Visual Description

Not to be confused with a visual image, which is an image or series of images, a visual description is any written description concerned with how something appears. However, visual images and visual descriptions both share a common intent when writing or composing a visual essay. In your career, you will no doubt analyze both visual descriptions and visual images, so it's important to grasp the meaning of visual descriptions in writing.

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Table of contents

    Definition of Visual Description

    A visual description, which describes how something appears, is used to engage the reader’s memories and emotions. It's just one way to thus engage the reader along with the other modes of sensory description.

    In writing, the visual description is often the most common method used. For those who see, sight is consistent and pervasive. Something might not smell much, or sound like anything without touching it, but everything has a unique appearance. Essayists, creative storytellers, and advertisers use visual description to create worlds for their audiences.

    Meaning of Visual Description In Writing

    Visual descriptions can be complex, in that they contain layers of meaning.

    A layered description has different meanings depending on whether you are looking at the surface description, or the subtext of the description.

    The surface description is the immediate visual description you read. The subtext of the description is the meaning of the visual you read.

    “I haven’t seen anyone like you before,” said the fisherman.

    In reply, the last of her race smiled.

    In this example, the surface description is “smiled.” She smiled. In our mind’s eye, we can imagine this. Simple enough. However, there is also important subtext here, contained in layers beneath the surface. Look at the context clues.

    Context clues occupy the space around the target description. They show the place, time, and reason for the description.

    In our example, the context clues help us to imagine a specific kind of smile. Because she is the last of her race, this fisherman’s harmless remark has special significance to her. Her smile is probably a wry one; maybe she’s heard this before, or maybe it is one underlaid with sadness at the loss of her people. Likely both. Either way, the context clues paint a certain kind of smile, different from a big happy smile, for instance.

    Thus, a visual description can relay different meanings depending on what layer of the description you examine. Keep this in mind when identifying a visual description.

    Types of Visual Description with Examples

    There are a few tricks to identifying a visual description. If something communicates through writing “what something looks like”, then it is a visual description. However, there are objective, subjective, and figurative visual descriptions. These descriptions are each accompanied by example.

    Objective Visual Description

    Objective visual descriptions convey exactly what something looks like.

    The shipping container had rusted an amethyst color, due to some odd elemental reaction no doubt.

    This description communicates the color of the rust, which is not the usual reddish-brown. Here you can see the usefulness of visual description in describing something foreign or unexpected to the reader. If a visual is likely to surprise your audience, you will want to describe it.

    His wrinkled skin glistened with sweat.

    This sentence contains two visual descriptions. “Wrinkled” is a visual description of his skin, while “glistened” is also a visual description: of the sweat upon that skin. Yes, visual descriptions can be verbs! If you can picture it, it is a visual description.

    You will find ambiguous descriptions throughout works of fiction and nonfiction. Take “wrinkled skin” for example. Because wrinkled skin has a distinctive feel, it could also be a tactile description in addition to a visual description. A tactile description describes how something feels to the touch. In this example, “wrinkled skin” is probably a visual description because no one is touching the skin. Context clues such as “glisten” also indicate visual distance from the subject. Generally, if it's unclear whether a description is visual or something else, the description is probably a visual one, because visual descriptions are the most ubiquitous kind of sensory description in writing.

    Subjective Visual Description

    Subjective visual descriptions convey an opinion of what something looks like.

    The embarrassing dance made me hide my eyes.

    What is embarrassing is subjective. Meaning, it is someone’s opinion what “embarrassing” looks like. A writer will employ subjective descriptions like this for a few reasons. The first reason to use subjective visual description is to build a perspective. In a first-person narrative, for example, the narrator will use subjective descriptions that in turn give the reader an idea of their perspective and personality.

    The second reason to use subjective visual description is to have the reader make up the visual for themselves. A writer might describe a dance as “embarrassing” so the reader can imagine what an embarrassing dance might look like to them. This way, if the reader can imagine any embarrassing dance, they will imagine the dance in that way.

    Visual description Dancing StudySmarterIs that supposed to be the cha-cha?

    Instead of describing every move of the dance, which a reader may or may not interpret as “embarrassing”, the writer simply describes the dance as such. A writer will do this when the interpretation of a character or action is more important than the character or action itself. A writer may merely describe something as “pretty”, so the reader will imagine something pretty to them.

    Always be wary of these subjective descriptions, however, whether reading them or writing them. Although they can be employed harmlessly to engage the reader with the narrative, they can also be co-opted to create a false narrative intended to be factual. Be particularly skeptical of superlatives (e.g. the “most”, the “best”, or the “strongest”).

    If a subjective visual description uses a superlative (e.g. “blue water bottles look the best”) then it is problematic. An author might purposely write a problematic character to explore an aspect of history or humanity. This would be an example of an author "building a perspective".

    Figurative Visual Description

    Figurative visual descriptions convey what something looks like by comparing it to another visual description, often using simile or metaphor.

    A simile compares two things using "like" or "as".

    A metaphor likens two things by stating one is the other.

    Here are some examples.

    When it fought, the red fox looked like a blur of brushstrokes.

    One can imagine brushstrokes blurring across a canvas. This figurative visual description, a simile, likens a fox’s fight to this image.

    Her eyes were an ocean.

    In this metaphor, her eyes are directly likened to an ocean using the verb "to be". This figurative visual description gives a visual impression of blueness, vastness, and depth.

    Since last I saw her, she had grown like a weed.

    A reader can draw upon their knowledge of how fast and how tall a weed grows, and use that image to imagine how fast and how tall this character has grown. This is a simile.

    Difference between Visual and Spatial Descriptions

    You might be asked to describe how a visual description is different than a spatial description. The key is in relationships.

    A spatial description always puts two or more things in spatial relation to one another.

    The tree stood on the other side of the field.

    A visual description describes the look of one thing, whether that be a character, an object, a setting, or something else. Let’s add some visual descriptions to our spatial description.

    The smooth red tree stood on the other side of the golden field.

    How to Identify and Analyze Visual Images

    Now that we have explained the visual description, let's cover the visual image more in depth, because you won't merely be writing and analyzing visual descriptions on tests and in your essays. You will be asked to analyze visual images.

    Visual Description, How to Identify and Analyze Visual Images, Anti-War Political Cartoon, StudySmarterPolitical cartoons give a unique perspective on various topics. This example is called "Having Their Fling," and is an anti-war cartoon published in 1917.

    Here's a good process for reading into something like this.

    1. Gather context surrounding the visual image. Are there any dates, signatures, or sources? What about titles? Look for things that are not the subject of the visual image, but rather supply context about its creation and publication. This image is titled "Having Their Fling."
    2. Look for landmark features in the visual image, including anything written. In this image, the landmark visual is the four figures romping in the lower portion of the picture. Now look for writing. In cartoons, dialogue and labels are extremely helpful. Here, there is writing to identify who each figure is, and what he represents, as well as his "slogan" in writing on a slip of paper above his head.
    3. Synthesize your initial observations into a basic conclusion. At a glance, this is a political cartoon lampooning the figures at the head of American society. The upper portion of the picture shows the scuffle of war, while these public figures have money falling out of their pockets while they dance about, each under his particular motto for the necessity of war.
    4. Search the image for details that support or deny your initial observation. Hopefully, you will have correctly gotten the gist of the image from your initial observations. Now you want to find details to present as evidence for your conclusion. In this image, we see a small demon, perhaps satan himself in the skirmish above the main figures. This could represent the evils of war, apparently ignored by those that stand to profit from the war efforts.
    5. Write your analysis or answer the questions. With all this noted, you should be able to write a short analysis of what the image is, why it was created or captured, and how it accomplishes its goals. If you are answering short or multiple choice questions about the image, you will also be prepared for that.

    The Purpose of Writing a Visual Essay

    A visual essay can be one of two things. It can either be a visual image essay, or a visual description essay.

    A visual image essay uses actual images, with or without words, to tell a story, communicate an idea, or otherwise describe something.

    A visual description essay uses visual descriptions to tell a story, communicate an idea, or otherwise describe something.

    In the introduction of this article, we alluded to the fact that visuals and visual descriptions are often confused, because the result of both is an image captured in the mind’s eye. This is why, regardless of the kind of visual essay you are composing, the purpose and the approach to composing it are similar. Both kinds of essays want you to see something, and use that sensory information to learn something about the topic.

    Steps in Writing a Visual Essay

    This can be broken down into composing a visual image essay, and writing a visual description essay.

    Composing a Visual Image Essay

    Here is a step-by-step outline. Remember, in some visual image essays you can complement your images with visual descriptions, like the ones described here.

    1. Identify the subject for your essay (e.g. the conditions of WWI trenches).

    2. Identify what you want your reader to learn from this essay (e.g. that conditions in the trenches were dangerous).

    3. Consider what kind of visual image would help support your point (e.g. photos of diseased soldiers and dirty water).

    4. Gather your evidence. In other words, find the photos you need.

    5. Organize your photos to build upon one another. Start with images that tell the broadest story. For our trenches essay, begin with “zoomed out” photos of the trenches to set the scene. Use photos and captions to describe how trenches were positioned on the battlefield from a strategic standpoint. Consider how the terrain impacted the placement of trenches.

    6. Continue to build your essay. As you progress, use more detailed photos. Connect the idea of strategic trench placement to how those placements impacted how the trenches were built and irrigated. Your evidence should conclude with the most “zoomed in” pictures, which show the devastating results of trenches on the human body.

    7. Conclude the entire essay with the lasting results of trench warfare from a historical perspective. You might show the viewer how these conditions impacted future battlefield tactics. Your goal in the conclusion should be to visually describe the lasting impact of your topic.

    Writing a Visual Description Essay

    Here is a step-by-step outline.

    1. Identify the subject of your essay (e.g. an old roadside diner somewhere deep in Nebraska).

    2. Identify what you want your readers to learn from this essay (e.g. the history of this rural area).

    3. Consider what kind of visual descriptions would help support your point (e.g. descriptions of all the artefacts adorning the diner’s walls, such as photos, awards, newspaper articles, and physical artefacts like parts of old cars and signs). Organize these descriptions to conclude with the most emotionally or historically significant visual description.

    4. Start your essay by setting the scene. Describe the setting, the time of day, and the exterior of the diner.

    5. Continue by exploring the diner the way a person would explore it. Where does the eye travel in this old place? This is the time for your visual descriptions to shine. Your descriptions should conclude with the most powerful image. For instance, if this diner is known for a fantastic Native American rug on the wall, end with that. End with something that symbolizes the diner and the experience as a whole.

    6. Conclude the entire essay by “leaving” the diner. Describe what was learned by this descriptive trip, and how that information will continue to be relevant in the future.

    Visual Description - Key Takeaways

    • A visual description is any written description concerned with how something appears. It is different from a visual, which is an image or series of images.
    • A visual description can be complex, containing layers. To understand the subtext of a visual description; i.e., its deeper significance to the narrative, study context clues.
    • A visual description can be objective, subjective, and figurative.
    • A spatial description is different because it puts things in a physical relationship with one another.
    • Any kind of visual essay uses visual imagery to tell a story, communicate an idea, or otherwise describe something.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Visual Description

    What is the meaning of a visual in an essay?

    A visual can contain many meanings: surface meanings, and subtext under the surface. A visual description, which describes how something appears, is used to engage the reader’s memories and emotions.

    What is the purpose of a visual essay?

    Any kind of visual essay uses visual imagery to to tell a story, communicate an idea, or otherwise describe something.

    How do you compose a visual essay?

    To compose a visual essay, identify the subject, identify what you want your readers to learn from your visuals, and then organize your visuals. Start with "zoomed out" visuals and narrow them down to specific visuals. Conclude with a powerful or symbolic visual.

    What is an example of visual language?

    An example of visual language is any description that paints a visual image in the mind's eye. For instance, "His wrinkled skin glistened with sweat" is a visual description.

    How do you write a visual description?

    To write a visual description, consider the subject matter and what you want readers to get out of it at both the surface level and at a deeper level. Focus on what the reader doesn't know or what they need need to know in terms of the argument or narrative.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    A ______, which describes how something appears, is used to engage the reader's memories and emotions.

    A visual description may contain _____, making it complex.

    Where can you find context clues?


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