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The On-Line Visual Literacy Project

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Pomona College, Claremont, California

What is Visual Literacy?

Click above to hear intro and welcome by Brian Stonehill (273 Kb).

From the beginnings of human culture, visual awareness has been a key element to communication. Just as information conveyed by the written word holds a significance for humanity in the 20th century, the symbols of early cave paintings held a deep significance for the artists and cultures that produced them. Over time these symbols and meanings changed into the alphabets of the world of today; which are the basis for verbal literacy.

To be verbally literate, one must possess and be able to manipulate the basic components of written language: the letters, words, spelling, grammar, syntax. With a mastery of these elements of written communication, the possibilities of verbal expression are endless. Visual literacy must operate within the same boundaries. Just as there are components and common meaning for the elements of verbal literacy, elements and common meaning exist for the elements of visual literacy.

The fundamentals of all visual communication are its basic elements; the compositional source for all kinds of visual materials, messages, objects and experiences. The most basic of visual elements, the dot, a pointer, marker of space; the line, the restless articulator of form, in the probing looseness of the sketch and the tighter technical plan; shape, the basic outlines, circle, triangle, and square; direction, the surge of movement that promotes character of the basic shapes; value, the most basic of all elements, the presence or absence of light; hue and saturation, the make up of color--coordination of value with added component of chroma; texture, optical or tactile, the surface characteristic of visual materials; scale,the relative size and measurement of an image; dimension and motion, both implied through sfumato and other techniques. These are the visual elements; from them we draw the raw materials for all levels of visual intelligence. It is with the understanding of these elements that a viewer can come to understand visual syntax. Visual literacy is the ability, through knowledge of the basic visual elements, to understand the meaning and components of the image. (1)

The Basic Visual Elements

  • Dot
  • Shape
  • Direction
  • Texture
  • Hue
  • Saturation
  • Value
  • Scale
  • Motion
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    Last update: May 6th1994 at 11:28 AM PDT