Visual Literacy, say what?

Visual Literacy? Whaaaattttt? You mean to tell me that there is a way to be visually literate? Like there’s a langauge to how we read images and interpret their meaning?

YES, yes there indeed is, and it’s not as bad as you may think. You’ve been doing it your whole life without even knowing it! I’m just going to provide you some language to help you to actually sound fancy when talking about what you see. So go ahead and read up so you can be the impressive and obnoxious friend at the art museum 😉

Visual literacy is our language, our alphabet for interpreting the world, making sense of what we are seeing. It is how we construct meaning from everything we see. How we see, look, sense, interpret, describe, analyze things around us and communicate with the world in this manner.
Visual literacy is important. We live in a highly visual world, that is very dependent on our ability to communicate to each other with images, scenes, textures, etc under a social and cultural context. Just like being literate in textual context, it is important to be able to read and understand visual images to communicate with our world. It is the original way we interacted with others. As young babies and children, we were not yet literate in reading, or even speaking, but we were already understanding and learning from our ability to see. We were taking in all this information for experiencing it with our eyes, making sense of the world and navigating it as we processed and categorized this information. While visual literacy is subjective, based on one’s own viewing, there is a common language that can be learned to help others to communicate their findings through the principles/elements of art and design. Once everyone learns about line, shape, form, space, color, texture, balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety, and unity, they can use these words as tools. 

I’m taking the definitions below from a very well loved worksheet I’ve had in my possession since my middle school days. I’ve used it and referred to it many times throughout my growth as an artist, especially in my high school days. I like to look at it from time to time to remind myself of the best visual tools out there when I’m working on my artwork:

Line: is a mark with greater length than width. Lines can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal; straight or curved; thick or thin.

Shape: is a closed line. Shapes can be geometric, like squares and circles; or organic, like free-form or natural shapes. Shapes are flat and can express length and width.

Form: are three-dimensional shapes expressing length, width, and depth. Balls, cylinders, boxes, and pyramids are forms.

Space: is the area between and around objects. The space around objects is often called negative space; negative space has shape. Space can also refer to the feeling of depth. Real space is three-dimensional; in visual art, when we create the feeling or illusion of depth, we call it space.

Color: is light reflected off of objects. Color has three main characteristics: hue (the name of the color, such as red, green, blue, etc.), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity (how bright or dull it is). • White is pure light; black is the absence of light. • Primary colors are the only true colors (red, blue, and yellow). All other colors are mixes of primary colors. • Secondary colors are two primary colors mixed together (green, orange, violet). • Intermediate colors, sometimes called tertiary colors, are made by mixing a primary and secondary color together. Some examples of intermediate colors are yellow green, blue green, and blue violet. • Complementary colors are located directly across from each other on the color wheel (an arrangement of colors along a circular diagram to show how they are related to one another). Complementary pairs contrast because they share no common colors. For example, red and green are complements, because green is made of blue and yellow. When complementary colors are mixed together, they neutralize each other to make brown.

Texture: is the surface quality that can be seen and felt. Textures can be rough or smooth, soft or hard. Textures do not always feel the way they look; for example, a drawing of a porcupine may look prickly, but if you touch the drawing, the paper is still smooth.

Balance: is the distribution of the visual weight of objects, colors, texture, and space. If the design was a scale, these elements should be balanced to make a design feel stable. In symmetrical balance, the elements used on one side of the design are similar to those on the other side; in asymmetrical balance, the sides are different but still look balanced. In radial balance, the elements are arranged around a central point and may be similar.

Emphasis: is the part of the design that catches the viewer’s attention. Usually the artist will make one area stand out by contrasting it with other areas. The area could be different in size, color, texture, shape, etc.

Movement: is the path the viewer’s eye takes through the work of art, often to focal areas. Such movement can be directed along lines, edges, shape, and color within the work of art.

Pattern:is the repeating of an object or symbol all over the work of art.

Repetition: works with pattern to make the work of art seem active. The repetition of elements of design creates unity within the work of art.

Proportion: is the feeling of unity created when all parts (sizes, amounts, or number) relate well with each other. When drawing the human figure, proportion can refer to the size of the head compared to the rest of the body

Rhythm: is created when one or more elements of design are used repeatedly to create a feeling of organized movement. Rhythm creates a mood like music or dancing. To keep rhythm exciting and active, variety is essential.

Variety: is the use of several elements of design to hold the viewer’s attention and to guide the viewer’s eye through and around the work of art.

Unity: is the feeling of harmony between all parts of the work of art, which creates a sense of completeness.

There you go, use these visual super words to sound like you know exactly what is going on in the image in front of you. 😉



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