Visual Metaphor — Definition & Examples of Metaphors in Art

Daniel Bal
Written by
Daniel Bal
Edited by
Courtney Adamo
Fact-checked by
Paul Mazzola

What is a visual metaphor?

A visual metaphor uses the pictorial representation of an object to suggest an association or similarity. Visual metaphors contain only images and are found in art, advertisements, film, and television. Visual metaphors use physical similarities to make something look like something else, or conceptual similarities, the ideas behind the images.

How is a visual metaphor effective?

A visual metaphor is effective because it uses visual communication to establish themes, develop character arcs, and effectively communicate main ideas.

  • Establish themes – Visual metaphors use an image that adds insight into the desired interpretation (e.g., using a werewolf to illustrate the internal conflict between conscience and instinct).

  • Character arcs – By connecting an image to a character, these visual elements become an extension of their identity. The image then impacts that character in some way (e.g., Harry Potter and his lightning bolt scar).

  • Communication – Pictorial metaphors can communicate information that language often cannot. The translation of words from one language to another may impact meaning. Visual images need no translation; therefore, visual metaphor ads work well (e.g., an image of a beach with an oversized bottle of sunscreen in front of the sun casting a shadow over the crowd).

Visual metaphor definition
Visual metaphor definition
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Visual metaphor examples

Examples of visual metaphors are mainly found in art and advertising, but filmmakers occasionally incorporate them into television shows and movies.

Visual metaphors in movies and on television shows include the following:

  • Marvel Cinematic Universe – Stars and the colors red, white, and blue cover Captain America’s outfit; he is a visual representation of patriotism.

  • Rocky – The image of Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art represents his growth as a boxer.

  • Friends – The couch in the coffee shop represents the unity found amongst the friends and emphasizes the bond they share.

Visual metaphor example movies
Visual metaphor example movies

Pictorial metaphors in art

Visual metaphor art includes both paintings and sculptures, with some popular examples including the following:

"The Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi

  • The "Apotheosis of Washington" is painted on the ceiling of the rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. It depicts George Washington rising to the rank of a god. It emphasizes that Washington was both a man and an ideal. As a founding father, Washington became an icon, representing the American ideology.

“American Gothic” by Grant Wood

  • Wood's "American Gothic" contains an image of a farmer with a pitchfork in hand standing next to his wife with their farmhouse in the background. He finished the painting in 1930, just as the Great Depression started to take hold of the country. He used the painting as a response to the dark days ahead, highlighting the strength of the Midwesterners to weather the storm.

“The Thinker” (Le Penseur) by Auguste Rodin

  • Rodin's "The Thinker" is a sculpture of a sitting man with an elbow on his leg and his chin resting on his fist, suggesting he is deep in thought. The sculpture has come to represent the power of the act of thinking, indicated by the man's athletic build.

Visual metaphor example art
Visual metaphor example art

Visual metaphors in advertising

Advertisers use visual metaphors to sell a product or service, as they can present a lot of information in a small amount of space. This type of metaphor is more effective than verbal metaphors. The following are examples of visual metaphors used in print ads:

Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA)

  • The PDFA used two visual elements, the image of an intact egg and one frying in a pan. This visual analogy represents the impact of drug use on the brain.


  • To emphasize the role orange juice plays in a complete breakfast, Tropicana created a visual metaphor that is the image of an orange shaped like a piece of toast.

Visual metaphor example advertising
Visual metaphor example advertising

Mercedes Benz

  • Mercedes Benz developed an advertisement containing an aerial shot of a chicken with two foxes on either side. If the chicken were to swerve right or left, the foxes would eat it. The company used this double meaning to advertise its car's ability to stay in its lane automatically.