Elements of Visual Texts
Just as there are techniques and a vocabulary for techniques to analyse the written word, so equivalent techniques and terminology exist to analyse and compose visual texts. You must be able to:
a. Recognise and interpret these techniques in visual texts of various kinds
b. Analyse and evaluate the effect of such techniques for a variety of purposes
c. Use these elements to compose a visual text which communicates a textual concept or theme
d. Annotate the representation techniques chosen, using appropriate terminology.
e. Explain clearly and concisely in written form what is represented and how the techniques used achieve the desired effect.
Basic compositional elements of visual texts:
LINE: is the essential element to indicate movement across a visual space. A horizontal line creates a strong sense of equilibrium and balance e.g. the horizon in an open outdoor space creates balance and spatial orientation. A diagonal line attracts the eye and creates visual stress, which heightens interest and arouses curiosity. A diagonal line can also imply movement.
DIRECTION: When we look at an image our eye travels around the frame exploring the contents. Direction will play key role in our understanding the meaning of this image. The amount and type of motion created by various shapes and lines can convey different emotional states and the direction of that motion will contribute the intensity of the emotional response.
A viewer's primary scan of an image is along the vertical then horizontal axis. This is how the eye picks up the most basic information from an image. Now, if diagonal direction is substituted for horizontal and vertical direction the image will feel less stable. This is because the diagonal direction is one that conveys a feeling of movement, excitement, and change.
Diagonals are the most dynamic directions, for they can suggest a strong feeling of imbalance and motion. A left to right incline is associated with an ordinary graph, lower left indicating inferiority, upper right indicating superiority or dominance. This diagonal is commonly used in visual communication because it is so accessible to a viewer. On the other hand, a left to right decline will feel less stable to the viewer because it is perceived as "downhill". This is also a very suggestive visual manipulation.
Curves can lead the eye in either direction, but because of the absence of angles the usual effect is a degree of softness.
Curved direction also has an element of instability in it, but unlike diagonals, it also has the ability to be reassuring and safe. The amount of reassurance we derive from the curved direction is dependent on how curved the direction is; a curve that makes a full circle is much more encompassing than a curve that is shallow. A circle is a virtual visual trap. Once the eye has picked up the curve of a circle, it will inevitably become trapped within the path of the circle and importance will be placed on anything inside.
SHAPE: may be the outlines of objects, may be composed from different parts of adjacent objects, or may consist of gaps or negative shapes between objects. We respond to shapes emotionally, so different shapes will position us to respond in particular ways.
Circles and all curvey shapes will suggest feelings that are calm, peaceful, confident and optimistic. Also can be used to represent the eternal, no beginning or end, cyclical, ending up back where you started, protection, safety, family, warmth - the sun and world are round.
Squares are stable, but dull and straightforward, lacking imagination, man made as opposed to part of nature.
Triangles suggest action, agitation, conflict, tension but also aspiration, spirituality (the trinity). The pointed, sharp edges suggest anguish, danger, antagonism. Likewise thorns, fire, spears, cracked ice and mirrors, arrow heads etc.
• full frontal – a ‘demand’ shot – involvement of viewer
• side on – detachment
• verticals/low angles (looking up) = power, dominance
• Verticals/ high angles (looking down) = weakness and submission
• Horizontal eye level shots give balance.
Vectors are the vertical or horizontal sections of the work which direct our eye to a certain ‘reading pathway’
TEXTURE: is the ‘feel’ of an object as recorded in our sense memory. Texture is also felt with our eyes because our sense memory co-operates with our sense of sight e.g. we will see a visual representation of a peach as ‘soft.’
DIMENSION: In reality objects are three dimensional. The two dimensions of the flat medium are manipulated by the visual artist to create the illusion of three dimensional reality.
HUE: is all the colours in the rainbow or spectrum of light. Traditionally these are divided into primary colours (red, yellow and blue) and secondary colours (all the rest). For visual purposes they are more usefully divided into warm (red, orange and yellow) and cool colours (blues and greens and all colours in between). To ‘read’ a visual text we need to look at the balance of warm and cool colours in the composition. Colour commands the viewer’s attention and creates moods and feelings to complement the message that the image gives formally. Feelings are associated with certain colours, so representations using colour will contain verbal clues that enhance the mood of a picture and position the viewer to ‘see’ it in a certain way.
Black and white translates reality in a different way than colour images. In a black and white representation of something all colour is translated into different shades of grey. This gives a greater sense of the abstract and classifies the subject in terms of shape and light and dark. When black and white are used together with colour this creates two different realities and can shift time and location.
Red represents strong emotions or anger (because associated with blood). Blood red is the ultimate red and represents passion, pain, anger, masculine etc. Film often uses blood red for prostitutes and fast cars. It suggests extravagance and ostentatiousness.
Orange - excitement, desire
Blue represents the cool and passive (because associated with the sea and the sky). Blue can be used for truth (blue uniforms of police, flags etc). Also for Madonna like qualities.
Yellow represents the bright, warm and cheerful (associated with the sun).
Pink – sensuous emotion, feminine, romantic
Green – knowledge, hope, promise, healing, Nature
Purple – passionate, smouldering, caring, royal
White represents innocence and purity (associated with snow). The ultimate image of innocence would then be a young girl, with pale blonde hair, in a white dress and holding a white lily.
Grey – neutral, uncommitted, non-involvement
Sepia – often represents the past
Black represents evil (associated with the darkness of night). Also mysterious, fear, depression (‘black dog’) Death, vampires and burglars wear black.
SATURATION: is the amount of grey in a particular colour. Saturated colours are bold and tied to emotion. Unsaturated colours are softer and less striking. Unsaturated black and white is often used to represent the past. The future is represented by highly saturated colours. Low saturation of colour is dull and boring, can be restful and peaceful but can also be depressing. High saturation of colour is vibrant, grabs our attention and is emotionally aggressive.
VALUE: is the juxtaposition of light and dark and along with hue and saturation make up the element of colour. Monet’s paintings are full of light. Rembrandt’s are frequently dark and the Mona Lisa is a study in the combination of light and shade.
SCALE: acts to show the relations between objects and does this by representing the relative size of objects to each other. By manipulating the apparent size of objects, scale can be used to produce a number of effects. Scale is no longer just used to create the illusion of depth, but may be used to give information in the form of visual communication about characters and the relations between them. The positioning of characters and the scalar relationship between them reveals, without dialogue, the relationship between the characters as well as defining the traits of a character/s
Scale can also be used to create an emotional response in the viewer. By clever use of scale the artist may manipulate the feelings of the viewer in order to invoke a stronger relationship between the characters in the painting and the viewer.
MOTION: in visual representations is always an illusion but by using various techniques e.g. blurring and a combination of the above elements a still image can be infused with implied movement. Because implied movement requires the viewer to invoke his/her experience of motion in real life, suggested motion is involving and compelling. E.g. By blurring the corners of the Mona Lisa’s mouth Da Vinci creates the illusion that she is in the act of frowning or smiling. The ambiguity of the image forces the viewer to interpret it as he/she chooses.
Composition refers to the arrangement or organisation of an art work. These elements of design are applied when a visual text is composed by an artist to create the following overall effects: • Unity – refers to the sense of oneness, a feeling that all the parts belong together. • Harmony – the elements are arranged to create a peaceful/harmonious impression. • Rhythm/Repetition – rhythm in artwork is related to movement – the arrangement of visual elements so that the eye is encouraged to travel in a certain ‘reading path’ across or around the art work. Diagonal direction suggests movement. Repetition is another way of suggesting this. • Dominance – elements arranged so that one image/concept/motif dominates. • Contrast – arranged so that the elements are juxtaposed and their differences are emphasised. • Balance – is achieved when the parts complement each other so that the result is ‘equilibrium’.