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Visual Literacy. Teaching Awareness of Visual Elements. 1. DEFINITION:. Visual literacy is the ability, through knowledge of the basic visual elements, to understand the meaning and components of an image. The Basic Visual Elements. Direction. Dot. Shape. Saturation. Line. Texture.

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visual literacy
Visual Literacy

Teaching Awareness of Visual Elements



Visual literacy is the ability, through knowledge of the basic visual elements, to understand the meaning and components of an image.

the basic visual elements
The Basic Visual Elements












the dot
The Dot

In a process called visual fusion, our minds combine dots by blending and organizing the patterns into coherent images.

the dot1
The Dot

Georges Seurat. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, 1884-86. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, Art Institute of Chicago.

the line
The Line

J. M. W. Turner

Tours; Sunset

The Tate Gallery, London


We can say that the geometric basis of shapes provides us with an elementary vocabulary, an alphabet of the shape language.


Here the curves seem optimistic, even humorous.


Lever House, New York. Skudneck, Auriges, and Merril, Architects

The square might be read as dull, straightforward, sometimes unimaginative, stable. . . . and, well, . . . . SQUARE!


The triangle is interpreted as action, agitation, conflict, tension, and aspiration.


Women's perfume bottles are generally more curvy, circular, and triangular. The curves may be reflecting the actual body, but also imply feelings of warmth, continuity, and security. Men’s cologne bottles are generally square, implying strength, honesty and reliability.


The motion created by various shapes and lines can convey different emotional states. The direction of that motion will contribute the intensity of the emotional response.

Edvard Munch, The Scream


If a diagonal direction is substituted for the horizontal and vertical, the image will feel less stable. The diagonal direction conveys a feeling of movement, excitement, and change.


Curved direction also has an element of instability in it, but unlike diagonals, it also has the ability to be reassuring and safe.

Clarence John Laughlin. The Fierce-eyed Building, 1938


Triangles serve a similar function to circles in that they trap the eye within a specific sub- frame, created by three different points in the image.

Naomi Savage, Pressed Flower, 1969-80


Few dots or lines interrupt the surface of the baby's cheeks.

The value is also very even, enhancing the illusion of the skin's smoothness.


Lack of detail communicates a smooth texture, while the gentle nuances of color and value make the viewer believe the baby's skin would be soft.


In this painting the old woman's face is delineated and roughened by age, in sharp textural contrast to the smooth image of the baby.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Old Woman with Head Scarf. Private Collection


In a close-up of the painting, we see how the artist used dimension to give the wrinkles “depth”. The brush strokes are like curves on an etching or topographic map, giving the impression of three dimensions.




The primary colors: red, yellow, and blue


Visually, hue does three things:

1. It adds another dimension to images that once were black and white.

2. It acts as a formal element that directs the viewer’s attention.

3. It creates moods and feelings that complement the message of the image’s form.

hue and dimension
Hue and Dimension

Colors tend to recede and contract. Placing certain colors next to each other can enhance dimension.

Harry Callahan, Chicago, 1951

hue and mood
Hue and Mood

Red evokes feelings of strong emotion or anger.

Blue is cool and passive.

From The Year of Living Dangerously (Australia, 1983), directed by Peter Weir

Gucci, 1994


These four images are the same watercolor of a frog, reproduced at different saturations.

The image on the far left is fully saturated, and the one on the far right is completely unsaturated.


The past in black and white: a teen-aged Bill Clinton shaking John Kennedy's hand and the Bush Oval Office

The future in highly saturated images: a triumphant post-election Clinton shaking his fist and Clinton, the then President-to-be, walking into the Oval Office


The color picture on the left illustrates a magazine article presenting eight models. They "come from incredibly diverse backgrounds." The saturated colors in this picture exaggerate this diversity of cultures.

If we lower the saturation of the image, as in the picture on the right, we don't notice the contrast and the effect changes dramatically.


Howard's End, directed by James Ivory, 1992

Do the Right Thing, directed by Spike Lee, 1989

The colors in Howard's End are much less saturated because the movie is much more tranquil and serene. Do the Right Thing , however, is an intense movie that expresses highly charged, extreme feelings, so its colors are highly saturated and emotionally loaded.

value tone
Value (Tone)

Claude Monet, The Petit Bras of the Seine, 1872.

Rembrandt, The Woman Taken in Adultery, 1644.

“High key:” light

“Low key:” dark

value tone1
Value (Tone)

Pablo Picasso, Reclining and Standing Nudes, 1942.

A monochrome image depicts the importance of value in a work. This type of image is composed of different degrees of value for one color or a few complementary colors.

value tone2
Value (Tone)

Leonardo Da Vinci's La Gioconda (Mona Lisa) demonstrates sfumato in the eyes and mouth. Specifically, the eye featured here depicts this notion by suggesting movement.


value tone3
Value (Tone)

Chiaroscuro is the effect of creating 3-dimensional volume with light. This contrast technique exploits the difference between light and dark.


Rembrandt, The Adoration of the Magi, National Gallery, London

the basics of scale depth
The Basics of Scale: Depth

We assume the building is considerably larger than the figures.

But if we actually measure them, the building is in fact the same size as the figures in the painting.

The respective sizes create the illusion of depth.

Raphael, The Marriage of the Virgin

the basics of scale relations between characters in film
The Basics of Scale: Relations between Characters in Film

Stanley Kubrick, 2001, A Space Odyssey

HAL and Dave in conflict: Dave is dwarfed by the powerful computer, implying his powerlessness and inevitable defeat.

the basics of scale provoking emotional response
The Basics of Scale: Provoking Emotional Response

Orson Welles, Citizen Kane, 1941

Scale may be altered in order to create a variety of other emotions, for example, tension and anxiety.


Duane Michals. Chance Meeting, 1969.

“[In film] the enlarging or shrinking of an object over a period of time or the length of time it takes to travel between two points are two familiar ways of defining terms like 'close' and 'far'" [Mast]. These changes in scale appear so natural that we forget we are looking at a flat screen.

dimension perspective
Dimension: Perspective

Reproduced from Sensation and Perception,1993

Linear perspective: objects appear progressively smaller the farther away they are.

dimension light and shadow
Dimension: Light and Shadow

Changing the placement or number of light sources

In the center and right frames, the light changes.

The left frame is the same scene rendered with no tonal information

dimension eye level
Dimension: Eye Level

Bird’s eye view

Poster from Film und Foto International Exhibition, Stuttgart, Germany, 1929.

Walter Ioos, Jr., 1994

Worm’s eye view


By blurring a subject, a still image can be infused with implied movement.

motion sfumato
Motion: Sfumato

By blurring the corners of her mouth, Da Vinci creates the illusion that the Mona Lisa is in the process of smiling. Or is she about to frown?

Sfumato forces the viewer to interpret her mouth’s motion.

motion contrapposto
Motion: Contrapposto

Sarah Nathanson, Dancers, 1994

"Contrapposto" refers to the technique of twisting or shifting the weight of a figure to imply motion.

motion line
Motion: Line

The line creates the feeling that it is moving by leading the viewer's eyes along its path.

Sarah Nathanson, Motion, 1994.

motion advertisement
Motion: Advertisement

Basic visual elements work together to create the effect of motion in this ad by Porsche.

analyzing an advertisement
Analyzing an Advertisement
  • Getting students to understand and analyze basic visual elements:
  • Use the Levels of Critical Thinking (a Metaprocess):
  • 1. Describe the ad.
  • 2. Break it down into visual components: the basis elements.
  • Connect it with context, audience, purpose.
  • Evaluate its effect on the intended audience.
applications in the classroom
Applications in the classroom:


Analysis of advertisements and their intended effects

Analysis of art works

Analysis of film


Understanding and interpreting political cartoons

Analysis of photographs in the news

Examination of graphs and tables in popular media

Analysis of Web pages


visual literacy1
Visual Literacy

Awareness, Analysis, Contextualization, and Critical Thinking about Visual Elements

Thanks to

The Online Visual Literacy Project, Pomona College, Claremont, CA



August Leopold Egg, The Traveling Companions, 1862. City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England