What Are the Visual Arts

What Are the Visual Arts? (A Look Into)

It has been often said that art imitates life. And among all 5 senses, none have the ability to enthrall and inspire like vision.  The visual arts seek to enrich the lives of its audience by producing aesthetically appealing, intellectually arousing and ultimately useful displays for a variety of purposes.  The disciplines that make up the visual arts are broad, far-reaching and overlapping.

They are what make everyday life more joyful, providing context and communication in ways written or spoken word cannot.  In a single day, the average American encounters thousands of visual stimuli that are designed to engage and attract them towards a particular theme.  As such, a drive to your local supermarket is riddled with logos and branding intended to sell a product, while a casual stroll through a museum can reveal the culmination of thousands of years of human creativity.

The visual arts can be a profession or a hobby, a lifelong endeavor or a weekend activity.  To that end, hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and across the world are employed in industries that require photography, filmmaking or design to function, while others use their craft for their own pleasure.

A brief historical summary of the visual arts

From the ancient cave markings of our prehistoric ancestors to the fine art galleries of European capitals, visual arts have evolved at a pace often surpassing humanity.  In the not-too-distant past, art was limited to those that could afford it, and thus define it.  Royal courts commissioned statues and paintings of nobility as a display of wealth.  Military and political victories, along with religious invocations were topics of great esteem to be framed for all to see.  Similarly, architecture was seen as a symbol of national identity and an indicator of political strength.

Eventually, artists found other sponsors for their work, giving them more creative flexibility.  From this began the gradual progression towards abstract art.  Portraits evolved into landscapes, while landscapes slowly grew into lucid fantasies strewn across canvases beset by all manner of techniques and innovations. 

The race to expand the limits of what was considered “art” was bolstered by technology. The advent of photography came about as a result of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s early 19th century experiments with light exposure and chemicals.  A little more than a decade after the first documented photograph was taken, Louis Deguerre gifted the world with the first commercial photographic process.  Subsequently, Robert Cornelius became the subject of the first human portrait ever taken.  If humanity could record life as a snapshot, why not do so as a moving photograph, thought the Skladanovsky before they screened the first motion picture in the heart of Berlin.   No sooner had cinematography taken grip over the world that the earliest forms of film editing and photoshop made their way into the public. 

The visual arts evolved out of necessity, serving the needs of the very few, to become an inspiration for the masses.  In the 20th century, avant-garde movements cropped up across all corners of the globe, each with its unique take on everything from painting to architecture.  The visual arts were now a matter of creative expression at the disposal of billions across the world.  As technology advanced, along with it came novel forms of employing it for artistic means.  Futhermore, the 21st century digitization of visual arts meant that the sleight of hand required for a brushstroke could now be perfected by a computer that processed billions of bytes of information to artwork rivaling even our most accomplished artists.

What are the disciplines of the visual arts?

In the long chain of human evolution, many species evolved from a few predecessors.  The visual arts have taken a similar path.  Each new artform sits on the shoulders of the giants that preceded it.  To that end, the limitations of modern art are almost nonexistent, but disciplines can be identified by their techniques and uses.


Perhaps the most notable of the disciplines, photography has been employed over the last century as a form of creative expression and communication.  First used as a more animated replacement for portraiture, photographs have come to be records of world history, symbols of political revolutions and instruments of social commentary.  “A picture is worth 1000 words” is an idiom famously popularized by photography, which has since become a staple hold of museums and mass media.  In the age of the internet, entire platforms are dedicated to photographs exchanged at billions of pixels per seconds.


From the silent films of the early 20th century to the high-definition masterpieces of our time, filmmaking, much like photography, has found itself across a spectrum of disciplines, from documentaries to music videos.  Film incorporates lighting, sound, costume design and writing into one masterful tapestry.  Not surprisingly, it is the most dynamic and demanding of the visual art disciplines, but holds an iconic place in society.  Films have been used to inspire generations of future artists and invigorate social change worldwide.


This category of visual arts is comprised of multiple disciplines that overlap to ensure the audience (or in some cases the user) find something aesthetically or functionally appealing. 

  • Industrial designers develop ergonomic, or user-friendly, interfaces for consumers.  Complicated machines like computers or cars would not be navigable to laymen without easy to understand visual representations of their functions. 
  • Graphic designers create appealing visuals for purposes of advertisement or marketing.  Some of the worlds most recognizable logos are carefully crafted to appeal to the human psyche and maximize recognizability.
  • Costume and fashion design is intimately intertwined with film, theatre and photography.  Fashion plays a tremendous role in the multibillion-dollar textile industry and has historically been used as a symbol of status, while costumes are hallmarks of visually alluring productions. 
  • Interior designers develop ambient work or living-spaces for target audiences.  Themes sourced from a broad swath of cultural and stylistic furnishings can turn empty spaces into ideal environments for those seeking them.
  • Architecture is a category of its own that has existed since the dawn of humanity.  It is the design of buildings to be used for human habitation.  First used as a means of developing sturdy structures to withstand often inhospitable environments, architecture has evolved into a symbol of cultural identity and artistic creativity.


Artisan and craftsmanship are some of the oldest occupations in recorded history.  Art museums are stocked with examples of woodwork, pottery and all manner of craft from ancient civilizations.  In modern times, craftsman work across a myriad of industries, from tourism to construction employing techniques like metalwork, ceramics, glassblowing and weaving along with many others to meet consumer needs.

Drawing and Painting

While conventional drawing techniques are still taught at modern art institutes, departments teaching visual arts encourage students to integrate multiple disciplines into their approach.  This means that drawing can be used as an integral component of a visual display.  While that may give the impression that, as an art form, drawing has been marginalized, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, it is the most commercially available and consumed mode of artistry, having influenced artistic expression and innovation through the last several centuries and beyond.

Training and education in the visual arts

While creativity cannot be taught, many training and education programs exist to help students hone-in on skill sets required for the visual arts, get a better grasp on the history of art and appreciate the various stylistic and cultural approaches to artistry. 

In a formal education setting, art schools are usually a part of large academic centers or standalone institutions with structured curriculums designed to develop techniques and appreciation for multiple disciplines.  Students are usually required to maintain a “portfolio” of artwork throughout their studies that is judged not only on its adherence to assigned tasks, but also on its merits. 

Because it is considered a soft science, one that is less reliant on empirical data or objective truths, art training varies greatly depending on the institutional emphasis on certain values.  Discipline-based Art Education (DBAE), a popular approach to teaching visual arts in American schools, not only helps students create art, but also respond, interpret and judge it. The curriculum calls for teaching of content and skills from four disciplines that contribute to creating, understanding and appreciating art: history, production, criticisms, and aesthetics. 

This models popularity stems from its standardization and implementation.  Nevertheless, critics saw the approach as rigid and stifling, paving the way towards more holistic methods.  The Teaching for Artistic Behavior, or TAB, curriculum sought to make art an individual commodity, allowing students to make their own choices on the path they take in the visual arts, placing an emphasis on interests rather than a defined set of skills or disciplines.

Beyond basic education in the visual arts, programs exist to help students develop skills in individual disciplines.  Photography courses are available as whole packages in academic institutions or basic instructional courses at local community centers, where students can learn the technical aspects of a camera and how lighting, angle and aperture sizes affect the final product.  Similarly, courses on filmmaking can offer introductions to cinematography, screenwriting, and editing to make a motion picture most appropriate for a target audience, while graphic design courses teach students how to navigate software to develop appealing digital images.

Schools of classical art teach drawing and sculpting as a foundation for future careers in the creative arts industry.  Different methods and materials are employed to give the student a basic understanding of harmony, balance and perspective in painting or sculpting.

Finally, craftsmanship is often taught in trade schools or through apprenticeships.  While this approach is not common in the United States, many nations employ this model through trade or vocational schools.  In the visual arts, this would include skills like glassblowing, pottery, furniture-making, jewelry or metalwork.  While these skills can be used towards artistic ends, they are more commonly taught as career paths for students wishing to employ their skills in the consumer market.

In summary, training in the visual arts is diverse and offers many paths towards the desired outcome.  Students can either immerse themselves in the full spectrum of visual art techniques and theories or simply concentrate on one specific skillset depending on their interests.

How to remain competitive in the visual arts

Remaining competitive in a skill-based economy requires just that.  Many visual art students face the stigma of being in a market economy heavily oriented around skills with an education often perceived as abstract.  Nevertheless, the Bureau of Labor Statistics places “Art, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media” occupations in a single category earning a mean annual salary of $58,950.  This can be further subdivided into art and design workers earning a mean annual of salary of $53,910 among other categories including choreographers, art teachers, craftsman, etc.  that earn an annual salary at or around the mean of $50,620 for all occupations.

Nevertheless, there’s no limit to the paths that can be taken within the field of visual arts.  Artists must offer compelling resumes that can ensure employers or sponsors their skills will be worthwhile attributes to their business.  This begins with a portfolio accrued over their academic or amateur careers and can be reinforced with academic courses or qualifications in technical skills.  For instance, graphic designers are usually skilled in software programs like Adobe Illustrator, whereas photographers and cameramen usually take courses that help them operate specific equipment.  Like many other occupations, artists must start at the bottom and grow within their career fields.  Consequently, for many this requires low-paid, and sometimes unpaid, internships to develop the relevant skills and connections to be a marketable artist.  For others, a career in education offers the stability and flexibility to teach others while working in a field they truly love. 

In the 21st century, artists are more susceptible to copyright infringement more than any other occupation.  The internet has made it easier for them to appeal to a larger audience while exposing them to the risks of creative theft.  Furthermore, piracy costs artists tens of billions of dollars per year and has taken a significant chunk of income from the creative sphere.  To be adept in an environment where original content can be stolen without compensation, artists should be aware of copyright laws and their right to retain fair compensation for their work.

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1 thought on “What Are the Visual Arts? (A Look Into)”

  1. Matthew Jones

    I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that you need to be “trained” in the visual arts. To me, either you are gifted at it or you are not. With something like filmmaking, of course you need to learn how to use certain equipment, but with drawing or painting, you just need to practice and see if it is the right fit for you.

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