Visual Literacy

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					Visual Literacy
A picture is only worth 1000 words if you understand the language. Perhaps you will be surprised at how much you recognize of the “grammar and syntax” of the visual language. The terms we use are Elements which are actual things (shape, colour etc) and Principles which how we use these elements (focus, movement, contrast etc).

Interesting imagery can be discovered anywhere, here in the fridge, if you are visually aware

In this collage image by a Grade 9 girl, note how the line (Element) of the cockpit is reflected in the flag. This is repetition (Principle). Look for other structural and symbolic devices in this image.

Mondrian whose work was initially quite a figurative, became increasingly abstract in his attempts to understand and control the structure of imagery. He came down to the ultimate abstraction of a straight line grid to divide the rectangular space and limited his palette to the primary colours.

An understanding of perspective is not something we have naturally, it is mechanical and a learned skill. Here is a famous image of Durer with his assistant, plotting points for a perspective drawing of a mandoin.

Early Western imagery did not use perspective. It was not something that was understood.

Initial attempts used single point perspective.

With a full understanding of the mechanics of perspective, MC Escher is able to combine multiple viewpoints and vanishing points in a single image.

Advertisers understand the power of images to by-pass explanation and go right to the core of manipulation. This life image is more about selling the image of the rugged man not specifically the cigarettes – they are simply part of the package.

As with the previous image, this one is targeted at a specific audience and would appear only in appropriate magazines.

Of course, you may not be looking for the perfect love affair (with Jim Beam) but you can be part of the establishment with Gibson’s finest…

And then there is guilt. What an astounding photograph.

And then there is always sex.
In the following image there is so much that is subliminally embedded in the structure of the image. Body language says much – she is relaxed and open, he is upright and active. It is not by chance that he is the one with the cigarette and no accident where it is pointed…. Similarly, follow the line from the phallic cigarettes in the foreground – it even loops around the table to draw you back again to the woman. These are the most obvious things but see what else you can discover – nothing is there by chance.

Point is the first Element.

Patterns from Points can be random or oganised.

The points them selves can be defined by the space around them.

Or they can be made of light.

Here, Seurat uses dots of pure colour that mix optically in a technique known as Pointillism.

When a point moves in space, you have line.

You can find lines of different character everywhere.

Bold and strong.

Soft and organic.

Or leading your eye to a point of focus (Principle)

In a drawing, line can be used to follow contours (contour line drawing) and give a sense of 3 dimensional space.

A line drawing might be entirely mechanical as in this one by Sol Lewitt, for a piece of sculpture.

Drawings like this fascinated me as a boy as I could see inside the engines.

It is quite staggering how much information about these figures that Picasso is able to convey with so few lines.

We tend to think of drawing as pencil on paper but her Michael Heizer is drawing using a motorcycle on the salt flats at Utah.

Heizer calls these drawings “circular planar displacements”……..

You could talk about the quality of these marks in the same way that you would in any drawing. However part of Heizer’s concept is the fact that these drawings are ephemeral, existing only until the next wind or rain.

When a line encloses space, we have shape.

Shape can be organized into a design that might build interest with a variation of size.

Or the shape of one element may reflect another.

Repetition – and related Rhythm (Principles) are often devices in an image.

Arrangements of shapes might be at your feet

….or on the wall.

Here, Jean Arp has assembled a series of cut-out shapes.

MC Escher uses both positive and negative space, interlocking them like tiles to cover the whole surface.

Matisse uses a repetition of similar shapes in “Dance’.

When shape becomes three dimensional we call it form.

Form can be defined by the tension of its surface.

Form can be defined by concealment.

Form can be defined by material as in this felt piece by Robert Morris.

Sculptural form might be found in the yard…

or in the Gallery – a piece by Vantongerloo who was part of the same “De Stil”( the style) movement of the 1920s as Mondrian.

Or Robert Morris again.

Form can be defined by skin

…. Or the skin can become the form itself. “Valley Curtain” by Cristo.

Forms can be created by assembling parts. A sculpture by Anthony Caro.

Claes Oldenburg would cause us to re-evaluate common objects by making the familiar hard into soft…….

….or the familiar small into large.

Pevsner and other Constructivists in the 1920s, explored three dimensional space with line and plane.

Here architect Frank Lloyd Wright has used nature’s geometry of a snail shell on which to base his design of the Guggenheim Museum.

Colour is an Element

Colour can be quiet.

Colour might relate to the degradation of surface.

Colours can contrast (Principle) – blue and orange are opposites. ( Also note the Rhythm of the shapes in this image)

Contrast might be partly about the juxtaposition of materials as well as the colour itself.

Here the dramatic colour of the doorway is an essential part what is revealed.

Again, part of the same series, the drama of the foreground and the revealed beyond, working together.

Colour is an essential element in folk art.

Rothko’s large colour field paintings are a sensual body experience of colour itself.

Matisse was a master colourist.

When it comes to giving complex information and instructions a picture can do what would be difficult, tedious and less clear with words.

Pictures and diagrams can give all the essential information, leaving the text to give details.

Graphs are a visual shorthand for complex information.

Diagrams can describe complex information simply, in this case, the airflow patterns around a building.

A series of diagrams as in a story board can show progress of an action.

Here a realistic picture is combined with a diagram.

In this diagram balloons are used to high-light details.

Extended detailing.

Students working with the idea of visual instructions.

How to grind coffee.

Elements and Principles
After this brief overview, look at Artworks Ch. 2 & 3 for more detailed information. There is also a one page “crib sheet” in your package. Also in your package is couple of sides on Image Structure which will give you some basic strategies for looking at and creating effective images. The Elements and Principles are one of the aspects in the structure of the Visual Arts IRP for curriculum planning.