Visual Literacy Skills: How to See

Course No. 7012
Professor Carrie Patterson, MFA
St. Mary’s College of Maryland
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Course No. 7012
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Learn the principles of design and how to visually compose like an artist.
  • numbers Understand how visual perception works, both scientifically and psychologically, and how it affects our interpretation of the world.
  • numbers Get a grasp on visual syntax, the underlying foundation of how we interpret what we see and appreciate in art and design as well as natural phenomena.

Course Overview

For many of us, seeing really is believing. Your sense of sight is by far the most central and influential sensory apparatus you have. Science tells us that the eyes contain 70 percent of all the sensory receptors in our bodies, and that a full 90 percent of the information our brains process on a daily basis is visual.

This means that, to an astonishing degree, we know and navigate the world with our eyes. Visual perception plays a dominant role in how we experience life—from how we receive knowledge and information and how we perceive nature, art, and the world to the daily visual choices we make about how we present ourselves and how we live.

Unlike reading and writing, our educational system gives us little or no training for our all-important visual capacities, and we don’t usually cultivate the skills of visual literacy. Yet, to do that—to consciously develop your understanding of visual perception, and your ability to deeply observe, interpret what you see, and communicate visually—opens an extraordinary world of experience, deepening your perceptions on all levels, and your capacity to appreciate the richness of the world around you.

But visual literacy has an even greater urgency: The world is becoming increasingly visual. More and more, we purchase things of all kinds based on what we see, and most of the information we receive and make decisions with is visual. Within the huge amounts of visual input we receive, the boundaries between what is representation and what is illusion are increasingly blurred, and the ability of visual input to manipulate us is a fact of contemporary life.

In Visual Literacy Skills: How to See, taught by award-winning Professor Carrie Patterson of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, you’ll take a deep and detailed look at the principles and skills of visual literacy, and how these visual skills directly inform our experience. These 24 compelling lessons teach you the vocabulary of art—line, shape, space, texture, color, and more—and how to see and evaluate them, as well as how to understand and employ the principles of visual design. Further, this course grounds you in how visual perception and visual language operate in art, design, and media, knowledge which increases your powers of communication, deepens your insight into visual persuasion and manipulation, and refines your skill and pleasure in the multi-dimensional world of visual experience.

Whether you’re engaged in art or design, interested in building a personal brand, creating or re-doing a living space, or simply interested in enriching your skill in making visual decisions, this course trains you to see as artists, designers, and architects do, and helps you develop a life skill that has far-reaching consequences in the digital age.

Seeing through the Eyes of Artists and Designers

These lessons train you in a sophisticated level of visual literacy, not just in principle but in practice. The course opens with a deep dive into the physiology of vision, where you’ll explore the mechanics of your eyes, the sensorial experience of sight, and how the brain organizes sensation into coherent visual experience.

Then you’ll move into a deeper level of visual literacy. Here, you’ll uncover how artists and designers perceive and understand the visual world with the intention of creating visual objects and environments. You’ll observe how artists, designers, and architects communicatevisually, creating the visual messages that surround us and influence how we think and live. In the process, you’ll study the tricks of the trade for designing objects that combine function and visual appeal, art that explores the reaches of space and time, and architectural spaces that reflect cultures and shared values.

The final section of the course explores what it means to make your visual skills an integral part of your life. Here, you’ll discover how to develop habits that you, as a visually informed person, can cultivate to create an environment and lifestyle that reflects your unique view of the world, as well as your own style and perspective. By examining the methods and habits of creative people across various disciplines, you’ll build a foundation for any creative work you may undertake.

Visual Language and Visual Communication

Professor Patterson illustrates the course material with hundreds of vivid images, photos, and diagrams, as well as video footage and studio demonstrations. In learning and practicing the skills of visual literacy, you’ll delve into core subject matter such as:

  • The Phenomenon of Visual Perception. Building on the anatomy and physiology of sight, follow the complex processes through which the brain creates meaning from visual experience. Note how the way we interpret visual perception through our bodies lays the groundwork for how we interpret our own lives.
  • Representation vs. Illusion. Observe how we value both representation and illusion in art; how artists, designers, and photographers create illusion in their work; and how photography and screens alter our experience of the world. Grasp how media and visual communication can blur the line between fact and fiction.
  • Visual Foundations. Study visual syntax—the underlying structure of visual communication—across five lessons; delve deeply into the formal elements of art, beginning with line, shape, and value; also learn the principles of three-dimensional art and design, and investigate visual storytelling.
  • Visual Time. In a fascinating ramification of visual experience, observe how the element of time manifests in the perception of art; witness how artists evoke both fixed moments in time and the passage of time, and learn to express time visually.
  • Principles of Design. Investigate the core principles of visual design that are at work in the creation of any object or artwork, such as emphasis, balance, proportion, and scale. See how these elements work together in visual composition and communication, and learn to compose visually like an artist.

Build Habits of Creativity

In the final section of the course, Professor Patterson offers you a rigorous and penetrating look at the parameters of creativity. An engaging and informal speaker, her teaching reveals an amazingly detailed knowledge of the principles of art, design, and visual communication, together with far-reaching insight into the creative process, innovative thinking, and what it is to embody creativity in daily living.

Here, she offers you a rich range of methods for developing your own creative habits and practices. Among these, you’ll explore:

The Art of Observation: Study techniques for suspending ordinary visual perception, cultivating powers of detailed observation and alternative ways of seeing, and making active observation a valuable life skill.

Pushing the Limits of Thinking: Take a provocative look at how innovative thinkers intentionally seek out new ways of thinking about and seeing the world. Learn practical methods for becoming a visual explorer in your daily travels, and for generating original thought.

The Creative Act: Learn detailed guidelines for becoming a creator of your own art, design, or visual communication. Apply the skills you’ve built in exploring the inspiration, the joy, and the satisfaction of creative work.

Visual Literacy Skills: How to See takes you on a remarkable perceptual journey, revealing and unpacking visual experience to a depth that most of us rarely engage with. In looking deeply at how we experience reality through visual perception, and the extraordinary ways we benefit from refined visual knowledge as consumers, communicators, and creators, you’ll learn to turn your visual skills into a visually literate and enriched life.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 24 minutes each
  • 1
    Visual Power: What It Is and Why It Matters
    First, take into account the dominant role of visual input in the way we perceive, understand, and navigate the world. Consider the value of examining our visual experience and the visual choices we make, as they shape how we think, feel, and act. Practice two experiential exercises that train you to carefully observe what you see, and to explore the visual world through your other senses. x
  • 2
    Seeing as a Skill
    Begin to explore the components of visual literacy through specific exercises. Grasp how visual literacy involves accurately seeing, describing, and constructing meaning from your experience. Learn about the nature of visual syntax, and the importance of the function and context of what you see. Finally, examine how the modes of representation, abstraction, and symbolism function in art. x
  • 3
    Sensing and Perceiving: How You See
    Study the anatomy of the eyes, the physiology of seeing, and how the eyes process visual sensations. Then, observe how the brain translates sensation into perception by selecting, organizing, and interpreting information. Look at visual perception using the principles of Gestalt psychology, as the principles describe how the elements of perception are organized into a holistic visual experience. x
  • 4
    Should You Believe What You See?
    Delve into the most important aspect of our visual experience: the ways we create meaning from what we see. Learn about the nature of human cognitive function and how we conceptualize our perceptions of the world. Explore optical illusions, and how they're used in Op Art. Then, examine how changing cultural norms affect the work of artists and architects, influencing their visual choices. x
  • 5
    Representation and Illusion
    How do we define what is real? To begin to answer that question, look into representation in art, and how we value artists’ ability to create the illusion of form and dimension. Observe how photography alters our experience of the world, and how we tend to view photos as “truth.” Grasp the ways in which, in both photography and art, images are “constructed,” and how fact and fiction can overlap. x
  • 6
    Elements of Visual Syntax
    Visual syntax is the foundation for visual language. Look first at seven formal elements artists and designers use, such as line, shape, color, and texture. Learn about the principles of design that create a composition, including unity, emphasis, and balance. See how these elements and principles are used to create specific effects, by studying historic and contemporary interiors. x
  • 7
    Visual Foundations: Dot, Line, and Shape
    Take a systematic look at the visual elements artists and designers use in their creative work. Start with the dot, an individual point in space. Observe how artists use dots to establish location, form, and value. Continue with the properties and expressive uses of lines and implied lines in art. Finally, discover the principles of shapes, and study positive and negative space. x
  • 8
    Visual Foundations: Value
    Continue your study of visual language with value, the degree of lightness or darkness of a hue or a form. Assess value in the work of celebrated artists, and practice exercises that train the eyes to see value. Note how the materials you use influence your work with value, and evaluate the value of colors using a grayscale. Learn to change value in paint colors through tinting and shading. x
  • 9
    Visual Foundations: Color
    Observe how each human culture possesses a “language” of color, and how we assign meaning to colors. Look at different scientific systems for understanding color, and practice exercises to identify the dimensions of hue, value, and chroma. Grasp how color is relative to its surroundings, and how knowledge of color plays a key role in art, design, architecture, and any visual decision. x
  • 10
    Visual Foundations: Texture
    Consider texture as a vital component of our interaction with the visual world, noting how we experience texture through both touch and sight. Look into the physiology of touch, and the power of texture to produce strong physical and emotional responses. Explore texture through the techniques of collage, montage, and assemblage, and practice minute observation and the copying of textures. x
  • 11
    Visual Foundations: Space
    Study how artists and designers create the illusion of space in two dimensions. Begin with shallow space, a compositional approach which stresses the two-dimensional aspect of an artwork. See how artists indicate space and depth through the placement of objects and measuring of proportions within the picture plane. Learn about atmospheric perspective, linear perspective, and projection. x
  • 12
    Thinking in Three Dimensions
    This lesson explores the principles of three-dimensionality in art. Begin with a study of low relief artworks, where forms stand out against a flat surface, and do a studio exercise creating low relief in clay. Continue with high relief technique in clay, learning to model the volume of a form. Finish with a look at fully three-dimensional art, and create a simple freestanding sculpture. x
  • 13
    Building in Three Dimensions
    Architecture, design, and 3D art all rest upon knowledge of volume and mass. Grasp the vital role of the materials used in architecture, as they affect structure, volume, and the the experience of a space. Review a case study of a designed house, for its use of volume, material, proportion, and scale. Observe how design must balance volume and mass for both functional and visual concerns. x
  • 14
    The Limits of Space: Visual Landscapes
    Through landscape, explore how artists and designers navigate the complexities of space. Take a deep look at the rules of linear perspective as they apply both to art and to our immediate experience. Witness how artists capture the disordered sense of built environments through other perspective systems, and how they evoke a sense of timelessness and the infinite in depicting natural landscapes. x
  • 15
    Principles of Design
    Here, begin to refine and deepen your own skills as a visual communicator. Look first at the nature of composition, the arrangement of visual elements in relation to one another. Then delve into four fundamental principles of design: unity and variety, emphasis, balance, and proportion and scale. Learn specific methods for cultivating and applying these principles in your own life. x
  • 16
    Exploring Visual Time
    Witness the remarkable ways in which time operates in art and visual communication. Note how the experience of art is influenced by the creation time of the work, the duration of viewing, and how artists capture fixed moments and the progress of time. Practice ways of seeing and expressing time visually, and observe elements such as tempo, implied motion, and real time in visual experience. x
  • 17
    Strategies for Visual Storytelling
    Unpack the principles behind visual art that conveys a narrative or story. See how a narrative can be expressed within a still image (static visual narrative), within a moving image (dynamic visual narrative), and within a format that requires the participation of the viewer (interactive visual narrative). Practice the skills of static narrative, and learn to convey a story using still images. x
  • 18
    Symbol, Subject, Content, and Context
    Explore how symbols, subject matter, content, and context work together to create meaning. First, delve into the function of signs, symbols, and logos, and assess their remarkable power. Delineate subject matter in art, in relation to content, the impact or meaning of an artwork. Then grasp the vital importance of context, as it affects our understanding of symbol, subject, and content. x
  • 19
    Making Choices: Material, Method, and Style
    In art and design, your material, artistic method, and style all carry meaning. Take a thorough look at the matter of choosing your material, and the practical and aesthetic factors bearing on that choice. Observe how the artistic method you employ affects the work and its meaning. Finally, define what style is, and grasp how to develop and express style in your work and your life. x
  • 20
    Cultivating Creative Habits
    Look at ways to build daily habits that engage your visual skills and cultivate your creative self. Consider taking time at the start of your day to set the stage for creative thinking and work. Study strategies for remaining flexible and open, refining visual consciousness, and capturing creative thoughts, using drawing, reading, and writing. Identify artistic habits that you'd like to grow. x
  • 21
    The Visual Life: Active Observation
    Investigate what it means to become an intentional active observer. Consider practical ways to challenge or suspend ordinary perception in order to see in new ways and change your perspective. Practice convergent thinking and divergent thinking, non-linear brainstorming, sketching, and other techniques to expand your awareness and strip away assumptions about what you see. x
  • 22
    The Visual Life: Exploring and Connecting
    Contemplate the essence of innovative thinking, in making connections that may not be obvious within phenomena you observe. Practice pushing your thinking into new areas by arousing curiosity, exploring connections, doing research, and looking at the large picture. Study scenarios that foster original thought, ways to generate ideas, and how to structure a period of creative work. x
  • 23
    The Visual Life: Collecting
    Examine the human impulse to collect, curate, and appropriate objects, and consider collecting as an essential skill for artists and designers. Observe examples of personal and historical collections, as well as public and private collections, and look into how to begin collecting yourself. Also, learn how to curate and display your own collection, and study guidelines for collecting art. x
  • 24
    The Visual Life: Becoming a Maker
    Conclude with an inspiring view into the process of creating art and design. Inquire into what type of artistic works attract you, and explore different paths to becoming a maker of art. Learn to set creative goals, set up a workspace, and select materials. Finally, look at how to identify a theme and subject matter, and consider ways to discover your unique creative process. x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 160-page printed course guidebook
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  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 160-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Diagrams
  • Exercises & vocabulary

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Your professor

Carrie Patterson

About Your Professor

Carrie Patterson, MFA
St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Carrie Patterson is a Professor of Art at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She earned her BFA in Studio Art from James Madison University and her MFA in Painting from the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Patterson has been with St. Mary’s College of Maryland since 2004, teaching both undergraduate and graduate art courses and working across departments to foster an interdisciplinary approach to art education....
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Visual Literacy Skills: How to See is rated 3.6 out of 5 by 16.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from New Perspectives for the World around You As a scientist I was eager to learn about visual skills. Many of the first lessons were based on applying drawing skills. But the one on color piqued my interest. Also, I learned how closely artists and scientists observe the world. However, the most important message she presents here is how to reimagine the world in a positive way after so many adverse and dire circumstances have caused upheaval in so many lives
Date published: 2020-07-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from See Better Reading over my course notes, I appreciated the professor’s commitment to teaching a subject as conceptually broad as “How to See.” The pearls of wisdom she cast sowed the seeds for understanding. To be sure, her task was formidable: to introduce a skill set using the one-way medium of online video, when learning insights and connections for this are more appropriately acquired through interactive teaching and learning. Nonetheless, what is learned in this course improves visual literacy.
Date published: 2020-07-09
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Poor course I have shelves full of Great Courses. This is the first one returned.
Date published: 2020-04-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I've been an artist for most of my life. This course reminded me of some basics I'd forgotten and explained things I didn't know.
Date published: 2020-04-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Definitely recommend I am an industrial designer currently teaching a similar course at a college level and am familiar with the topics presented. I took it out of curiosity for how such topics are presented from an artist point of view. The course presented by the professor was enjoyable and covered most of what’s important as an introduction to creativity. Since “design thinking” was mentioned a couple of times during the course, I’d like to clarify that it is an integrated problem solving methodology and an involved process that utilizes intuitive and emotive qualities (art), as well as rational and analytical expertise (technology). As such, the process can be applied to many problem areas including mass production of products, but also to art challenges. I add my recommendations to interested individuals to conduct hands on practice and experimentation of the topics presented to enhance their visual experience (as was suggested).
Date published: 2020-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Just aired watching the. Video as and am captivated!
Date published: 2020-01-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Could be done much better At the time I wrote this there were only nine reviews. Based on those reviews this course has the most bipolar distribution of reviews I can remember reading. Apparently the reviewers either loved it or did not like it at all. I am one who found this course almost useless. I hate to say that. I've only written one other review of TGC products that I gave this low of a score. Perhaps your experiences in art heavily influences your opinion of this course. I started photography in 1960. I started drawing and painting about 1955. I have been reasonably successful as a photographer in many amateur (and some professional) competitions. I don't want to brag but I've "been there done that." I have been through hundreds of photo critique sessions and numerous art classes (mostly photography). This TGC product appears to be an attempt to put a full college art curriculum into twelve hours of lecture. A noble attempt; but, too much in too little time. Many times the teacher compares image A to image B and says 'you can see how A does X and B does Y.' I looked at those images and said " how did she conclude that ?" More explanation of how she drew that conclusion is desperately needed. As a very INTRODUCTORY course in ALL the elements a painter, photographer, architect, designer has to consider in their work it is a success. It is truly an introduction to all the elements a person should know and "see" if they are engaged in an artistic endeavor. However; it needs much more explanation of the various examples to drive the point home.
Date published: 2019-12-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Helps me see the world differently I think this course would be especially useful for people who have not previously taken formal art classes. Although Dr. Patterson's approach is gentle and encouraging, her lessons are packed full of information, She thoughtfully incorporates principles of art, architecture, psychology, art history, graphic design, and interior design to make a strong case for why we should develop visual literacy skills.
Date published: 2019-11-07
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