Specific Strategies for Artists
- Start by identifying the medium of the art when writing the description, and any other unique materials used.
- Describe the most noticeable thing about the artwork, then move on to less significant details as space permits.
- If the image involves a particular character from popular culture, simply write the character’s name and leave out any other description of what they look like, unless their appearance has been changed drastically.
- If describing images of real people, do not make assumptions about the gender of the subjects unless the subjects have confirmed their identities. Instead of assuming gender, when it is relevant to the piece, describe the subject’s appearance using relevant characteristics such as hairstyle, clothing choices, build, etc.
- In an artwork depicting human forms (not images of real people), you can assume that the artist is being intentional about showing (or not showing) cultural signifiers of gender expression through stylistic choices such as clothing. If the gender expression of a person in an artwork seems clear and intentional, then it is appropriate to use pronouns to match (he, she, or they). If the subject is not clearly expressing a particular gender, simply use the singular “they.”
If describing an artwork featuring a nude subject, refrain from ascribing a specific gender to the nude form, unless it is relevant to the work. Instead, simply describe what you see without relying on pronouns. Since clothing is the main cultural signifier of gender expression in many cultures, nude subjects in artworks are unlikely to be expressing a specific gender and should not be gendered based on anatomy alone.
- Cooper Hewitt offers guidelines on how to describe race when writing image descriptions. While the goal of alt-text is to offer a basic outline of an image (not a nuanced image description), there may be times when describing the skin tone of subjects in a piece is relevant to the alt-text field. To describe skin tone, Cooper Hewitt suggests using the emoji terms for skin tone: light skin tone, medium-light skin tone, medium skin tone, medium-dark skin tone, and dark skin tone. Skin tone does not necessarily indicate a subject’s racial or ethnic identity. Those nuanced aspects of an artwork should be addressed in a title, caption, or longer-form image description and are not necessary to write in the alt-text field.
If identifying skin tone in an artwork, make sure you are describing the skin tone of ALL subjects in the piece.
Image description: Relief print of a village scene of buildings and trees overlaid by an irregular mustard-colored shape. Pink linework curves behind the shape, and a green cloud of birds bursts overhead. A green laurel emblem appears below.
Alt-text: Drawing of a small village with yellow, pink, and green shapes intersecting on top and around it.
Image description: Triptych of vertical panels showing black and white samples of a narrow, smoothly-curved calligraphic font composed of multiple strokes. The left two panels are typeset quotes from Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” The rightmost panel is a radial composition of letters emanating from the center-top. The bottom of each panel is labeled “strands display.”
Alt-text: Triptych of vertical panels showing black and white samples of a narrow, smoothly-curved calligraphic font composed of multiple strokes. The bottom of each panel is labeled “strands display.”
Image description: Realistic painting in three segments showing different parts of a light-skinned body floating in water. From left to right, the torso, legs, and left hand near hip are painted in soft beige, peach and pink colors. They wear a light pink bra and blue underwear. Shallow water creates surface reflections on their skin.
Alt-text: Painting of three views of the torso, legs, and hand of a light-skinned body in a bra and underwear.
Image description: Clay miniatures of sad, tired looking Alvin & the Chipmunks in a living room after a party. Simon and Theodore sit in lounge chairs, Alvin stands. Bags of chips, beer cans, a champagne bottle, pizza, a guitar, and books are strewn about.
Alt-text: Clay miniatures of a depressed-looking Alvin & the Chipmunks in a trashed living room set.