Depiction is reference conveyed through pictures. A picture refers to its object through a non-linguistic two-dimensional scheme, and is distinct from writing or notation. A depictive two-dimensional scheme is called a
picture plane In painting Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a solid surface (called the "matrix" or "support"). The medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush, but other implements, such as knives, spo ...
and may be constructed according to descriptive geometry, where they are usually divided between ''projections'' (orthogonal and various oblique angles) and ''perspectives'' (according to number of vanishing points). Pictures are made with various materials and techniques, such as painting, drawing, or prints (including photography and movies) mosaics, tapestries, stained glass, and collages of unusual and disparate elements. Occasionally, picture-like features may be recognised in simple inkblots, accidental stains, peculiar clouds or a glimpse of the moon, but these are special cases, and it is controversial whether they count as genuine instances of depiction. Similarly, sculpture and theatrical performances are sometimes said to depict, but this requires a broad understanding of 'depict', as simply designating a form of representation that is not linguistic or notational. The bulk of studies of depiction however deal only with pictures. While sculpture and performance clearly represent or refer, they do not strictly picture their objects. Objects pictured may be factual or fictional, literal or metaphorical, realistic or idealised and in various combination. Idealised depiction is also termed schematic or stylised and extends to icons, diagrams and maps. Classes or styles of picture may abstract their objects by degrees, conversely, establish degrees of the concrete (usually called, a little confusingly, figuration or figurative, since the 'figurative' is then often quite literal). Stylisation can lead to the fully abstract picture, where reference is only to conditions for a picture plane – a severe exercise in self-reference and ultimately a sub-set of pattern. But just ''how'' pictures function remains controversial. Philosophers, art historians and critics, perceptual psychologists and other researchers in the arts and social sciences have contributed to the debate and many of the most influential contributions have been interdisciplinary. Some key positions are briefly surveyed below.


Traditionally, depiction is distinguished from denotative meaning by the presence of a
element or resemblance. A picture resembles its object in a way a word or sound does not. Resemblance is no guarantee of depiction, obviously. Two pens may resemble one another but do not therefore depict each other. To say a picture resembles its object especially is only to say that its object is that which it especially resembles; which strictly begins with the picture itself. Indeed, since everything resembles something in some way, mere resemblance as a distinguishing trait is trivial. Moreover, depiction is no guarantee of resemblance to an object. A picture of a dragon does not resemble an actual dragon. So resemblance is not enough. Theories have tried either to set further conditions to the kind of resemblance necessary, or sought ways in which a notational system might allow such resemblance. It is widely believed that the problem with a resemblance theory of depiction is that resemblance is a symmetrical relation between terms (necessarily, if x resembles y, then y resembles x) while in contrast depiction is at best a non-symmetrical relation (it is not necessary that, if x depicts y, y depicts x). If this is right, then depiction and resemblance cannot be identified, and a resemblance theory of depiction is forced to offer a more complicated explanation, for example by relying on experienced resemblance instead, which clearly is an asymmetrical notion (that you experience x as resembling y does not mean you also experience y as resembling x). Others have argued, however, that the concept of resemblance is not exclusively a relational notion, and so that the initial problem is merely apparent. In art history, the history of actual attempts to achieve resemblance in depictions is usually covered under the terms "
realism Realism, Realistic, or Realists may refer to: In the arts *Realism (arts), the general attempt to depict subjects truthfully in different forms of the arts Arts movements related to realism include: *Classical Realism *Literary realism, a movem ...
", naturalism", or "
illusionism Illusionism in art history means either the artistic tradition in which artists create a work of art that appears to share the physical space with the viewer"Illusionism," ''Grove Art Online''. Oxford University Press, ccessed 17 March 2008 ...


The most famous and elaborate case for resemblance modified by reference, is made by art historian
Ernst Gombrich Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich (; ; 30 March 1909 – 3 November 2001) was an Austrian-born art historian who, after settling in England in 1936, became a naturalised British citizen in 1947 and spent most of his working life in the United King ...
. Resemblance in pictures is taken to involve illusion. Instincts in
visual perception Visual perception is the ability to interpret the surrounding environment (biophysical), environment through photopic vision (daytime vision), color vision, scotopic vision (night vision), and mesopic vision (twilight vision), using light in t ...
are said to be triggered or alerted by pictures, even when we are rarely deceived. The eye supposedly cannot resist finding resemblances that accord with illusion. Resemblance is thus narrowed to something like the seeds of illusion. Against the one-way relation of reference Gombrich argues for a weaker or labile relation, inherited from
substitution Substitution may refer to: Arts and media *Chord substitution, in music, swapping one chord for a related one within a chord progression *Substitution (poetry), a variation in poetic scansion *Substitution (song), "Substitution" (song), a 2009 so ...
. Pictures are thus both more primitive and powerful than stricter reference. But whether a picture can deceive a little while it represents as much seems gravely compromised. Claims for innate dispositions in sight are also contested. Gombrich appeals to an array of psychological research from James J. Gibson, R. L. Gregory, John M. Kennedy, Konrad Lorenz, Ulric Neisser and others in arguing for an 'optical' basis to perspective, in particular (see also
perspective (graphical) Linear or point-projection perspective (from la, perspicere 'to see through') is one of two types of graphical projection perspective in the graphic arts; the other is parallel projection. Linear perspective is an approximate representation, ...
. Subsequent cross-cultural studies in depictive competence and related studies in child-development and vision impairment are inconclusive at best. Gombrich's convictions have important implications for his popular history of art, for treatment and priorities there. In a later study by John Willats (1997) on the variety and development of picture planes, Gombrich's views on the greater realism of perspective underpin many crucial findings.

Dual invariants

A more frankly behaviouristic view is taken by the perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson, partly in response to Gombrich. Gibson treats visual perception as the eye registering necessary information for behaviour in a given environment. The information is filtered from light rays that meet the retina. The light is called the stimulus energy or sensation. The information consists of underlying patterns or 'invariants' for vital features to the environment. Gibson's view of depiction concerns the re-presentation of these invariants. In the case of illusions or trompe l'oeil, the picture also conveys the stimulus energy, but generally the experience is of perceiving two sets of invariants, one for the picture surface, another for the object pictured. He pointedly rejects any seeds of illusion or substitution and allows that a picture represents when two sets of invariants are displayed. But invariants tell us little more than that the resemblance is visible, dual invariants only that the terms of reference are the same as those for resemblance


A similar duality is proposed by the philosopher of art
Richard Wollheim Richard Arthur Wollheim (5 May 1923 − 4 November 2003) was a British philosopher A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term ''philosopher'' comes from the grc, φιλόσοφος, , translit=philosophos, meaning 'lover of ...
. He calls it 'twofoldness'. Our experience of the picture surface is called the 'configurational' aspect, and our experience of the object depicted the 'recognitional'. Wollheim's main claim is that we are simultaneously aware of both the surface and the depicted object. The concept of twofoldness has been very influential in contemporary analytic aesthetics, especially in the writings of
Dominic Lopes Dominic is a name common among Roman Catholics and other Latin-Romans as a boys name. Originally from the late Roman-Italic name "Dominicus", its translation means "Lordly", "Belonging to God" or "of the Master". Variations include: Dominicus (La ...
and of
Bence NanayBence Nanay is Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor at the University of Antwerp and has worked as a film critic. He is co-director of the Centre for Philosophical Psychology at the University of Antwerp and Senior Research Associate at ...
. Again, illusion is forestalled by the prominence of the picture surface where an object is depicted. Yet the object depicted quite simply ''is'' the picture surface under one reading, the surface indifferent to picture, another. The two are hardly compatible or simultaneous. Nor do they ensure a reference relation. Wollheim introduces the concept of 'seeing-in' to qualify depictive resemblance. Seeing-in is a psychological disposition to detect a resemblance between certain surfaces, such as inkblots or accidental stains, etc. and three-dimensional objects. The eye is not deceived, but finds or projects some resemblance to the surface. This is not quite depiction, since the resemblance is only incidental to the surface. The surface does not strictly refer to such objects. Seeing-in is a necessary condition to depiction, and sufficient when in accordance with the maker's intentions, where these are clear from certain features to a picture. But seeing-in cannot really say in what way such surfaces resemble objects either, only specify where they perhaps first occur. Wollheim's account of how a resemblance is agreed or modified, whereby maker and user anticipate each other's roles, does not really explain how a resemblance refers, but rather when an agreed resemblance obtains.

Other psychological resources

The appeal to broader psychological factors in qualifying depictive resemblance is echoed in the theories of philosophers such as Robert Hopkins, Flint Schier and
Kendall Walton Kendall Lewis Walton (born 1939) is an American philosopher, the Emeritus Charles Stevenson Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. His work mainly deals with theoretical questions about the ...
. They enlist 'experience', 'recognition' and 'imagination' respectively. Each provides additional factors to an understanding or interpretation of pictorial reference, although none can explain how a picture resembles an object (if indeed it does), nor how this resemblance is then also a reference. For example, Schier returns to the contrast with language to try to identify a crucial difference in depictive competence. Understanding a pictorial style does not depend upon learning a vocabulary and syntax. Once grasped, a style allows the recognition of any object known to the user. Of course recognition allows a great deal more than that – books teaching children to read often introduce them to many exotic creatures such as a kangaroo or armadillo through illustrations. Many fictions and caricatures are promptly recognised without prior acquaintance of either a particular style or the object in question. So competence cannot rely on a simple index or synonymy for objects and styles. Schier's conclusion that lack of syntax and semantics in reference then qualifies as depiction, leaves dance, architecture, animation, sculpture and music all sharing the same mode of reference. This perhaps points as much to limitations in a linguistic model.


Reversing orthodoxy, the philosopher
Nelson Goodman Henry Nelson Goodman (7 August 1906 – 25 November 1998) was an American philosopher A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term ''philosopher'' comes from the grc, φιλόσοφος, , translit=philosophos, meaning 'lover o ...
starts from reference and attempts to assimilate resemblance. He denies resemblance as either necessary or sufficient condition for depiction but surprisingly, allows that it arises and fluctuates as a matter of usage or familiarity. For Goodman, a picture denotes. Denotation is divided between description, covering writing and extending to more discursive notation including music and dance scores, to depiction at greatest remove. However, a word does not grow to resemble its object, no matter how familiar or preferred. To explain how a pictorial notation does, Goodman proposes an analogue system, consisting of undifferentiated characters, a density of syntax and semantics and relative repleteness of syntax. These requirements taken in combination mean that a one-way reference running from picture to object encounters a problem. If its semantics is undifferentiated, then the relation flows back from object to picture. Depiction can acquire resemblance but must surrender reference. This is a point tacitly acknowledged by Goodman, conceding firstly that density is the antithesis of notation and later that lack of differentiation may actually permit resemblance. A denotation without notation lacks sense. Nevertheless, Goodman's framework is revisited by philosopher John Kulvicki and applied by art historian James Elkins to an array of hybrid artefacts, combining picture, pattern and notation.

Pictorial semiotics

semiotics Semiotics (also called semiotic studies) is the study of sign processes (semiosis), which are any activity, conduct, or process that involves Sign (semiotics), signs, where a sign is defined as anything that communicates a Meaning (semiotics), mean ...

aims for just the kind of integration of depiction with notation undertaken by Goodman, but fails to identify his requirements for syntax and semantics. It seeks to apply the model of structural linguistics, to reveal core meanings and permutations for pictures of all kinds, but stalls in identifying constituent elements of reference, or as semioticians prefer, 'signification'. Similarly, they accept resemblance although call it 'iconicity' (after
Charles Sanders Peirce Charles Sanders Peirce ( ; September 10, 1839 – April 19, 1914) was an American philosopher, logic Logic is an interdisciplinary field which studies truth and reasoning Reason is the capacity of consciously making sense of things, app ...

Charles Sanders Peirce
, 1931–58) and are uncomfortable in qualifying its role. Older practitioners, such as
Roland Barthes Roland Gérard Barthes (; ; 12 November 1915 – 26 March 1980) was a French French (french: français(e), link=no) may refer to: * Something of, from, or related to France France (), officially the French Republic (french: link=no, Ré ...

Roland Barthes
Umberto Eco Umberto Eco (5 January 1932 – 19 February 2016) was an Italian medievalistMedieval studies is the academic interdisciplinary study of the Middle Ages In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted from the 5th t ...
variously shift analysis to underlying 'connotations' for an object depicted or concentrate on description of purported content at the expense of more medium-specific meaning. Essentially they establish a more general
iconography Iconography, as a branch of art history, studies the identification, description and interpretation of the content of images: the subjects depicted, the particular compositions and details used to do so, and other elements that are distinct fro ...

. A later adherent, Göran Sonesson, rejects Goodman's terms for syntax and semantics as alien to linguistics, no more than an ideal and turns instead to the findings of perceptual psychologists, such as J. M. Kennedy, N. H. Freeman and David Marr in order to detect underlying structure. Sonesson accepts 'seeing-in', although prefers Edmund Husserl's version. Resemblance is again grounded in optics or the visible, although this does not exclude writing nor reconcile resemblance with reference. Discussion tends to be restricted to the function of outlines in schemes for depth.


The art historian
Norman Bryson William Norman Bryson (born 1949) is an Anglo American art historian who authored several major works that were particularly influential in the 1980s and 1990s. He graduated with a Ph.D from Cambridge University in 1977, and subsequently worked as ...
persists with a linguistic model and advances a detail of parsing and tense, '
deixis In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of linguistic analysis include ...

'. He rejects resemblance and illusion as incompatible with the ambiguities and interpretation available to pictures and is also critical of the inflexible nature of structuralist analysis. Deixis is taken as the rhetoric of the narrator, indicating the presence of the speaker in a discourse, a bodily or physical aspect as well as an explicit temporal dimension. In depiction this translates as a difference between 'The
Gaze In critical theory, sociology Sociology is the study of society, human social behaviour, patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture that surrounds everyday life. It is a social science that uses various methods of Emp ...

' where deixis is absent and 'The Glance' where it is present. Where present, details to materials indicate how long and in what way the depiction was made, where absent, a telling suppression or prolonging of the act. The distinction attempts to account for the 'plastic' or medium-specific qualities absent from earlier semiotic analyses and somewhat approximates the 'indexic' aspect to signs introduced by Peirce. Deixis offers a more elaborate account of the picture surface and broad differences to expression and application but cannot qualify resemblance.


Lastly, iconography is the study of pictorial content, mainly in art, and would seem to ignore the question of how to concentrate upon what. But iconography's findings take a rather recondite view of content, are often based on subtle literary, historical and cultural allusion and highlight a sharp difference in terms of resemblance, optical accuracy or intuitive illusion. Resemblance is hardly direct or spontaneous for the iconographer, reference rarely to the literal or singular. Visual perception here is subject to reflection and research, the object as much reference as referent. The distinguished art historian Erwin Panofsky allowed three levels to iconography. The first is 'natural' content, the object recognised or resembling without context, on a second level, a modifying historical and cultural context and at a third, deeper level, a fundamental structure or ideology (called iconology). He even ascribed the use of perspective a deep social meaning (1927). However more recently, a natural or neutral level tends to be abandoned as mythical. The cultural scholar W. J. T. Mitchell looks to ideology to determine resemblance and depiction as acknowledgement of shifts in relations there, albeit by an unspecified scheme or notation. Iconography points to differences in scope for a theory of depiction. Where stylistics and a basic object is nominated, resemblance is prominent, but where more elaborate objects are encountered, or terms for nature denied, simple perception or notation flounder. The difference corresponds somewhat to the division in philosophy between the analytic and continental.

Other issues

Dozens of factors influence depictions and how they are represented. These include the equipment used to create the depiction, the creator’s intent, vantage point, mobility, proximity, publication format, among others, and, when dealing with human subjects, their potential desire for impression management. Other debates about the nature of depiction include the relationship between seeing something in a picture and seeing face to face, whether depictive representation is Convention (norm), conventional, how understanding novel depictions is possible, the aesthetic and ethical value of depiction and the nature of Realism (visual arts), realism in pictorial art.

See also

* Figurative art * Representationalism * Symbol

Further reading


*Barthes Roland (1969), Elements of semiology (Paris, 1967) translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, (London: Cape). *Bryson Norman (1983) Vision and Painting: The Logic of The Gaze, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press). *Eco Umberto (1980), A Theory of Semiotics (Milan 1976) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). *Elkins James (1999), The Domain of Images (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press). *Freeman N. H. and Cox M. V. (eds.) (1985), Visual Order: The Nature and Development of Pictorial Representation (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press). *Gombrich E. H. (1989–95), The Story Of Art (15th ed. London: Phaidon Press). *Gombrich E. H. (1960), Art and Illusion (Oxford: Phaidon Press). *Gombrich E. H. (1963), Meditations on a Hobbyhorse (Oxford: Phaidon Press). *Gombrich E. H. (1982), The Image and the Eye (Oxford and New York: Phaidon Press). *Goodman, Nelson (1968), Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.). *Goodman Nelson and Elgin Catherine Z. (1988), Reconceptions in Philosophy (London and New York, Routledge) *Gregory R. L. (1970) ''The Intelligent Eye'' (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson). *Hopkins, Robert (1998), Picture, Image, and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). *Husserl, Edmund (1928), Zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins. Halle. (Republished in Husserliana X, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1966). *Husserl, Edmund (1980), Phantasie, Bildbewusstsein, Erinnerung, Husserliana XXIII. (The Hague: Nijhoff). *Hyman, John (2006), The Objective Eye: Colour, Form and Reality in the Theory of Art (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press). *Kulvicki, John (2006), On Images: Their structure and content (Oxford: Oxford University Press). *Lopes, Dominic (1996), Understanding Pictures (Oxford: Clarendon Press). *Lopes, Dominic (2005), Sight and Sensibility: Evaluating Pictures (Oxford: Clarendon Press). *Maynard, Patrick (1997), The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press). *Maynard, Patrick (2005), Drawing Distinctions: The Varieties of Graphic Expression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press). *Mitchell, W. J. T. (1980), The Language of Images (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press). *Mitchell, W. J. T. (1986), Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, (Chicago and London: University Of Chicago Press). *Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994), Picture Theory (Chicago and London: University Of Chicago Press). *Novitz, David (1977), Pictures and their Use in Communication (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff). *Panofsky, Erwin (1955) Meaning in the Visual Arts (New York: Doubleday). *Peirce, Charles Sanders - (1931–58), Collected Papers I-VIII. Hartshorne, C, Weiss, P, & Burks, A, (eds.). (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press). *Podro, Michael (1998), Depiction, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press). *Schier, Flint (1986), Deeper Into Pictures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). *Sonesson, Göran (1989), Pictorial Concepts: Inquiries into the semiotic heritage and its relevance for the analysis of the visual world. (Lund: Aris/Lund University Press). *Walton, Kendall (1990), Mimesis as Make-believe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press). *Willats, John (1997), Art and Representation: New Principles In The Analysis Of Pictures (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press). *Wollheim, Richard (1987), Painting as an Art (London: Thames and Hudson).


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