The Visual Techniques Toolkit

This is our Glossary of Visual Techniques. In this post, you will find all of the relevant techniques you need for analysing an image and explanations of what these techniques are.

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All about the Visual Techniques Toolkit

For the HSC you need to be able to discuss images and analyse them for meaning. For students without a visual art background, this can be especially tricky.

For example, consider this image from the HSC English 2015 Paper 1 – Area of Study Paper:

Question 1:

Text One – Image: (a) How does the image represent an individual who values discovered objects?

Visual-techniques-for-analysing-an-image-seba

 

You may find this daunting, but you shouldn’t because, in this post, we provide a comprehensive list of visual techniques for you to discuss in your essays.

If you would like more help with HSC English, you should read our Beginner’s Guide to Acing HSC English!

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Important techniques for analysing a visual text

Below is a list of techniques when analysing a visual text. Matrix English students get a comprehensive glossary of techniques in their English Theory Books.

Allusions

Like in literature, an allusion is a reference to another text, work of art, historical figure, mythical figure, or idea. Artists use allusions to develop meaning by signalling a connection to or awareness of other ideas.

For example, in Matt Groening’s TV show The Simpsons he often makes allusions to well-known works of arts. The example below makes allusions to Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory by replacing it’s famous clocks with his characters.

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An illusion from The Simpsons to Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” – ©Matt Groening & 20th Century Fox

Now, rather than commenting on time slipping away, it comments on how we waste time with entertainment.

Angle

The angle used to compose the image. Imagine that the painting or image has been taken using an imaginary camera: angles then refers to the tilt of this imagined camera in relation to the scene and characters in the image.

Unusual camera angles can emphasise an action sequence, disorientate the audience, and suggest the relationship amongst characters or characters and the landscape.

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Examples of some of the different angles used in an image.

 

Body language

Facial expressions, gestures, stance or position – can convey the attitude, feelings or personality of the individual shown.

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Examples of different types of body language used in an image.

Composition

What is included is deliberately placed (also applies to what is omitted). Consider all inclusions and omissions e.g. surroundings, objects, clothing etc.

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Examples of how composition can shift our perception of the subject.

Colour, Hue and Tone (also, Shade and Tint)

In black & white images examine the use of contrast, light and darkness. In a colour image, colours are used to signify feelings and evoke a response. For example:

  • Red = passion, anger, hell, vitality, etc.
  • blue = peace, harmony or coldness.

Hue, Tone, Shade, and Tints are other ways of referring to colours. Specifically:

  • Hue refers to the actual colour. For example, red, green, blue, etc.
  • Tone refers to the intensity of the colour. For example, you can adjust the hue by adding black and white to it to change its warmth or coolness.
  • Shades are when you only add black to the hue, making it darker.
  • Tints are where you only add white to a hue, making it lighter.
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This colour-wheel illustrates the effects of colour on our understanding of an image.

Contrast

The arrangement of opposite or differing elements (light and dark, large and small, rough and smooth) to create interest, excitement or drama.

In William Holbrook Beard’s “Discovery of Adam” (1891), the artist uses the contrast between the apes, dressed and acting as scientists, and the prehistoric creature in the back to satirise the focus on Darwinism in the nineteenth century.

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Beard uses contrast to satirise the scientists. They are so focused on the strange creature they surround that they miss the prehistoric creature they are contrasted against in the background.

Compositional Axis

Compositional axis describes where the subjects in an image are placed. In art theory, the axis used bore implicit meaning:

  • Up (horizontal axis): Fictional or fantastic things, virtue, happiness, life and health, high status, power
  • Down (horizontal axis): Reality or real things, depravity, sadness, death and sickness, low status, powerlessness
  • Left (vertical axis): That which is known or given
  • Right (vertical axis): That which is unknown or new

Depth

Depth refers to the three-dimensional aspect of an image. Composers use depth to create a sense of scale or proportion. They also use depth to illustrate the proximity between objects.

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The depth used in an image can affect how we perceive the subject.

Framing

The same camera shots and angles relevant to film. For example:

  • Close-ups
  • Extreme close-ups
  • Medium shots
  • Long shots
  • Tilted up or down shots, etc.
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An example of various shot sizes for photographs. These scalings can roughly translate to other sorts of visual images, such as paintings and digital images.

 

Gaze

The way a character looks with their eyes and face. Gaze is a useful way to convey meaning through an image because we can see where and how a figure is looking at something.

    • Intra-diegetic: The character is looking at something within the text
    • Extra-diegetic: The character is looking at something outside of the text. In some instances, the subject may be looking directly at the viewer. This is called a demand gaze or direct gaze.

In Eduardo Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” (1882), the subject stares at the viewer who stands in (through a trick of perspective reminiscent of, or possibly a homage to, Valesquez’s Las Minas) for the customer we see in the reflection. The server’s gaze is indifferent, reflecting her status in nineteenth-century Parisian society.

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The barmaid meets the viewer’s gaze with the same indifference she greets the customer she serves.

Line

This describes the types of line used in an image and the effect they have on the viewers understanding of the image. There are meanings associated with different types of lines:

  • Jagged or sharp lines can be used to show anxiety, damage, or excitement
  • Curved lines can be used to develop feelings of safety and comfort
  • Lines also work as vectors to point at things (see vectors, below)

 

Indirect Gaze

See Orientation, Point of View

Omissions

What has been deliberately left out of the image.

Orientation, Point of view

Relates to framing and angle: is the responder positioned above the image (looking down), below or at eye level?

Orientation and point of view can be used to develop a particular relationship between the view and items in the painting. Like direct gaze (see above), point of view can be used to develop indirect gaze where a subject is unaware that they are being watched.

Positioning

Consider which objects have been placed in the foreground, middle ground or background.

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Some examples of different positioning within an image or composition.

 

Rule of thirds

Divide an image into thirds from the top and sides and look at the placement of people and/or objects. An object in the top third is usually empowered whereas anything in the bottom third is disempowered.

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The rule of thirds is used to compose an image so that the viewer focuses on the subject.

Salience

The part that your eyes are first drawn to in the visual. Colour, image and layout determine what the salient image is.

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The most prominent subject is always the salient object.

Size

This describes the size of an object. Artists often play with the size of parts of their work to develop a particular meaning. For example, Michelangelo, in his statue of “David” (1501-1504) made the hands unusually large to signify that they brought down Goliath the Giant.

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Michelangelo carved David’s hands to be slightly out of proportion to signify his strength.

Space

This refers to the empty portions of an image. Space is used to draw attention to the objects that are in the image.

For example, an image with lots of space can convey isolation or emptiness while images with little space can convey chaos and intense activity.

Australian painter Jeffery Smart was renowned for his use of space to convey the emptiness and loneliness of urban life.

In Smart’s “Approach to a city III,” he uses space to convey the loneliness and isolation of city living. Jeffery Smart, 1968-69 “Approach to a city III”

Symbolism

The use of an image to represent one or more (often complex) ideas.

Australian artist Del Kathryn Barto often uses symbolism in her paintings, such as 2013 Archibald winner “Hugo” (2013).

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Barto uses symbolism to evoke Hugo Weaving’s Australian identity.

 

Texture

The actual texture of an object. Is it rough or smooth? Does it have ridges and different feelings to touch. For example, oil paints are quite thick and give paintings a unique thickness that artists can intensify by having lots of layers. Some artists experiment with different textures to develop meaning in their works.

For example, Frida Kahlo used the texture of oil on masonite to emphasize the broken plinth supporting her and the nails embedded in her face in her self-portrait, “The Broken Column” (1944).

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In her self-portrait “The Broken Column,” Kahlo uses the symbolism of a plinth and nails to describe her ongoing pain and sense of disfigurement. This emphasised by her use of texture in the image.

Vectors

The line that our eyes take when looking at a visual. Composers deliberately direct our reading path through the vectors. E.g. If all of the subjects are tall, long and upright our eyes follow straight vectors that lead to the top of the frame. This could make the subject seem powerful or inflexible.

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In Caravaggio’s “The Calling of Saint Matthew” we can see that Matthew is the focus of attention by his use of vector lines pointing to him.

 

Need more help with textual analysis?

Use the Matrix Textual Analysis Planner to Analyse your English texts and produce insightful notes for your next assessment task. Download your FREE Textual Analysis Planner.

Year 11 English Textual Analysis Planner

 

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