Back To CourseOhio Assessments for Educators - Middle Grades English Language Arts: Practice & Study Guide
37 chapters | 264 lessons
Ivy is a Doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history
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.
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.
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.
In art galleries and museums, creators place wall labels next to art work. These labels display information that helps to contextualize the artwork: name of the artist, media format, date of creation, and sometimes supplementary information like the place of creation, the story of how it was created or how it came to be a part of the museum's collection. Books, newspapers and magazines will also include captions for pictures, which serve the same purpose as wall labels. But when searching Google or browsing through photographs and an album, we don't have the privilege of wall labels. As an exercise, you can come up with captions of your own. When you come across pictures, paintings, and photographs without any context, insert your own interpretation into the blank wall label in your mind. This exercise will help you articulate how you are using your personal experience and knowledge to interpret the image.
Illustrating the value of the wall label in his book 'Ways of Seeing,' art historian John Berger offers the example of Van Gogh's Wheatfield With Crows shown with and without a caption. It shows how the viewer's experience changes significantly when the new information introduced: 'This was the last painting Van Gogh made before he died.'
What caption would you add to this painting? If it evoked a particularly sad experience of visiting a farm, you might take more notice of the overcast sky. Or if you're a bird enthusiast, the crows flying through the landscape might bring to mind their behavior and common habitat.
Some examples of visual images include pictures, photographs, and paintings. The act of interpretation is called visual literacy, a practice that treats pictures like a language. In art galleries and museums, curators add context to the pictures by placing them in particular arrangements and adding wall labels. In books, magazines, and newspapers, editors add captions that provide important context for readers.
Whether consciously or not, we make sense of picture using out personal experience and knowledge. Looking at Van Gogh's Starry Night, your mind leaps to recent experiences star gazing.
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