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.