Art History 017
Fall 2002







© Chris Witcombe

Understanding Art
& Everyday Images


This course is about your visual experience of art. It explains what art is and the ways in which you see and understand it. It explores how and why you respond to various types of visual images and how they affect your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

In a world filled with visual images, art exists as the most sophisticated and complex manifestation of human creativity. Art is also a record of the human response to life and the world stretching back to the distant prehistoric past. Art is the ultimate visual experience and the knowledge gained through it can be applied to understanding every other visual image encountered in the world around you.

These days, practically everything you see with your eyes has been deliberately manipulated by human actions. If you live in a city, your visual world is filled with human-made objects. If you live in the country, your environment may seem more "natural" but the countryside, too, has been shaped by human forces and needs. Roads, fields, farms alter the natural environment and impose upon it patterns of human activity.

All human actions have a purpose, conscious or not. When we make things - build a house, paint a picture, carve a piece of stone - this purpose or intention affects the result. The object is manipulated through mostly consciously made decisions in order to produce a desired result. A two-dimensional object (such as a painting) or a three-dimensional object (such as a piece of sculpture) may be intended to provide guidance or instruction or inspiration, record or commemorate events, portray people, offer commentary or make statements, express ideas or feelings, or exist simply to give you pleasure.

Whatever its purpose, though, the resulting visual image produces responses in you. At the very least, you may "like" some images but "dislike" others. Some images may have a profound effect on you. One image you find exciting while another makes you feel sad. Why is this? How does an image cause you to think, or feel, or respond in these ways? This is the first question this course seeks to answer:

  • How do images provoke responses in you?
The second question is:
  • Why do we respond to images in the ways we do?

In order to answer these questions it is first necessary to understand how our eyes work and what it is we see, exactly, when we gaze at visual images in the world around us. It is important to understand the difference between seeing an image and looking at it.

It is also important to know that we respond to visual information in terms of impressions and associations. Generally speaking, impressions are the product of your responses to the colors, lines, shapes, textures, and space of an image. Associations, on the other hand, are the product of your attempts to make sense of or understand what you are looking at. We derive meaning from both impressions and associations.

The ability of an image to produce meaningful impressions and associations is a measure of its effectiveness as a form of visual communication. The key to effective image making is composition or design. Composition and design are analyzed in terms of style. Different styles produce different impressions and associations and thereby convey different meanings.

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Understanding Art and Everyday Images is taught by Dr. Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, Professor of Art History, Sweet Briar College in Virginia, 24595 USA (phone: 434-381-6194 / fax: 434-381-6173). For more information, please email him at