lowercase. Or if there are hyphens between letters in the rendition, retain them in the description: "H-E-L-P!" If we're consistent, this would mean that it might not be necessary to say "in capital letters" but if it's a salient part of the image, retain that language for now.
- Describe artwork style when relevant, such as “loose brushwork” or “illusionistic rendering”
- Feel free to identify clearly recognizable figures, e.g. Jesus, Bozo the Clown, Madonna, Anne Kaplan, and Sammy Davis Jr. Remember not to repeat caption information.
Art Beyond Sight Guidelines for Verbal Description
We use the guidelines outlined below for describing artworks. Please visit their website for detailed explanations for each guideline.
- Standard Information
- General Overview: Subject, Form, and Color
- Orient the Viewer with Directions
- Describe the Importance of the Technique or Medium
- Focus on the Style
- Use Specific Words
- Provide Vivid Details
- Indicate Where the Curators Have Installed a Work
- Refer to Other Senses as Analogues for Vision
- Explain Intangible Concepts with Analogies
- Encourage Understanding through Reenactment
- Provide Information on the Historical and Social Context
- Incorporate Sound in Creative Ways
- Allow People to Touch Artworks
- Alternative Touchable Materials
- Tactile Illustrations of Artworks
Image Description Guidelines from the Diagram Center
These guidelines provide great information about describing charts, maps, and technical images.
Still have questions about how to describe? Send an email to [email protected].