Keep these three moments clear in your process of visual analysis: production history, formal analysis, and audience reception. How do you find information that will illuminate these aspects of your chosen piece?
Types of sources
Start with what you know: Don't be afraid to start with an internet search. Explore museum collections (find out where the piece lives, use Wikipedia or Artsy) and artists’ websites.
Use the library! If it’s a famous piece by a well-known artist, there are probably monographs (books focused on one subject) written about them and their art, so search in the library catalog. Even if you don’t find books with information about the specific piece, you may be able to use historical and biographical information for context.
Visual arts periodicals databases will search a mix of scholarly (peer-reviewed) and non-scholarly sources. There are many important sources of art criticism that are considered non-scholarly: Aperture, Art in America, ArtForum, Flash Art International are some examples. Using a database like Art Full Text or JSTOR will include articles published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as well as reviews and criticism published in arts periodicals.
An important note about the ambiguity of arts research: If you can’t find the information you were hoping to find about an image, what information can you find about the historical period, the country or culture, the social standing and intersectional identities, the art historical importance, materials and processes used, the artistic legacy, of the person/s or group/s who made it? Think broadly about your image and the information you do have about it. In what other discipline would you find more contextual information? What social issues is the piece addressing? What historical moment? Example: Guerrilla Girls → Women’s and Gender/Feminist Studies, art and activism, third wave feminism.
What do you do when you absolutely can’t find anything about your image? Ask yourself why you were drawn to it. What does it evoke for you, what does it remind you of? Use your own instincts to respond to the image and let your inquiry be guided by these questions.