The Basics of Visual Literacy

Images contain information and ideas, and visual literacy allows the viewer to gather the information and ideas contained in an image, and place them in context.


Form refers to the organizational arrangement of the visual elements or the formal qualities of the image. This includes the graphic composition or images (eg shapes, lines, colors, etc) and such things as camera placement, editing and point of view.

A Quick tutorial and review of the range of formal elements used to create images or objects of analysis can be found at:

The Online Visual Literacy Project: .

The set of questions below considers key design elements individually before posing questions to help students understand how they relate to one another.  

  1. COLOR

What is color? Briefly, color is the perceptual phenomena of visible light.

What are its characteristics?

Any given color is described by three general characteristics:

  • Hue: The 'name' of a color - its particular spectrum of visible light
  • Saturation: The amount of gray tones present in the manifestation of the color
  • Value Contrast: The degree of tonality (light/dark) present in the manifestation of the color

For more information, see Color Basics:


Lines join together the smallest of design elements, dots, to direct the construction and placement of objects within an image.   Whether lines construct a recognizable visual element or an abstract visual element, they do so by outlining and forming shapes.   Even the most abstract of shapes has a relationship to some geometrical quality.   As our mind and our vision work together to decode the use of lines and shapes within an image, we seek to understand their relationship to the geometrical building blocks we perceive in our world around us - squares, rectangles, ovals, circles and so on.   Line can also be used independently of shape to suggest or create motion and movement within an image.   To read more about the utility of line and shape in visual design, consult the Online Visual Literacy Project [ ].   To experience the way in which line and shape can be used to create both abstract and concrete details in an image, select the link to the descriptive teaching module entitled "All Art is Abstract" .




The pictorial elements, such as color, line, shape, space and texture, used in designing an image are only one part of the text we read as we explore an image.   Many other elements come into play.   As you think about the image you are exploring, consider whether you think the formal design elements or the thematic relationship of the objects within the image become the focal point of the image for you.   As you do so, think through the following questions:


Content refers to the sensory, subjective, psychological or emotional properties in response to an image. emotional. Content includes:
- the emotional or intellectual message, and
- the expression, essential meaning, siginificance or aesthetic value of an image.

In exploring an image, were your initial observations based on facts, figures, or other information found within the image itself. Does your observation of the image lead you to tell a story about the image. If so, you may wish to explore questions about image content.


Context refers to the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc. This could include when a work of art was made, where, how and for what purpose. This could include historical information on the artist or issues or things the artist references.

Did you raise questions about who produced the image, how it has been utilized, where it has appeared? If so, then you may wish to further explore questions of the context of an image.

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