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Factors that Affect Interpretation of Visual Images

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a Doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history

This lesson explores how pictures, paintings, and photographs communicate meaning. We will discover the principles of visual literacy and look at how we use our personal experience and knowledge when looking at visual images.

Context is Key

Think about a picture that you know very well. It could be a photograph you took, an illustration you drew, or a famous painting. For example, let's consider Van Gogh's famous picture The Starry Night.

Van Gogh, Starry Night
Starry Night

The feelings and thoughts that the picture evokes will change depending on where, when, and how you look at it. Coming across the painting in a bright art museum may give you the sense of history because curators have provided a wall label and oriented the painting in a room along with others that serve as context for your thoughtful contemplation. Now imagine coming across this painting while lying under the stars at night browsing through a Google Image search on your iPhone. Your interpretation of the painting could be very different. When you encounter Starry Night again, perhaps projected on screen during an art history lesson or on the pages of a glossy coffee table book, your mind will inevitably jump to that night under the stars. It will evoke the feeling of the grass under your feet and the crisp night air.

These examples remind us that the content and the look of visual images are not fixed and inert. We bring with us a host of experiences and knowledge to the images when we look at them. Our interpretations are as important for understanding the meaning of visual images as the content in the images itself. This lesson explores how the ways we come in contact with visual images affects our thoughts and feelings about them through examples including the layout of art museums and the structure of a Pinterest board.

What Are Visual Images?

First, let's distinguish between visual images (pictures, photographs, paintings, illustrations, and the images that make up movies) from mental images (dreams, memories, fantasies, impressions). An image is a broad concept that can be used to refer to a physical picture as well as a person's interpretation of it. To simplify this process, think about the difference between an object and a viewer. On one side we have a static visual image that includes content and information. On the other we have a person who makes sense of the visual image.

Learning about how visual images communicate is like learning how to read. According to principles of visual literacy, pictures communicate meaning visually. Just as texts use words arranged in sentences and paragraphs, pictures use a whole range of strategies to communicate. Color, brightness and saturation, contrast and shading, composition and framing, focus, and size make up some of the most important factors in the way pictures communicate visually.

Practicing the Art of Looking in an Portrait Gallery
art gallery

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