The man-made image predates the written word by at least 30,000 years. Cave paintings in Lascaux in southern France were made around 35,000 BCE.

The concept of visual literacy has evolved over the last fifty years in response to rapidly changing modes of communication in an increasingly global world. Traditionally the term was used in relation to visual arts, especially fine arts such as painting and sculpture. However, today visual literacy is used in the broader context of visual culture, which is generally accepted to include "all things designed and made by man that are image-based" and challenges the traditional notions of Western ideals associated with visual art. Visual culture art education places the technology and images that permeate the every day lives of people, and critical inquiry, at its centre. This varies from culture to culture, subculture to subculture, and changes over time.

Visual literacy is what is seen with the eye and what is 'seen' in the mind. A visually literate person should be able to read and write visual language. This includes the ability to successfully decode and interpret visual messages and to encode and compose meaningful visual communications.

Dr. Anne Bamford, The Visual Literacy White Paper (2003)
Commissioned by Adobe Systems PTY Ltd, Australia

The term visual literacy was first coined in 1969 by John Debes, Coordinator of Education Projects at Eastman Kodak Company, who offered the following definition.

Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment.

Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication.

(Click HERE to download a pdf of the full text)

In Thoughts on Visual Literacy (1997), Philip Yenawine offers the following:

Visual literacy is the ability to find meaning in imagery. It involves a set of skills ranging from simple identification - naming what one sees - to complex interpretation on contextual, metaphoric and philosophical levels. Many aspects of cognition are called upon, such as personal association, questioning, speculating, analyzing, fact-finding, and categorizing.

Objective understanding is the premise of much of this literacy, but subjective and affective aspects of knowing are equally important.Visual literacy usually begins to develop as a viewer finds his/her own relative understanding of what s/he confronts, usually based on concrete and circumstantial evidence.

It eventually involves considering the intentions of the maker, applying systems for thinking and rethinking one's opinions, and acquiring a body of information to support conclusions and judgments. The expert will also express these understandings in a specialized vocabulary.