Visual Fluency

| March 21, 2012

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for. –Georgia O’Keeffe

As one who enjoys both writing and creating visual art, I often think of myself as communicating in different languages. It’s no surprise that the term “a picture is worth a thousand words” was coined by a marketing person; it is very catchy, assigns an arbitrary value to a product that may or may not live up to it, and when considered more carefully turns out to be quite nonsensical. There is no correlation between how clearly and effectively a concept is conveyed and any quantifiable measure of words or visual elements.

The visual language, like any other, has its own unique terms, constructs, and euphemisms, some of which can express meaning not quite possible in any other language. Like spoken words, nuanced variation in tone, timbre, or pitch may communicate different messages, even using the same words. Like writing, whole sentences, paragraphs, and considered use of grammar can unfold a compelling story beyond the mere mention of a given subject. And, like poetry, the arrangement of words and the use of symbols and rhyme may evoke emotion and enhance the reader’s experience beyond making simple statements.

We all learn to communicate in the languages prevalent in our environment. We start by picking up words, aphorisms, and other figures of speech in our daily interactions. We learn to form lingual constructs like sentences and paragraphs so that our communications are more productive, more contextual, more interesting, and less ambiguous. We later learn to read and write and expand our language through stories and complex narratives. Similarly, we pick up visual signals, symbols, shapes, and colors, and learn to associate them with concepts not always translatable into words. Yet, in the absence of a need, most visual vocabularies stop at simple utterances and concise statements, turning to the spoken or written word for more formal expression.

Still, there are things that can be communicated through images that simply cannot be expressed as well – or at all – in words; not a thousand, not even a million. Such communication requires both the artist and their audience to possess greater command of the visual language. A language unused to its full potential is one doomed to languish and perish, taking with it the things only expressible in its unique vocabulary. As visual artists, we should strive to speak our language with eloquence, and to educate others in it so they may share in the joy of exploring those things that cannot be articulated in prose or speech.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the visual language is capable of so much more than the uttering of simple nouns; and that, as with words, always yelling at the top of our voice is not necessarily the most effective way to get our message across.

Scream if you need to, but also be conscious of those times when a soft whisper is more appropriate. Venture beyond merely stating the obvious. Tell stories, weave poems, imply tension, and employ nuance so that others may learn to use the visual language with the same fluency, and share in those things that cannot be verbalized, vocalized, or articulated in any other way. Beyond just making visually pleasing images, make your work interesting; create narratives and mystery and riddles, challenge your viewers to think and feel and seek clues to a deeper understanding.



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Category: All Posts, Featured, Photography as Art, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (6)

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  1. Ray Chong says:

    This post resonates with me a great deal. While a gorgeous grand landscape or well-executed intimate still kicks me in the gut, I find that I increasing yearn for more than the obvious in my own work, and in the work that I enjoy. With “Visual Frequency”, you have been able to articulate that which I have not. Thank you!

  2. Roberta says:

    “always yelling at the top of our voice is not necessarily the most effective way to get our message across.”

    I love this statement. I sometimes feel like the visual volume is turned up full blast and the effectiveness of the message is completely drowned out.

    Your image illustrates your point well. It is both mysterious and thought provoking.

  3. Ben Chase says:

    Great words as always Guy – I know one of the most challenging (and rewarding!) parts of playing this game professionally is being able to communicate an emotion or concept with this “Visual Language”.

    I think it’s also an important part of branding one’s self as well.

  4. “As visual artists, we should strive to speak our language with eloquence, and to educate others in it so they may share in the joy of exploring those things that cannot be articulated in prose or speech.” – Essence of joy of sharing :).

    The teacher in you is what I admire the most. Thousands of miles away being in the other end of the world, just by reading your posts is a great learning in itself. Fortunate are those who are much more closely associated with you :)

  5. Jim Dricker says:

    As a language of expression, just like with our spoken language, each artist employs a unique tone, dialect, and articulation. Sometimes we mumble, sometimes we stutter, sometimes we need to repeat ourselves, sometimes we need to restate in a clearer way, sometimes we’re just muddy about what we’re saying. And sometimes we say more than we should. How we express ourselves also depends on the audience we target. Learning to express myself in the most economical and effective way – and to be clear to myself about what I’m trying to say – is my greatest challenge as a photographer. You’ve raised an important point, Guy.

  6. I agree with Roberta. The last two paragraphs say so much. They’re worth a thousand pictures.