We’ve all probably heard the saying that ‘A picture paints a thousand words’, trying to persuade that a complex idea can be more effectively demonstrated by a single image, that image being able to convey meaning more essentially than a description. It’s a nice idea, and the line has such a lyrical sound to it too, reminding us perhaps of the song ‘If’ by David Gates from 1971, that has been covered by so many other musicians. But is the sentiment true? The phrase seems to have been coined in the newspaper and publicity world, which makes sense when you imagine a graphic shot alongside a story, attracting attention and lingering in the mind far past the point that the words may. Such is the power of the visual. And certainly documentary photography can be like this, but what about painting?
Within social media groups, I’ve come across quite a few writers who are also artists, like me. And sometimes, they try to liken the process of painting to writing. I’ve also heard writers comparing writing a novel to building up a massive sculpture that has to support its own ‘weight’ with its very own centre of gravity and of course there is the relationship between poetry, lyrics and music, with rhythms, phrasings and beats cropping up in writing as well as music. The art world and academia compare the art genres, as well as integrate and interweave them in installations or investigations, so to ask the question I’m asking, I guess, in this sense is feasible. So I thought I’d dig a bit deeper in comparing writing to painting and see what I can come up with, taking a somewhat clinical approach (must be the mood I’m in!) and looking at the similarities and differences that are true for me. A wee bit of whimsy might creep in too!
Firstly, here are four stages of my ‘Hawthorn’ watercolour painting. I like to scan a painting at different stages, to remind myself how I built it up, and it used to come in very handy for teaching purposes too. The subject was held back by masking fluid while the first washes were laid down, hence the ghostly negative white subject, and then I moved in on the hawthorn stem itself, developing detail and depth. Could you show stages of a piece of writing as graphically as this? I think not, so maybe this is first difference between the two. There wouldn’t be much point me showing you the current stage I’m at in my writing – it would just look like an nonsensical extract, with more text behind it and more invisible text ahead of it.
‘Hawthorn’ (to get us in the mood for autumn) Stages 1 to 4 (final)
So here’s what I’ve come up with.
1.They both require a learning of crafting techniques and approaches, in the sense that any art by its very nature needs this.
2.They both suck you into a different zone, time goes by the wayside. But I find painting far more relaxing than writing. Writing is more of a challenge for me.
3.There has to be an aim, a final goal in sight for both. There has to be some research material or context, in the form of information for writing – for example it may be on the setting, and this information is usually in the form of visuals for painting – for ‘Hawthorn’ I took a few photos of hawthorn in the hedgerows to derive a design and pencil drawing from to begin the process. So in other words, each could be called a project, but perhaps of different scales depending on final ‘canvas’ size or word count.
4.There has to be a build up method, starting with a ‘sketch’ of a kind. So in writing that might be an outline or plot plan, a structural shape as guidance. And in painting, there will be stages that you plan and execute to achieve the desired result (like above). In both cases the end product may not be exactly what you envisaged, but if you’ve kept your vision and attended to the necessary details that spurred you on in the first place, then the result will probably please, and hopefully please others, and most importantly you’ll hopefully have kept some spontaneity going by letting the ‘muse’ enter, which is very integral to what we produce in the arts.
5.Each chosen word or phase within writing could be seen to equate to the mixing a certain colour and applying it with a brushstroke in a certain direction. Searching for ‘just the right word’ to use is similar to mixing just the right colour for what you want it to convey, both word and colour to convey what you want, by themselves or in juxtaposition to another word or colour. But you can look up a designated accepted word in a dictionary, you’re not allowed to make up your own, whereas colour shades can be infinite.
6.Going back to the building up. In painting, very roughly speaking, once you have your sketch, you can start developing the painting anywhere you like within the space of the picture. You can dot about, developing different areas with more choice of ‘where to go next’. For me, there is no such freedom of where to go in writing. True you can write scenes out of sequence, but this can mean more editing work in the long run, so inch by square inch in great detail ,from left to right across the canvas in rows, is how I could compare painting with words!
7.The eyes of a reader of a story or book are directed in one direction only and that is onwards and forwards through the turning of the pages. In a painting, various areas can draw the eye and lead to other areas, which is where the all important composition comes in. The equivalent to that in writing is probably getting the dramatic arc of the narrative working well, with a good shaping to the whole. Of course, one obvious difference is that after you’ve done a painting you can see it as a whole, you can frame it and put it on the wall. You can relish the visual in a more direct way. A story remains within the pages, ‘virtual’ or real, its world is visual to you only in the imagination and every reader will see different images in their respective imaginations. Just think of novels that are produced as films, where you think the lead actor just doesn’t fit with who you imagined? And yes, illustrations can aid understanding in a story, and they can be beautiful, but they are one person’s interpretation of that story and the images might not work for you. This is what makes writing a little more enigmatic for me. And yet, conceptual painting (as opposed to illustrative ‘what you see is what you get’) and writing are both open to interpretation.
8.Colours, shapes and selected objects can be highly symbolic within paintings, just think of all those Dutch still lifes, and equally we can have rich symbolism within writing – those lovely tropes and figurative devices like metaphors and repeating motifs.
My own conclusion is that both writing and painting are highly visual but in very different ways. A picture can convey a mood or a relationship between a person/subject and their environment. It can inform and record in accurate detail like a botanical illustration, or it can touch you somewhere deep within yourself that you find hard to express. And writing can do all this too, but the reader is more likely to form different images in their mind because we are all unique with our very own experiences and responses. This is perhaps the most ethereal and indeterminate nature of writing for me and why it can be so hard to declare a piece of writing is ever finished, unlike with a painting in my own case. I find writing challenges me more than painting with more rules to have to follow, whereas painting gives me more freedom, fills my visual senses and delights my eye, and for this, I could never be without it. I love writing for its challenges and the opportunity to express feelings and thoughts about what it is to be human – I’ve never done that within my paintings (as I know other artists have), preferring rather to concentrate on the natural world, So for me, my painting and my writing use similar and different parts of me, while fitting into my life quite comfortably alongside each other.
I’ll end it here, musings on this well and truly done, but any contributions are most welcome!