As a mental process, imagery explains the way ideas and pictures are organized and perceived in your mind. The use of imagery enables the effective processing of information into the memory system. Being generated intentionally, this process aims to develop the effective mental representation. The visual mental imagery is considered to be caused by the existing picture-like visualization in the mind and soul.

As a literary device, imagery describes the way the reader perceives the world of the literature piece through the realistic visualization of the author’s writing. This literary method can be applied in any type of writing, regardless of the purpose and the context.

Imagery originates from the word “image” that can be translated as “a copy and likeness” from the Latin language. The word “image” used to be associated with mainly physical items, although this tendency has changed by the modern literary traditions. Writers and painters both create vivid images. Painters select the colors from a palette to create different textures and moods in their works. Writers use a palette of words, from which they select just the right words to tailor the well-sounding descriptions and craft a sensory experience for the reader. 

Imagery always appeals to the human’s five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. Thus, there are five types of this literary technique to be considered:

  • visual (color, size, shapes, and pattern);
  • auditory (pleasurable sounds, noises, or silence);
  • olfactory (fragrances and odors);
  • gustatory (sweetness or bitterness, saltiness or spiciness, etc.);
  • tactile (temperature, moving, and touching);

The purpose of imagery in the literature is to create the proper mood in the writing. For instance, the opening “On this rainy day, it seems the sky will never be clear again” is quite cliched but it allows the reader to picture the setting of the story. In this case, this literary device makes the writer’s message sound concrete. It denotes all the characters and qualities of sense perception by implying simple literal description.

Imagery can also be used to add symbolism to the context. In the previously mentioned opening sentence, the rainy day may symbolize the character of the main hero or the tragedy reflected in the story. Symbolism is often applied in the descriptions of weather, as well as in more complex meanings describing the parallels between characters and the surrounding world.

The use of imagery by William Shakespeare in his “Romeo and Juliet” aims to set the contrast between light and darkness:

“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear …”

In these lines, imagery is hidden in Romeo’s praising of Juliet’s beauty, saying it is brighter than the lit torches in the hall. Thus, the writer refers to imagery to make the context of the writing more sensual and intimate for the reader, and this creates the feeling they are becoming a part of the story. It can also serve as a significant sensory detail that allows the reader to gain a better understanding of the scenarios being described.

Imagery adheres lifelike quality to characters and scenes in any type of literature works, by supporting the reader's visualization abilities. There are two major types of the language, which are identified in the literature area: descriptive and figurative. The literal language addresses the five senses straight away, while the figurative language applies more elusive and refined descriptions reflecting themes of a particular work. Both types are eligible for creating imagery effects in literature.

An imagery effect, being used in nearly any written work, is especially noticeable in poetry. The format of this type of writing is considerably shorter compared to prose, and it depends on the quality descriptions to provide the reader with the same understanding as would be done in lengthier literary works. William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is one of the examples of imagery in poetry.

The main purpose of the sonnet is to provide the reader with beautiful descriptions of appearances as well as with a full spectrum of emotions experienced by the main characters.  William Shakespeare uses imagery to give stylistic coloring to the description of characters, appearances, and love expressions. “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red” is one of such descriptions used in Sonnet 130. The writer could simply mention that the character’s lips are relatively pale, but the use of imagery crafts a more powerful sense of depth for the reader. Thus, one stylistically empowered by imagery line can create more meaning and understanding for the reader than a direct description.