The Realism Continuum, Representation and Perception

Document Type

Journal Article


Common Ground


Faculty of Education and Arts


School of Communication and Arts / Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts,Technology, Education and Communications




Medley, S. , & Haddad, H. (2011). The realism continuum, representation and perception. The International Journal of the Image, 1(2), 145-156.


The realism continuum is a visual model that presents any image as a series of pictures, iteratively reduced in representation from its referrent. A continuum has been used before to gauge the effectiveness of educational instruction (Wileman 1993; Dwyer 1972; Knowlton 1966; Gropper 1963) or to explain the communicative potential of different comics stylings (McCloud 1993). Reference is made in new design theory to less detailed images being easier to scan for pertinent information and generally reducing demand on working memory (Malamed, 2009). None of these theorists explains how it is we can see the less-real-than-real in the first instance, even though we’ve evolved looking only at the real. This paper presentation shows why, psychologically we can see and understand distilled and abstracted pictures and also why our visual systems (the eyes and brain) actually prefer these to photorealistic pictures. The presentation focuses on two major tasks of the visual system and how these tasks are facilitated by pictures chosen from deliberate points along the realism continuum. Images of greater realism help to solve the homogeneity problem: distinguishing objects in the same class. That is, telling the difference between Tom, Dick & Harry. Images of reduced or distilled detail facilitate object hypotheses: distinguishing between classes of objects. That is, telling the difference between a person and any other kind of object or thing.



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