Dove-1949-by-Pablo-Picasso-1881-1973 Featured

The anatomy of a visual message with a focus on representation, abstraction and symbolism

‘We express and receive visual messages on three levels: representationally, abstractly, symbolically’.


Let’s look at each one in turn:

Representation –

A direct reporting of visual details of the environment, both natural and made. The visual communicator can control the result through style and technique. For example, through the use of photographic techniques.

Image Credit: Adobe Stock


Again the result can be controlled through the use of style and technique. For example, through the use of illustration, graphics, pen and ink, woodcut, painting, digital pixels and vector.

Image Credit: Adobe Stock


The basic visual elements. ‘Simplification can create a more intense and distilled visual meaning’. (Dondis).

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

Abstract and Symbol

‘Picasso’s Dove became a symbol for the Peace movement, and for the ideals of the Communist Party, after it was used to illustrate the poster of the World Peace Congress in Paris in April 1949′. (Tate)

Pablo Picasso 1881–1973, Lithograph on paper


The symbolic can be simple or complex to convey visual meaning. For example, the white dove with an olive branch has become an international symbol of peace.

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

Creative Concepts

Visual messages can be further enhanced through choice of media, layout and composition, colour and typography to create a tone of voice and a visual hierarchy for a message.

For example:

Religious iconography

Often used on Christmas cards and in religious paintings and images.

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

Protest and Political Dissent

This image ‘shows a dove impaled on a bayonet, its neck broken, feathers fluttering loose. The caption reads: ‘Never again!’, 1960. The image is a sceptical (and cynical) response to the Geneva Conventions’ remit to prevent human rights abuses in times of war’.

Credit: Never again!, by John Heartfield. 1960. Poster, 42 by 59 cm. (Liverpool John Moores Special Collections and Archives;© The Heartfield Community of Heirs / DACS 2019; exh. Four Corners, London).

Looking at the work of visual artists help us to better understand how meaning is formed through visual communication.

The image ‘Never Again!’ (above) by John Heartfield, born in Germany (1891-1968) is an example of photomontage.

We can also look at the work of some other notable montage and photomontage artists working with the medium of painting, photography and film.

László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), born in Hungary

Moholy-Nagy was a modern artist of the twentieth century. He was at the cutting edge of art, photography, commercial design, stage and film, and design education. 

Hannah Höch (1889-1978), born in Germany was one of the originators of photomontage.

Richard Hamilton (1922-2011), born in London was an English painter and collage artist.

David Hockney, (1937-present) was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire in the UK.

An English painter, draftsman, printmaker, stage designer, and photographer, he is considered one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century.

The arrival of Photoshop

In 1987 an early version of Photoshop (ImagePro) was developed by brothers Tom and John Knoll. They eventually licensed it to Adobe and version 1.0 of Photoshop was released in 2005.

John Knoll went on to work in the film industry as a motion control camera operator and went on to work in visual effects for films like Star Wars, Mission Impossible, Avatar and Star Trek. He is John Knoll of the visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic and Tom Knoll is an American software engineer.

David Hockney and Photoshop

Following the launch of Photoshop, Image editing and compositing has a very different look today and as David Hockney points out, with the advent of Photoshop ‘everything can look the same now’. As software and technology continue to evolve we have to remember visual communication has a rich heritage. Visual literacy and making pictures to communicate messages is a part of our individual cultural identity. We mustn’t lose sight of our heritage, our values and the values of our audience as we create the images of today.

Further reading/viewing

Donis A. Dondis (1973) A Primer of Visual Literacy, MIT Press

Hockney D. and Gayford M. (2020), A History of Pictures, From The Cave To The Computer Screen, Thames and Hudson

Book Reference

Donis A. Dondis (1973) A Primer of Visual Literacy, MIT Press (pages 67-84).

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