Pictorial representation is a key human behaviour. Cultures around the world have made images to convey information about living kinds, objects and ideas for at least 75,000 years, in forms as diverse as cave paintings, religious icons and emojis. However, styles of pictorial representation vary greatly between cultures and historical periods. In particular, they can differ in figurativeness, i.e. varying from detailed depictions of subjects to stylised abstract forms. Here we show that pictorial styles can be shaped by intergroup contact. We use data from experimental microsocieties to show that drawings produced by groups in contact tended to become more figurative and transparent to outsiders, whereas in isolated groups drawings tended to become abstract and opaque. These results indicate that intergroup contact is likely to be an important factor in the cultural evolution of pictorial representation, because the need to communicate with outsiders ensures that some figurativeness is retained over time. We discuss the implications of this finding for understanding the history and anthropology of art, and the parallels with sociolinguistics and language evolution.