Art galleries don’t often figure on anyone’s radar, let alone a writer’s.
Instead, they’re just somewhere to go when the weather is bad. Or someone has come to visit your hometown and you’re not sure what else to show them.
But art galleries and exhibitions can actually provide an excellent opportunity to improve your observational skills, your powers of interpretation and even give you a few story prompts!
This post was inspired by the 10th instalment of Claire Wingfield’s 52 Dates for Writers. Today’s instalment is all about style – everything related to the joy of experimentation, as opposed to editing your work in progress. Sometimes, that can be the most fun part of the writing process!
So I’m going to tell you why you should visit an art gallery or exhibition. After all, as a writer, you’re used to dealing with text. You paint pictures with words! None of this messing about with paint. Besides, artists often turn famous characters or scenes from literature into paintings. Why not turn a painting into literature?
But you’re missing out on a lot if you don’t venture into a gallery from time to time. So what would you get out of visiting a gallery?
You get to explore the relationship between images and text.
All artworks feature a description alongside. Does the text actually relate to the image? Does the text make it easier to understand the artwork, or do you disagree with what it says?
An interesting exercise can be to find an artwork that catches your eye. Don’t look at the description – write one yourself based on what you think is happening in the image, what you think it might represent, and what the artist means to say. Check it against the description on the wall to see if your interpretation matches the ‘official’ one.
This is Mariana, by John Everett Millais. Is she waiting for someone to return? Is her back sore after working too long, hunched over her sewing? The display caption at the Tate Britain reads;
This is Mariana from Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure. She leads a solitary life, rejected by her fiancé after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. But she is still in love and longs for him. Mariana’s tired pose, her embroidery, and the fallen leaves suggest the burden of her yearning as time passes.The painting was originally exhibited with lines from Alfred Tennyson’s poem Mariana:She only said, ‘My life is dreary– He cometh not!’ she said;She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary–I would that I were dead!’
Do you agree?
Besides, writers are so used to working with the written word. Absorbing yourself in sculpture, painting, or even multimedia work can really spark inspiration. After all, a change is as good as a rest so if you’re stuck for ideas, a trip to your local gallery might jostle free new ways of thinking.
This is important in your own work. Think about what you invite the reader to see, and what you allow them to infer for themselves. Show don’t tell becomes paramount here. Don’t tell readers how to interpret things; let them be inventive themselves.
Use art to prompt new stories!
Can you actually tell a story within the image based on what you can see? Pre-Modernism paintings often tell stories, freezing a single moment in time. Look at the facial expressions. Examine the background. How do the characters interact with the space around them? What happened before, and after, the painting?
But it’s not just figurative painting that can give you ideas. This is Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian. It’s based on New York’s street grid system and his love of boogie-woogie music. If you can discern movement in the painting, perhaps you can also find a narrative to match that movement.
And it’s not just the images. The artists themselves often lead exciting or turbulent lives that prompt story seeds or provide ideas.
Take Caravaggio. He served jail time, killed a young man (and earned a death sentence from the Pope), became involved in several brawls, and died at the age of 38.
He’s a fascinating figure, and his own life story provides a rich seam of ideas you can mine for your own work.
Focus on really looking at something in depth.
Humans have a tendency to glance at something, and fill in the gaps from memory, or make assumptions. It’s one of the reasons why urban sketching is recommended for art students. Drawing a place from close observation requires an intensive examination of a scene, rather than trying to remember or imagine a scene.
Spending time absorbing an image can be a brilliant way to work on your descriptive writing. Focus on the colours and textures employed by the artist. Look at the composition of the scene. Is one character given prominence? Why might that be the case? If several paintings comprise a sequence or a group, tease out the narrative linking the images.
In a notebook, try and describe the scene using the most luxurious language you can. Really revel in the details used by the artist. Even if it’s not a realistic depiction, just focus on what’s actually in the frame. Henri Matisse provides brilliant examples of lurid colours, while Rene Magritte’s Surrealist images can be wonderful prompts for more fantastical descriptions.
When you get home, write a hyper-visual version of a scene in your work-in-progress. Use all of the observational work you did in the gallery to accentuate the colours and even sounds of the scene.
Then do it again and write a scene with no visual detail. How do they compare? Which do you prefer – and which did you find easier?
Being well-versed in art helps you build your sense of design.
Lots of authors have asked me questions about design and branding. They’re just not sure where to start. Here’s my advice to you.
Go to your local art gallery. If you’re lucky to live near several, visit them all. Get a feel for how artists use colour and shape. Take a tour and find out more about the artworks. Choose a favourite piece from the gallery and research it, and the artist, when you get home.
Being more visually literate will make you feel more confident about the design end of the ‘being an author’ spectrum!
Hopefully doing this exercise will help to demonstrate just how inspiring art galleries can be, and how you can pick up new descriptive skills and even story ideas from your local exhibition!
Over to you! Tell me what your favourite artwork is – or tell me if you might pay a visit to your local gallery!
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