Antoine de Saint_Exupéry illustration from The Little Prince


A week or so ago I visited Camera Obscura (well worth a visit!) with the second year illustration students and Astrid Jaekel, illustrator and tutor at Edinburgh College of Art.  Investigating all of the optical illusions and disorientating mirror and light displays got me thinking about the nature of seeing. I have recently been reading about Iconology: a method of decoding image. Iconologist WJT Mitchell briefly outlines general categories of images and gives examples in a diagram I have reproduced below:

WJTMitchell_Type of Images_Iconology
My version of the types of image chart in Iconology by WJT Mitchell (1986)


This diagram shows that some images are constructed outside of us (in the ‘real’ world) and some inside (in our imagination); visual information is transmitted to us via our senses. An image is a shadow of something else – a symbol, or icon of an object or idea. How we interpret the ‘sense data’, is largely down to our culture and personal preference.

“… the physical blank slate on the classroom wall, the mirror, the page before me, are what they are because the mind uses them to represent the world, and itself, to itself” (Mitchell, 1986). Illustration is one of the methods we have developed of showing ourselves and the world how we feel and what we think of our environment, society, and our lifestyles at large. There is a communication between the outside world and each other via a shared culture, and our own interior world where our brains project and construct what we see.

Abstraction and Communication

WJT Mitchell shows how a picture is represented by a pictogram, which is represented by an Ideogram before becoming a completely abstracted phonetic sign (written language).


My sketch of the diagram shown in Iconology by WJT Mitchell (1986)


As abstraction of the image increases, the communication becomes more specific in the idea it communicates. It is specific in the fact that this depiction is about a man (opposed to, for example, a person, a human being or figure). Yet at the same time, remains general: the idea communicated is a man but loses the visual information of what type of man (what age? what race? or what culture?) is being depicted.

Relating to Images

McCloud_Graphics and Identity
Excerpt from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: the invisible art

I have mentioned Scott McCloud before but I will mention again his theories on how we relate to ‘pictograms’ in illustration. “By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favour of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts. Through traditional realism, the comics artist can portray the world without… and through the cartoon, the world within” (McCloud, 1993:41).  The more general an image, the more a person can relate to the depiction, because it is so open to our interpretation – we are more at liberty to use our own imagination to construct the image; “…when you look at a photo or a realistic drawing of a face… you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon… you see yourself.” (McCloud, 1994). The less information a representation of a character contains – the more ‘graphic’ it is – the more we can relate to the character in the narrative.

Excerpt from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: the invisible art


The mind is a powerful thing. It can project meaning onto the most abstract image. Dr Laura Little is a book artist and illustrator who has written about how the composition in her picture book about Sammy the fish. “In these images, Sammy’s positioning on the page became an essential part of the book design. To reinforce the idea that he is contained within a bowl, his whole body is shown in each instance; the bowl and the edges of the pages combine as representations of enclosure” (Little, 2015).

Page from Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni (1959)

Leo Lionni was a picture book illustrator who pioneered experimentation with the visual communication of composition using minimal pictorial detail. Leonni uses torn and cut coloured paper to arrange his resourceful characters on the page to tell a story. The image below is taken from Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959) where the friends are playing hide and seek. The black signifies obstacles and the coloured dots, people.

Double page spread from Pezzettino by Leo Lionni (1975)

This second picture book is called Pezzettino and is the story of an orange square’s exploration to find it’s place in the world and is also a clever way of communicating symbolically. This means a wide range of people can construct meaning from the book, what matters is the interplay between text and image, not a representational depiction of the narrative.

In a paper called The Autonomy of Affect, philosopher Brian Massumi talks about image as having an autonomous (bodily, automatic and unconscious) affect on human beings. Massumi uses the example of a film showing a snowman melting to understand the power of image on human beings. Researchers made three versions of the film – one with a narration, one with emotional words spoken at key moments and one which was just the film with no sound. Children were reported to have found the version with no verbal narration the most ‘pleasant.’ Pleasure was understood to be what moves a person emotionally, whether these are happy or sad emotions. “The most pleasant was the original word- less version, which was rated just slightly above the emotional [one with emotional keywords dubbed]. And it was the emotional version that was best remembered” (Massumi, 1995). The children also had reactions on their skin in the form of a small surge electric conductivity: “The original nonverbal version elicited the greatest response from their skin. Galvanic skin response measures autonomic reaction” (Massumi, 1995).

Melty Snowman

From Massumi’s paper, it can be discerned that we have a reaction to image beyond what we envision or are aware of cognitively. Image gives us immediate emotive response, influencing how we feel about a narrative, piece of art and mediating how we remember the image. The collected thoughts on image referenced in this post are ideas I am experimenting with in my practical work to visually communicate with a culturally diverse audience.



Lionni, Leo (1959) Little Blue and Little Yellow USA: Astor-Honor Publishing

Lionni, Leo (1975) Pezzettino USA: Dragonfly Books

Massumi, Brian (1995) The Autonomy of Affect [in] Cultural Critique no.31, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part II (Autumn, 1995), pp. 83 – 109 Accessed: Jan 2016


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