Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Reading Visual Media

Imagine you’re a literary agent, and you’re in charge of deciding which novels your publishing house is going to publish. One day, you get a pitch for a story that goes like this:

Some dudes take a really long walk and finally throw away some old jewelry.

No, right? That sounds deadly boring. But it’s actually an internationally bestselling book series that got adapted as a blockbuster movie trilogy. Can you guess which one?

It’s Lord of the Rings – that’s literally what happens in Lord of the Rings. A bunch of characters spend most of three books walking to Mordor, and then Frodo destroys the Ring. The actual books are more interesting than the boring literal description because:

  • They’re full of interesting characters and places
  • They’re connected to themes, like good vs. evil, or the effects of technology on our lives
  • They have engaging prose that the reader can appreciate

In this lesson, you’ll learn to ‘read’ those kinds of interesting things into a painting. A lot of people don’t know how to read a painting on any level beyond literally describing what’s in it, which makes paintings about as dull as, ‘some dudes take a walk.’ But that’s not all there is!


This painting is not about some guy on a horse any more than Lord of the Rings is about some dudes on a walk. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to ‘read’ visual media the same way you ‘read’ books, so you can get more meaning from them and figure out what they’re really about.

Two Questions

As the first step to finding meaning in visual media, a good starting point is to ask yourself two questions:

  • What is the creator literally depicting?
  • What choices is the creator making about how to depict that subject or idea, and what meaning do those choices convey?

To show you what this means, let’s walk through the process with this picture of a guy on a horse.

1. What is the creator literally depicting?

In this case, it’s a man in a red cape on a horse, pointing forward. That’s nice, but it doesn’t tell us very much about what the author is really trying to say. It’s at the same level of interest as ‘some dudes take a walk and get rid of a ring.’ It’s nice and all, but really, who cares? That’s where question two comes in.

2. What choices is the creator making about how to depict that subject or idea, and what meaning do those choices convey?

This is where you start getting to the good stuff.

To answer this question, you’ll need to look at how the author chooses to represent his or her subject. Look at the colors used, the composition of the work, and the relative positions and sizes of objects shown, plus techniques specific to the medium that the author is using.

  • For sculpture, ask yourself: is the sculpture made of marble? Concrete? Metal? A mix of materials? How are the materials used to shape the form?
  • For film or photography, look at camera angles, color filters, or film techniques like zooming or panning.
  • For painting, examine what type of paint or style of painting is used.

Just to stick with our horse example, you could probably imagine painting a man on a horse in all kinds of different ways. In this case, the use of oil paints gives the man on horseback a very rich, intense color, which contrasts with the more yellow-gray tones of the background. This adds intensity to the painting and pulls the viewer’s eye straight to the central figure. He looks dramatic and important.

Here’s an example for contrast. In this picture, the color scheme creates a totally different mood. There’s no high drama here, and there’s no color contrast pulling attention to the person on the horse. Instead, the colors are more evenly distributed, and the color scheme suggests a pleasant, sunny day.

Lack of contrast

Another point to note here is the composition. Composition is the arrangement of the people, animals, and objects shown in a work. In the case of the first image, the man on horseback takes up most of the canvas, and he’s right in the middle, which highlights his importance. The poses of the man and the horse also suggest forward motion, which gives the impression of power, success, and drive. You can see how the horse’s mane and tail and the man’s cloak are being blown forward by the wind, giving an extra impression of motion forward.

For contrast, here’s another painting of a man on a horse. You can see how in this painting, the artist made very different choices about the composition. There is no sense of forward motion, and the man on horseback doesn’t look particularly powerful.

Composition contrast

The composition and color in our original painting shows a powerful, important man – he’s going places, and he’s the center of attention. That alone makes the painting more interesting, because now we have a character to care about, just like Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship are more interesting than just some guys walking around.

Context & References

After figuring out what the creator is depicting and how, it’s time to look at the context of the painting. Does it show a specific person? What kinds of historical or cultural references is the work making? Look for:

  • The title: The title of a work is often a clue telling you how to interpret it.
  • Information about the creator: What was the creator’s relationship to the subject of the painting?
  • Allusions to myths or cultural themes: For example, a cherub typically represents love.

In this case, the subject is Napoleon Bonaparte, which we know from the label at the bottom left. In case there was any doubt, the title is ‘Napoleon Crosses the St. Bernard.’

The painting was created by Jacques-Louis David, a French painter, in 1800.

During this time, Napoleon’s political and military career was on the rise, and a little historical research about the painter tells us that David was a supporter of Napoleon’s political regime. In this painting, he’s depicting Napoleon specifically as a brave conquering hero, not just some dramatic person on a horse. It’s a political statement, and a glorification of a man many people considered to be a tyrant.

Here’s another picture of the same man by a different painter:


You can see how, in this case, the painting is presenting a totally different image of Napoleon: his slouched posture, angry expression, and disheveled clothes suggest defeat and powerlessness. By combining the questions from above about composition with the context of knowing who Napoleon was, you can understand the difference in meaning between these paintings.

Now the painting is much more interesting, because it actually has some relevance to real life. It touches on themes, like the glorification of war, the same way Lord of the Rings touches on themes like technology and change. That’s much more meaningful than just some guy on a horse.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, you learned about ‘reading’ artistic media, like paintings, sculptures, movies, and photographs.

To ‘read’ a piece of visual media, first note what the work is literally showing. This is the ‘some guy on a horse’ level of analysis. It might be true, but it’s not enough to interpret the painting, just like ‘some dudes take a walk and get rid of an old ring’ isn’t enough to really understand what Lord of the Rings is about.

Then look at the choices the artist made about how to depict the subject, like the use of color, composition, materials, camera angles, and filming techniques. How do those choices change our understanding of the subject? What kind of statement do they make about the subject? How can the context of the work help you reflect on it?

Also look at the context of the work, including the title, historical context, and other important information that can help you interpret what it’s referring to.

This will all help you get meaning from the painting, just like you would from a book.

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