How Do We Define Visual Language ?

December 12, 2016

In a digital world we all live in, visual language, its various pictures, unspoken codes, and symbolism, seem to take precedent over the spoken language. Since 2010, over 20 billion photos have been uploaded on Instagram, and it seems that visual language is continuing its dominance as a crucial form of communication. Various artists, filmmakers, museum professionals, and educators believe that fluency in the visual language not only enriches the overall understanding of art and the world, but that it also greatly influences creativity, empathy, and critical thinking. Trying to reflect and comprehend the world through what we see and not through what one has to say with words, engages the mind in a more powerful way. The transformation of the world onto two-dimensional surfaces requires a deep understanding of the unspoken codes and symbols. These help to build the visual language and how one choices to introduce their understanding of the world is how diversity within a visual language is created[1].

Left: Tracey Emin - Drawing / Right: Henri Matisse - Drawing. Images via

What Shapes the Visual Language?

The investigation of the 20th-century abstract artists has shown us that the qualities of line and shape, proportion, and color convey a meaning without the use of words, and without the the narrative quality of the traditional painting. Thanks to Wassily Kandinsky, we have come to understand that each color can have its symbolic meaning and evoke various emotions. Through history, the blue color was understood to stand for the world beyond the physical, and in most cases it was used to color the robe of Virgin Mary figure. The play between various lines, the use of expressive marks and the drip of the paint in comparison to the repetitive rhythm or creation of a flat and decorative surface, all covey a different understanding of the world and the different, in a sense, sound of the visual language. If we were to take an expressive line and compare it to the sharp straight line, we can imagine that the amount of force and emotion in their creation differed[2].

Through the use of art elements, artists not only create their own impressions of the world but also their own meaning. Understanding that art conveys messages and communicates ideas makes almost every picture an element of the visual language. These pictures, thanks to the individual use and understanding of art elements and design principles, such as rhythm, contrast, or texture, help create a thousand vivid stories.

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Jackson Pollock pouring paint over a canvas to create one of his Drip Paintings. Image via

What Influences the Different Styles

The tone of artistic voice differs depending on the topic and emotional state of the speaker. This, believe it or not, also implies in the visual language of paintings, design works, and sculptures. Often through the use of color, and its complimentary hues, one can stress the most important feature within a certain piece. Various designers rely on such relationships to create focal points in their posters or various other graphic design works. Throughout art history, we have a very different understanding of the role and the nature of painting. Many avant-garde artists needed to create a new visual language by breaking away from art canons, such as perspective in art or the golden ratio rule. These changes occurred simultaneously with the major changes and turbulent events in history. As such, numerous avant-garde movements need to be understood not only as important stepping stones for the development of art but as crucial documents of the transitional phases of the world. Various cultural beliefs and rituals are also crucial for the creation and the understanding of the produced images. In certain cultures, the white color would not be an appropriate color to wear at funerals, yet, as we know, this occurs in East Asian countries.

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Visitors in a Museum. Image via

The Science of Sight

Crucial to the idea of the visual language are many scientific types of research concentrating on the analysis of sight, of eye’s perception, and of the mind. The scientist Semir Zeki has researched and produced interesting results which showcase different brain responses to Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Magritte, Malevich, and Picasso paintings. These results showcase that various shapes or lines may be more or less pleasing to the eye, as they produce different emotional reactions. Playing with the perception was an important feature for the Impressionist movement. By challenging the way the eye perceives color, Impressionists created a certain style incorporating vibrant colors, and expressive brushstrokes. During the 1960’s, the desire to break away from the drama of Abstract Expressionism was strong, so color field paintings denied any identity of the artist and produced a new idea, ie. the painting as a solid object. Presently, the visual language of the illusion art enforces the need for some artists to play and fool the eye.

The globalization and the digitalization of the world have created a new understanding of the style of the visual language[3]. Standing as a vehicle for critique, provocation, and education, artists need to embrace the technology and its own codes as much as they need to embrace the changes occurring in the aesthetic rules.

As a living force, language changes throughout time. This applies both to the spoken and to the visual language. From the most ancient cultures and throughout history, the language of paintings and drawings was used to encode the world in order to better understand the nature and universal laws, and consequently - ourselves.

 Editors’ Tip: A Visual Language

Featuring a large number of new images, this book is essential reading for any artist in any field, regardless of their level, and is the only introduction to the visual arts that a beginner should require. A Visual Language is a practical introduction to the language of the visual arts, with a strong, innovative methodology. This expanded second edition begins with the basics of shape, composition and drawing, and gradually moves on to explore more complex arrangements, including abstract and representational analysis and composition. Building on the principles of visual language established in their last book, the authors now explore three-dimensional forms of increasing complexity.


  1. Arnheim, R., Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, Univ. of California Press, 1974
  2. Meyer., B., Marriott, K., Visual Language Theory, Springer, 1998
  3. Horn, E., R., Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century, MacroVU, Incorporated, 1998

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1964. Image via; Wassily Kandinsky - Improvisation 19, 1911. Image via; Joan Miro - Artwork. Image- via

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