What Are the Visual Arts? (A Look Into)

by Dave

Every day, we see images meant to persuade us, inform us, or inspire us. Photographs, paintings, graphic design, and film are all elements of the visual arts. Read on to learn about the history of visual arts, and become informed about training and education in the field. Plus, explore additional articles on the subject of visual arts.

A common phrase is 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. Are you curious about what are the visual arts? Let’s explore the topic.

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. Visual stimuli engages and attracts them towards a particular theme.  As such, a drive to your local supermarket contains many interactions logos and branding intended to sell a product. To contrast, 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. Hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and across the world work in industries that require visual arts. They include 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 could only be engaged with by people who 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 determined 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. Visual arts developed as strewn across canvases beset by all manner of techniques and innovations. 

Defining what are the Visual Arts

Technology enhances our understanding of art. For example, our horizons expand thanks to 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 provides 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.  Furthermore, the 21st century digitization of visual arts creates the ability to recreate a brushstroke. Computers with the correct software recreate brushstrokes. It can be hard to tell computerized brushstrokes from human art. Computers process 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. Filmmaking 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. This ensures 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. They employ 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 create appeals to the human psyche and maximize recognizability.
  • Costume and fashion design intimately intertwine with film, theatre and photography.  Fashion plays a tremendous role in the multibillion-dollar textile industry. Fashion upholds 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. The places where humans live involve a level of building design.  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 house walls 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

Modern art institutes continue to teach drawing as a form of expression. Departments teach visual arts to encourage students to integrate multiple disciplines into their approach.  This means that drawing serves 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. Drawing influences 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.

Students in the Visual Arts

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 employ students a basic understanding of harmony, balance and perspective in painting or sculpting.

Trade schools teach visual arts and craftsmanship 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. 

Examples of what are the visual arts

For instance, graphic designers adamantly study software programs like Adobe Illustrator. In addition, 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. They also expose 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.

What are the Visual Arts in the Digital Age?

Visual arts continue to grow in our society. A key element to modern visual arts is the digital world. Computers and smartphones connect thousands to visual arts every day. We might not even notice when we interact with visual arts. Some argue that the digital age is removing our need for museums and gallery spaces. Others believe digital spaces provide more opportunity to interact with visual arts. No matter where you stand, two things are certain. Firstly, visual arts are continuing to influence our world today. Secondly, the influence of visual arts extends well past our understanding of the creative world.

The Influence of Visual Arts in the Digital World

Visual arts create a feeling inside all who come across them. If you don’t patronize the arts purposefully, then you at least know great visuals when you see them. What does this mean for a world increasingly online? Well, for starters, running into visual artworks becomes easier on the internet. Now, artists from all over the world share their visual works with audiences. Even if you don’t follow an artist, then you still might find their work on social media. Facebook always shares interesting posts as suggestions. Likewise, Instagram’s explore page leads many users to new accounts. If you use social media, then you likely run into visual arts more than you know.

To add, visual arts create much more than emotional responses in us. Colors make us feel different things, but they also affect our mood. To sum up, digital spaces provide visual arts a place to increase their influence.

The Extension of Visual Arts Into the Internet

A major company like Google isn’t necessarily concerned with the arts. Despite this, their header on the Google website consistently employs the works of visual artists. Above all, the website’s use of creative works helps stand out among other search engines. Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, also uses visual arts on its homepage. High resolution photographs highlight the main page to draw eyes and attention. So, what makes this important to what are the visual arts? Subsequently, the internet is a visual place. The internet itself is not a visual art form. The internet offers a space to extend the utility of visual arts.


If you enjoy the visual arts, then learning about its history is important. To sum up, the influence of visual arts extends into our lives in many ways. On the other hand, we explore visual arts more and more as we learn about the field. Therefore, educating one’s self on visual arts employs the best parts of the medium. Dave4Math is happy to help you learn more about a number of fields of study. From the arts to the sciences, Dave4Math provides articles and insights on today’s top studies.