Modes of Visual Representation

From Media Technology and Culture Change

The Iconic, Photorealistic and Abstract are three distinct modes of artistic visual representation. Scott McCloud describes these three modes in his Understanding Comics through the use of a triangular diagram, placing iconic, photorealist and abstract representations at the three corners. This diagram suggests that most representations fall somewhere between the three extremes.


Iconic Representations use ideas and symbols in order to portray something real in a simplified way. For example, the most simplified way of representing a human is the stick figure. This is the most iconic way of portraying a human and therefore is arguably the easiest to identify with. Since everyone has a head, limbs and torso, a stick figure can theoretically represent everyone, allowing a wide range of people to visually identify with it.


Photorealistic Representaions attempt to portray real life as accurately as possible. Although this type of art looks the most 'real', McCloud argues that photorealist art is difficult to identify with. He explains that this is because photorealism describes only one object rather than a broad range of objects. For example, a photorealistic drawing of a person would resemble a photograph of one distinct person, making it hard for all other people to identify with the picture as one of themselves.


Abstract Representations are based on abstract forms. Abstract representations are used most frequently in popular culture to symbolize events that are fundamentally impossible to depict in other modes. A musical tremolo, for instance, might be represented visually by a squiggling line. In this instance, the line neither represents sound realistically nor iconically, but rather provides a theoretical visual counterpart to the sound.