Writing from Visuals

Bathroom Sink by Zoey Frank (2017)

In the exploratory stages of what came to be this exact article, I realized that my way of finding a topic was in itself something I wanted to write about: getting inspiration from visuals. Scrolling through pictures to help me come up with ideas for this article made me realize that this is what partly got me into writing in general, so I wanted this to be my topic for my upcoming article. 

I was an avid artist throughout my childhood and went to art school for one year. I’ve been a film and art appreciator for a long time and would say that this made me quite a visual thinker. And just like how walking around in a lush forest can call up inspiration, an image can do the same thing. The only difference is the Web’s possibility to summon whatever you have in mind, or 10 different versions accompanying it. And, as Anne Lamott advises in her book Bird by Bird, creating little writing assignments for yourself when you’re stuck or trying to progress is just one step that can help you get further with your writing. Using images to gain new insights might be one of the tools to lure yourself into a writing session.

How I like to think of it is that in an image there are different layers you can make use of. Depending on the image, you can either work with the actual story it already tells in itself or you can try to look for the tools of the medium. With the latter, I mean that if you see weightlessness in an image, you can try to translate that into words. It might be of help to practice setting up a clear image of a scene in your writing. The art pieces used in this article are of personal preference, but any medium that sparks your imagination is fine, of course. 

So, in this article, I will guide you through my thought process when getting inspiration from images. I will try to make clear how I get writing ideas from abstract details by looking at different layers such as mood, motion (or pace) and narrative. And as you will see, even if you focus on one aspect of the image, there are often more layers and details accompanying it. Hopefully, it prompts you to do something similar with the image at the top, too.

“What Do We Get Used To?” by San Rigo (2019)

First, I would like to start off with an image that displays a narrative clearly. A first thought would be about the people in it: ‘what characters are they, and what is their relationship to the scene and to each other?’ Moving on, composition tells us that the woman is in the spotlight of the narrative, and the old figure in the back a minor character. A certain external force from the window literally disrupts their (daily) life, which can be used as a metaphor for something else. 

Looking at colours in this scene I see light blues, yellows, browns, and greens. The red light next to the man in the back tells me that he still has something important to him, and even though the rest of his room is quite grey, it could be that there is still something ‘burning’ in him, a friendliness, perhaps something supportive to the lady at the front. But that is just one interpretation. Also, it is actually a photograph, but it has a digital paint-over feel to it. This materiality makes for quite a pristine, warm, or innocent mood. 

You could go on about the slightest details, how the plates on the table jangle and move around, or d other collateral damage from whatever it is that comes from the window, such as the motion in which the tiny glass shatters move about the room, to interpreting the woman’s inner life by the look of her face, or her body language and clothing, in relation to the rest of the scene. What is she going to do next, for instance? Is the personality you’ve attached to her going to explode, or will she walk away in silence? After that, you can pick what impresses you and forget about the rest. However, this often happens automatically.

Yizheng Ke (Untitled, 2018)

In the image on the right, not much narrative can be found in the composition, and there is no clear scene as it functions more like a portrait. 

The motion of the paintbrush is still visible and that, for instance, can be conveyed through the mood in your story. This mood, to me, seems like speediness, carelessness, energy, or youthful playfulness, for example. But it could also convey themes perhaps of sickness, repugnance or possibly melancholia. 

I would also use it as a trait belonging to your character’s personality, but you can also attach it to anything in your story: setting, narrative tone, or simply the subject matter.

Overall, I see bittersweetness, an ear chewed off (as a child does to their beloved toy) but with filthy orange smudges that resemble blood. This makes me think of a contrast between innocent childhood and a flash-forward to a violent adult life. 

The colours white, pink and blue make a scene come to mind that surrounds the main character: soft pink (soothing soft clouds on a light blue summer evening), orange highlights (a deep orange sunset) and greyish tones: cigarette burns (I guess my character has a smoking roommate now). 

These are all pieces that add information to your scene, character(s) and narrative.

“Window at Night” by Zoey Frank (2016)

Then, in regards to the image on the left, you could make use of the fragmentation in it. It has a look of clear-cut objects with marks of texture interfering with the setting. The part on the bottom-right looks fragmented and this gives me a sense of immediate and jittery motion, as in a film, or perhaps memories or a scene that I’m creating in my head myself like a film that has not been made yet but can be put into words on paper.  

Accompanied by the grim greenish overlay and dark blue sky outside,  you can use that colour palette directly but you can also choose to focus on the abandoned, ghostly vibe it has, contrasted by the fridge-like light in the centre. 

Even though there’s no human being in this image, the setting gives us little hints that you can form into little parts of that person: what does kitchen clutter tell us about their life? You might think of a young person that has a busy life, life near the beach (for some reason, the colours and the walls’ material make me think of the beach: perhaps because I associate it with certain walls or materials I’ve ever come across in a building close to the beach) and spends most of their time on life, not on cleaning, even though the clutter seems cutely put together. 

There’s also something about the colours that makes it dusty and a bit slow as the objects at the base seem to never leave their spot and are discoloured by the sun. You don’t have to copy all this into your story’s scene, but you can also attribute this trait to your character, for instance, or you can create a setting for yourself to transpose to in order to experience the vibe in your head.

You can analyse everything you see in a picture, and you can pick as many aspects or layers you like to use, for instance how it conveys pace, emotion, character traits, or a scene. It all has the possibility to construct small details in a scene that your story needs. Without slowly going over the possibilities of what you can show to a reader, there is a chance that your scene is described less clearly. 

And as it is said that film is closest to the experience of reality, using images for writing can steer you a bit in that direction. Start with analysing why this painting catches your interest, then move on to dissembling every single piece of it, then to eventually pick which details really make this story in your head. It’s a meditative approach; you go over each detail slowly, describe everything about it that you can think of, perhaps list it, and then pick and assemble the pieces together into a story, as it initially came to you with your first glance at the artwork.


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