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How Visually Literate Are You? [Quiz]

Words are dead.

And images are on their way to replacing this primary form of communication, say experts.

Although there is some irony to this statement–after all, what you just read were words!–there is also much truth to it. Images are increasingly being used to communicate messages that used to be the sole terrain of words.

Just take a look at your social media feeds and you’ll see that even traditionally text-based platforms like Twitter have started to look more like image-based platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest.


Because 90% of the information we receive from the world is taken in with our eyes and is stored in our great memory bank of images. It’s not for no reason that 30% of the entire brain cortex is occupied by optic nerve fibers–much more than any of the other four senses.

To aid you in your mission to become more visually literate, we will go over the basics of visual grammar and provide some exercises to help you [tweet_box design=”default”]not only train yourself to really see the visual messages around you, but also learn the tools to create them yourself.[/tweet_box]

The Basics of Visual Literacy

Brian Kennedy, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, explains the importance of visual literacy in this TED talk. He defines it as the ability to read, understand and write visual language.

As with written communication, visual communication requires a visual alphabet, vocabulary and the “grammar of seeing.”

According to Kennedy, visual literacy is the key sensory literacy since it is even more elemental than reading and writing. Despite this fact, most school curriculums focus more on textual and computer literacy rather than sensory literacies such as visual and kinesthetic literacy.

After all, states Kennedy, even the ability to read is based on visual literacy since it requires deciphering text that are essentially images. In this digital age, it is becoming increasingly necessary to read images rather than text as images.

To further prove his point, Kennedy cites research stating that in the last four years, the amount of time young people spend looking at images each day has increased by an hour and 17 minutes. Meanwhile, the use of every type of media–except for text–has increased in the last decade.

We can be certain that we’re living in the midst of one of the most exciting communication revolutions since the printing press. In fact, there have only been three communication revolutions to date: the invention of cuneiform writing, the invention of the printed book and the current digital revolution.

The Process of Reading Images

In order to cultivate visual literacy, one must first learn to see. This requires so much more than simply looking at an image or a painting for a few seconds. It entails going beyond the first impression you receive to actually analyzing the image for its visual elements and going through a six-step process to interpret what is being communicated.

According to the visual literacy approach defined by the Toledo Museum of Art, the process of reading images involves the following steps:

  • Look: In this step, you give yourself enough time and the adequate space to look carefully at the visual piece before you.
  • Observe: This is where you start to look closely at the piece’s visual elements.
  • See: While the previous act is a physical process, this is a mental process that involves recognizing elements and relating them to your own knowledge.
  • Describe: Describing what you see in a visual work can help you organize your thoughts and even make a mental inventory of what you have identified.
  • Analyze: This step requires taking all of the previous observations and using them to find meaning in the work. Here is also where you identify the Elements of Art, explained below.
  • Interpret: Finally, you bring together all the previous observations to create your own interpretation of the work and arrive at a conclusion.

To help you apply this process, observe the image below, referenced by the Toledo Museum of Art in its tutorial on “learning to look.” At first glance, you might just see two temples and a church. But if you look at it through the lens of the visual elements of art, you can see many other principles at work.


1To decipher any image, think in terms of these five elements:

  • Line
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Space
  • Texture

When looking at the image in terms of the first element, the following lines become more apparent.


lineNext, you can also look at the image in terms of shape, which are enclosed areas defined by lines, as seen in this image:


shapeThen, you can also analyze the image with regard to color. Notice the hues (the names given to different shades), the intensity (the brightness or dullness of a color) and the value of the color (the degree of lightness or darkness).


2.2Also, think about the space surrounding the objects and the arrangement of each in relation to the rest of the elements.


space2In addition, notice the tactile quality of the different objects in the image.


textureFinally, you can also think about the image in terms of these basic principles of art:

  • Emphasis
  • Balance
  • Harmony
  • Variety
  • Movement
  • Proportion
  • Rhythm
  • Unity

When analyzed in terms of emphasis, for example, we start to see the points of focus in the painting’s composition.


EmphasisNext, you can also get a sense of the image’s visual equilibrium and overall balance.


balanceAlso, you can analyze the image for harmony, which is achieved when the different objects relate and complement each other. In the following image, for example, we see that similar elements are arranged in such a way as to create a sense of balance.


HarmonyIn order to make an image visually interesting, artists will also apply a principle called variety. It refers to the use of contrasting elements to break the visual monotony of an image.


varietyNext, you can also detect movement in the picture by analyzing how the different shapes, colors and lines direct your eyes in a certain direction.


movementThen, you can also look at the relative size and scale of objects in an image, as seen in the example below.


proportionThe path your eye follows in a repeated arrangement of colors is called rhythm. In art and design, this refers to movement in which certain elements recur regularly.


rhythmLastly, the principle of unity is defined as the overall coherence or oneness of a visual piece.


unityAfter mastering these basic elements and principles of design, you will begin to see visuals from a more visually literate perspective. Suddenly, paintings and all kinds of images will start to come to life before your eyes in a different way.

How to Look at Each Type

The next step in acquiring visual literacy is knowing what to look for in each type of visual piece. Here, we will touch upon the specific points to look out for when analyzing a photograph.

According to Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Wendy Hesford, photographic analysis can be divided into three parts and several key questions:


  • Who are the subjects of the image? What appearance do they have? Where is each directing his/her gaze?
  • What are the main components of the image and how are they arranged? Where are your eyes drawn to first?
  • What story does this image tell? Is there an “implied chronology” of events that occurred before the image or will occur after?


  • What is the cultural and historical context from which this image arose?
  • What is the historical and cultural contexts in which the image is being read? (the contexts surrounding the audience)
  • What is the central message or image? How is it shaped by the historical and cultural contexts surrounding the image?


  • What is the photographer’s perspective and camera angle?
  • How is the subject matter framed?
  • How is the camera used to create an illusion of intimacy or, alternatively, a sense of distance?

What Do You See In This Picture?

Now that you have a better understanding of what visual literacy is and how you can apply it, take a look at these recent photos of current events and ask yourself the following questions to determine what is going on in each of them.

  1. What is happening in this picture?
  2. What in the picture leads you to this conclusion?
  3. What else do you see in the picture?


Number 1:



Number 2:



Number 3:



Number 4:



Number 5:



The Answers

To determine if you were able to accurately interpret each image, here are the captions for each image:


Number 1:

“A television cameraman lost control of his Segway and drove into Usain Bolt of Jamaica after Mr. Bolt won the men’s 200-meter final at the track and field World Championships in Beijing.”

Source: NYTimes.com “Pictures of the Day”


Number 2:

“A house destroyed in heavy fire between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the village of Sartana, near Mariupol in eastern Ukraine.”

Source: NYTimes.com “Pictures of the Day”


Number 3:

“Russian-backed separatists guarding debris at the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 passenger jet near the village of Hrabove, in eastern Ukraine. The jet was shot down as it crossed Ukraine a year ago Friday. Separatists, using Russian weaponry, are suspected of downing the aircraft.”

Source: NYTimes.com “Pictures of the Day”


Number 4:

“Swimmers walked across a beach covered by seaweed in Qingdao, in eastern China. Beaches in Qingdao have been plagued by seaweed from the Yellow Sea the last several summers.”

Source: NYTimes.com “Pictures of the Day”


Number 5:

“The event pictured is from the A.F. Vandevorst show at Paris Fashion Week, which took place inside the Residence of the Belgian Ambassador. The performance involved live spray paint.”

Source: NYTimes.com “Pictures of the Day”

by Nayomi Chibana

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Originally posted 2016-02-16 08:10:50.

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