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What Is a Pictorial Image?

This is a good example of a pictorial image.
Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images

Whether you’re assembling a Web page or doing graphic design for pamphlets or presentations, you might wonder what differentiates pictorial images from other types of images. The good news is that even if you don’t know the name for it, you’re probably already very familiar with pictorial images in your everyday life.

Pictorial Images

Portraits or other readily identifiable shots of people, animals or things are all considered pictorial images, since they clearly depict a specific place and time where something occurred. Documentary photos are an offshoot of pictorial photos, and focus on natural action. They are less artificially composed. A carefully posed image of your cousin Danny at his fifth birthday party evokes a different memory than one of Danny walking across the stage to receive his high school diploma. The first picture of Danny, carefully composed, is a portrait, whereas the second is an example of a documentary photo. These general rules hold true whether the image is physically printed, or merely exists in digital space, such as in an online photo album. Additionally, pictorial images do not have to be photos; they can be illustrations, such as close-up drawings of scientific principles to help you better understand a concept.

Abstract Images

Abstract images are differentiated from pictorial images because they don’t depict a specific person, thing or place. Instead, they call to mind a mood or feeling while expressing their own individual aesthetic values. It’s possible to derive an abstract image from a pictorial image through manipulation. For example, enlarging a cog in the inner workings of a pocket watch and blurring it forms the basis of an abstract image. Like pictorial images, this general description applies to images in any medium, printed or digital.


Some images straddle the line between pictorial and abstract imagery by displaying layers that you only notice as you spend time looking at them. These are sometimes similar to those hidden objects puzzles at the backs of children’s magazines, where you’ll eventually see a dog or a sailboat if you look at them long enough. However, unlike those puzzles, you aren’t necessarily provided with a clue that you should concentrate harder on the image -- you usually have to find the next layer for yourself.

Graphic Design

Both types of images have places in graphic design. Pictorial images tend to draw attention, even if you tile them so you have a wall of the same image on display. Because of this, they can distract from other elements you put on a page. On the other hand, abstract images create backgrounds with movement and interest that don’t take your web page visitors or pamphlet viewers out of their viewing experiences. Pictorial images invite the eye to focus on the subject of the image, while abstract images invite the eye to wander and explore the image. Use this to your advantage when considering images for use in graphic design. If you don’t design them yourself, use only images with the permission of copyright holders, regardless of the type of image you choose.

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