Visual language

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Water, rabbit, deer pictographs on a replica of an Aztec Stone of the Sun. Water,Rabbit,Deer.jpg
Water, rabbit, deer pictographs on a replica of an Aztec Stone of the Sun.

The visual language is a system of communication using visual elements. Speech as a means of communication cannot strictly be separated from the whole of human communicative activity which includes the visual [1] and the term 'language' in relation to vision is an extension of its use to describe the perception, comprehension and production of visible signs.



An image which dramatizes and communicates an idea presupposes the use of a visual language. Just as people can 'verbalize' their thinking, they can 'visualize' it. A diagram, a map, and a painting are all examples of uses of visual language. Its structural units include line, shape, colour, form, motion, texture, pattern, direction, orientation, scale, angle, space and proportion.

The elements in an image represent concepts in a spatial context, rather than the linear form used for words. Speech and visual communication are parallel and often interdependent means by which humans exchange information.

Visual language

Visual units in the form of lines and marks are constructed into meaningful shapes and structures or signs. Different areas of the cortex respond to different elements such as colour and form. Semir Zeki [2] has shown the responses in the brain to the paintings of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Magritte, Malevich and Picasso.

Imaging in the mind

What we have in our minds in a waking state and what we imagine in dreams is very much of the same nature. [3] Dream images might be with or without spoken words, other sounds or colours. In the waking state there is usually, in the foreground, the buzz of immediate perception, feeling, mood and as well as fleeting memory images. [4] In a mental state between dreaming and being fully awake is a state known as 'day dreaming' or a meditative state, during which "the things we see in the sky when the clouds are drifting, the centaurs and stags, antelopes and wolves" are projected from the imagination. [5] Rudolf Arnheim [6] has attempted to answer the question: what does a mental image look like? In Greek philosophy, the School of Leucippus and Democritus believed that a replica of an object enters the eye and remains in the soul as a memory as a complete image. Berkeley explained that parts, for example, a leg rather than the complete body, can be brought visually to the mind. Arnheim considers the psychologist, Edward B. Titchener's account to be the breakthrough in understanding something of how the vague incomplete quality of the image is 'impressionistic' and carries meaning as well as form.

Meaning and expression

Abstract art has shown that the qualities of line and shape, proportion and colour convey meaning directly without the use of words or pictorial representation. Wassily Kandinsky [7] showed how drawn lines and marks can be expressive without any association with a representational image. From the most ancient cultures and throughout history visual language has been used to encode meaning: "The Bronze Age Badger Stone on Ilkly Moor is covered in circles, lines, hollow cups,winged figures, a spread hand, an ancient swastika, an embryo, a shooting star? … It's a story-telling rock, a message from a world before (written) words." [8] Richard Gregory suggests that, "Perhaps the ability to respond to absent imaginary situations," as our early ancestors did with paintings on rock, "represents an essential step towards the development of abstract thought." [9]


The sense of sight operates selectively. Perception is not a passive recording of all that is in front of the eyes, but is a continuous judgement of scale and colour relationships, [10] and includes making categories of forms to classify images and shapes in the world. [11] Children of six to twelve months are to be able through experience and learning to discriminate between circles, squares and triangles. The child from this age onwards learns to classify objects, abstracting essential qualities and comparing them to other similar objects. Before objects can be perceived and identified the child must be able to classify the different shapes and sizes that a single object may appear to have when it is seen in varying surroundings and from different aspects. [12]

Innate structures in the brain

The perception of a shape requires the grasping of the essential structural features, to produce a "whole" or gestalt . The theory of the gestalt was proposed by Christian von Ehrenfels in 1890. He pointed out that a melody is still recognisable when played in different keys and argued that the whole is not simply the sum of its parts but a total structure. Max Wertheimer researched von Ehrenfels' idea, and in his "Theory of Form" (1923) – nicknamed "the dot essay" because it was illustrated with abstract patterns of dots and lines – he concluded that the perceiving eye tends to bring together elements that look alike (similarity groupings) and will complete an incomplete form (object hypothesis). An array of random dots tends to form configurations (constellations). [13] All these innate abilities demonstrate how the eye and the mind are seeking pattern and simple whole shapes. When we look at more complex visual images such as paintings we can see that art has been a continuous attempt to "notate" visual information.

Visual thinking

Thought processes are diffused and interconnected and are cognitive at a sensory level. The mind thinks at its deepest level in sense material, and the two hemispheres of the brain deal with different kinds of thought. [14] The brain is divided into two hemispheres and a thick bundle of nerve fibres enable these two halves to communicate with each other. [15] [16] In most people the ability to organize and produce speech is predominantly located in the left side. Appreciating spatial perceptions depends more on the right hemisphere, although there is a left hemisphere contribution. [17] In an attempt to understand how designers solve problems, L. Bruce Archer proposed "that the way designers (and everybody else, for that matter) form images in their mind's eye, manipulating and evaluating ideas before, during and after externalising them, constitutes a cognitive system comparable with but different from, the verbal language system. Indeed we believe that human beings have an innate capacity for cognitive modelling, and its expression through sketching, drawing, construction, acting out and so on, that is fundamental to human thought." [18]

Art in education

The visual language begins to develop in babies as the eye and brain become able to focus, and be able to recognize patterns. Children's drawings show a process of increasing perceptual awareness and range of elements to express personal experience and ideas. [19] The development of the visual aspect of language communication in education has been referred to as graphicacy, [20] as a parallel discipline to literacy and numeracy. The ability to think and communicate in visual terms is part of, and of equal importance in the learning process, with that of literacy and numeracy. The visual artist, as Michael Twyman [21] has pointed out, has developed the ability to handle the visual language to communicate ideas. This includes both the understanding and conception and the production of concepts in a visual form.

See also

Related Research Articles

Perception Organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment

Perception is the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the presented information or environment.

Optical illusion Visually perceived images that differ from objective reality

An optical illusion is an illusion caused by the visual system and characterized by a visual percept that arguably appears to differ from reality. Illusions come in a wide variety; their categorization is difficult because the underlying cause is often not clear but a classification proposed by Richard Gregory is useful as an orientation. According to that, there are three main classes: physical, physiological, and cognitive illusions, and in each class there are four kinds: Ambiguities, distortions, paradoxes, and fictions. A classical example for a physical distortion would be the apparent bending of a stick half immerged in water; an example for a physiological paradox is the motion aftereffect. An example for a physiological fiction is an afterimage. Three typical cognitive distortions are the Ponzo, Poggendorff, and Müller-Lyer illusion. Physical illusions are caused by the physical environment, e.g. by the optical properties of water. Physiological illusions arise in the eye or the visual pathway, e.g. from the effects of excessive stimulation of a specific receptor type. Cognitive visual illusions are the result of unconscious inferences and are perhaps those most widely known.

Gestalt psychology, gestaltism or configurationism is a school of psychology that emerged in Austria and Germany in the early twentieth century based on work by Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka. As used in Gestalt psychology, the German word Gestalt is interpreted as "pattern" or "configuration". Gestalt psychologists emphasized that organisms perceive entire patterns or configurations, not merely individual components. The view is sometimes summarized using the adage, "the whole is more than the sum of its parts." Gestalt principles, proximity, similarity, figure-ground, continuity, closure, and connection, determine how humans perceive visuals in connection with different objects and environments.

Visual thinking, also called visual/spatial learning or picture thinking is the phenomenon of thinking through visual processing. Visual thinking has been described as seeing words as a series of pictures. It is common in approximately 60–65% of the general population. "Real picture thinkers", those who use visual thinking almost to the exclusion of other kinds of thinking, make up a smaller percentage of the population. Research by child development theorist Linda Kreger Silverman suggests that less than 30% of the population strongly uses visual/spatial thinking, another 45% uses both visual/spatial thinking and thinking in the form of words, and 25% thinks exclusively in words. According to Kreger Silverman, of the 30% of the general population who use visual/spatial thinking, only a small percentage would use this style over and above all other forms of thinking, and can be said to be true "picture thinkers".

Rudolf Arnheim was a German-born author, art and film theorist, and perceptual psychologist. He learned Gestalt psychology from studying under Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler at the University of Berlin and applied it to art. His magnum opus was his book Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1954). Other major books by Arnheim have included Visual Thinking (1969), and The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts (1982). Art and Visual Perception was revised, enlarged and published as a new version in 1974, and it has been translated into fourteen languages. He lived in Germany, Italy, England, and America where he taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan. He has greatly influenced art history and psychology in America.

Split-brain or callosal syndrome is a type of disconnection syndrome when the corpus callosum connecting the two hemispheres of the brain is severed to some degree. It is an association of symptoms produced by disruption of, or interference with, the connection between the hemispheres of the brain. The surgical operation to produce this condition involves transection of the corpus callosum, and is usually a last resort to treat refractory epilepsy. Initially, partial callosotomies are performed; if this operation does not succeed, a complete callosotomy is performed to mitigate the risk of accidental physical injury by reducing the severity and violence of epileptic seizures. Before using callosotomies, epilepsy is instead treated through pharmaceutical means after surgery, neuropsychological assessments are often performed.

A mental image or mental picture is an experience that, on most occasions, significantly resembles the experience of visually perceiving some object, event, or scene, but occurs when the relevant object, event, or scene is not actually present to the senses. There are sometimes episodes, particularly on falling asleep and waking up (hypnopompic), when the mental imagery, being of a rapid, phantasmagoric and involuntary character, defies perception, presenting a kaleidoscopic field, in which no distinct object can be discerned. Mental imagery can sometimes produce the same effects as would be produced by the behavior or experience imagined.

Direct and indirect realism Debate regarding corrospondence between experiences of the world and its reality

The question of direct or naïve realism, as opposed to indirect or representational realism, arises in the philosophy of perception and of mind out of the debate over the nature of conscious experience; out of the epistemological question of whether the world we see around us is the real world itself or merely an internal perceptual copy of that world generated by neural processes in our brain.

Visual communication

Visual communication is the conveyance of ideas and information in forms that can be seen. Visual communication in part or whole relies on eyesight. Visual communication is a broad spectrum that includes signs, typography, drawing, graphic design, illustration, industrial design, advertising, animation, color, and electronic resources.


Neuroesthetics is a relatively recent sub-discipline of empirical aesthetics. Empirical aesthetics takes a scientific approach to the study of aesthetic perceptions of art, music, or any object that can give rise to aesthetic judgments. Neuroesthetics received its formal definition in 2002 as the scientific study of the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of a work of art. Neuroesthetics uses neuroscience to explain and understand the aesthetic experiences at the neurological level. The topic attracts scholars from many disciplines including neuroscientists, art historians, artists, art therapists and psychologists.

Composition (visual arts)

The term composition means "putting together". It can be thought of as the organization of the elements of art according to the principles of art. Composition can apply to any work of art, from music through writing and into photography, that is arranged using conscious thought.

Visual design elements and principles describe fundamental ideas about the practice of visual design.

"The best designers sometimes disregard the principles of design. When they do so, however, there is usually some compensating merit attained at the cost of the violation. Unless you are certain of doing as well, it is best to abide by the principles."

Psychology of art

The psychology of art is an interdisciplinary field that studies the perception, cognition and characteristics of art and its production. For the use of art materials as a form of psychotherapy, see art therapy. The psychology of art is related to architectural psychology and environmental psychology.

György Kepes [ˈɟøɾɟ ˈkɛpɛʃ] was a Hungarian-born painter, photographer, designer, educator, and art theorist. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1937, he taught design at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. In 1967 he founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he taught until his retirement in 1974.

Visual hierarchy Arrangement of elements to imply importance

Visual hierarchy, according to Gestalt psychology, is a pattern in the visual field wherein some elements tend to "stand out," or attract attention, more strongly than other elements, suggesting a hierarchy of importance. While it may occur naturally in any visual field, the term is most commonly used in design, where elements are intentionally designed to make some look more important than others. This order is created by the visual contrast between forms in a field of perception. Objects with highest contrast to their surroundings are recognized first by the human mind.

Visual perception is the ability to interpret the surrounding environment using light in the visible spectrum reflected by the objects in the environment. This is different from visual acuity, which refers to how clearly a person sees. A person can have problems with visual perceptual processing even if they have 20/20 vision.

The principles of grouping are a set of principles in psychology, first proposed by Gestalt psychologists to account for the observation that humans naturally perceive objects as organized patterns and objects, a principle known as Prägnanz. Gestalt psychologists argued that these principles exist because the mind has an innate disposition to perceive patterns in the stimulus based on certain rules. These principles are organized into five categories: Proximity, Similarity, Continuity, Closure, and Connectedness.

Form perception is the recognition of visual elements of objects, specifically those to do with shapes, patterns and previously identified important characteristics. An object is perceived by the retina as a two-dimensional image, but the image can vary for the same object in terms of the context with which it is viewed, the apparent size of the object, the angle from which it is viewed, how illuminated it is, as well as where it resides in the field of vision. Despite the fact that each instance of observing an object leads to a unique retinal response pattern, the visual processing in the brain is capable of recognizing these experiences as analogous, allowing invariant object recognition. Visual processing occurs in a hierarchy with the lowest levels recognizing lines and contours, and slightly higher levels performing tasks such as completing boundaries and recognizing contour combinations. The highest levels integrate the perceived information to recognize an entire object. Essentially object recognition is the ability to assign labels to objects in order to categorize and identify them, thus distinguishing one object from another. During visual processing information is not created, but rather reformatted in a way that draws out the most detailed information of the stimulus.

Roy Richard Behrens is Emeritus Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar at the University of Northern Iowa. He is well known for his writings on camouflage in relation to art, design and creativity as detailed in Camoupedia and additional books and essays on the subject.

Kurt Koffka was a German psychologist and professor. He was born and educated in Berlin, Germany, and later died in Northampton, Massachusetts from Coronary thrombosis. He was influenced by his maternal uncle, a biologist, to pursue science. He had many interests including visual perception, brain damage, sound localization, developmental psychology, and experimental psychology. He worked alongside Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler to develop Gestalt psychology. Koffka had several publications including "The Growth of the Mind: An Introduction to Child Psychology" (1924) and "The Principles of Gestalt Psychology" (1935) which elaborated on his research.


  1. Colin Cherry, On Human Communication, MIT, 1968
  2. Semir Zeki, Inner Vision: an Exploration of Art and the Brain, 1999
  3. Hiller, Susan (ed.) (2000). Dream Machines. London: Hayward Gallery. ISBN   1-85332-202-4.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
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  6. in Kepes, Gyorgy,ed., Sign, Image and Symbol,1966, Studio Vista, London
  7. Wassily Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane : Contribution to the Analysis of the Pictorial Elements, 1947, trans, Howard Deastyne and Hilla Rebay, Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, New York
  8. Hyatt, Derek (Autumn 1995). "To Strengthen the Tribe". Modern Painters. 8 (3): 83.
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  10. Itten, Johannes (1983) [1970]. The Elements of Color: A Treatise on the Colour System of Johannes Itten Based on his Book "The Art of Colour". trans. Ernst van Hagen. Wokingham: Van Nostrand Reinhold. ISBN   0-442-30581-8.
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  13. Behrens, Roy R. (1998). "Art, Design and Gestalt Theory". Leonardo. Leonardo, Vol. 31, No. 4. 31 (4): 299–303. doi:10.2307/1576669. JSTOR   1576669. S2CID   53355259.
  14. Thomas R Blakeslee, The right brain: a new understanding of the unconscious mind and its creative power, Macmillan, London, 1980. ISBN   0-333-29090-9
  15. Roger W Sperry, Some effects of disconnecting the cerebral hemispheres, Nobel Lecture, Science 217, 1982
  16. Michael Gazzaniga, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain, Hopewell, 2015
  17. Davidmann, Manfred (1998-04-20). "How the Human Brain Developed and How the Human Mind Works". Towards a Better Future: The Works of Manfred Davidmann.
  18. Archer, L. Bruce (1979). "Whatever Became of Design Methodology?". Design Studies. 1 (1): 17–18. doi:10.1016/0142-694X(79)90023-1.
  19. Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Tarcher, 2013
  20. Visual Education, Schools Council, York, 1972
  21. Michael Twyman, Graphic Images in Relation to Learning, Typography Unit, Reading University, 1972

Further reading