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Put Yourself in the Picture

Using art to inspire your writing 

According to Victorian art critic John Ruskin, painting and poetry are sisters. 

In fact, Ruskin was among many powerful voices, including Leonardo da Vinci, who saw similarity between the artforms. Both conjure images that invoke memory, emotion and imagination. The same could be said for all visual art and all kinds of creative writing. Not only that, but one can inspire the other.

The power of artforms

Whether, as in the case of Maya Angelou and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the worlds of writing and art join forces, or, like Beatrix Potter, the author produces their own pictures, the power of these combined artforms is perhaps best shown in children’s literature. 

What I remember about my early attempts at making up stories as a child, is that they were led by visuals. The many picture books I devoured led me into other worlds, ones that existed, for example, at the back of my wardrobe.

There are a few tales about the inspiration behind C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, including a dream he’d had as a child, of a faun wearing a scarf. 

As readers, a single image can remind us of a story and the feelings we experienced when we first read it. For those who grew up on Western fairy tales, a red cloak can mean only one thing. But this extends beyond childhood reading. Add a white bonnet to that red cloak and suddenly Little Red Riding Hood becomes Offred in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale

Using art to craft original narratives

Sketching, painting, even doodling, are all, of course, brilliant ways to get your creative juices flowing and their mental health benefits have long been known. No need to show anyone if the thought fills you with horror. But if picking up a paintbrush really isn’t your thing, there are alternatives.

A good place to start is to gather up all of those postcards you’ve bought from galleries over the years, or, if you’re more digitally-inclined, make a collage on a website like Pinterest with artworks you really love. Maybe you’re a fan of Frida Kahlo, whose strong, earthy palette expressed her pain. You’ll start to notice a theme which could be the beginnings of a story, or it will, at the very least, give you a ‘feel’ for your book.

When you sit down to write, have these images near you. Look at them. Fall in love with them again. You’ll notice new details every time which could help you build a new character or develop an existing one. 

You might find it is a single image that drives you, so ask yourself why that is. Is it as simple as being attracted to the colours used? A particular shade of blue that makes you feel peaceful or reminds you of somebody or something from your past? Try and describe that on paper. It could spark an idea.

Something else I do, particularly when I’m struggling with plot, is to illustrate the ‘shape’ of a story. I learnt this technique on my Creative Writing MA and have often returned to it. 

I usually begin by drawing a little star to represent my protagonist. Maybe they’re feeling stuck, so I draw a box around them. To tell a story, change must occur. What’s going to get them out of that box? I keep adding to the simple picture, making notes, until I have something more complete. It’s never going to make the Louvre, I grant you, but this practice can really help when the old writers’ block hits. 

Failing that, a quick, guided meditation can inspire a breadth of imagery that was in you without you even knowing it.

Art helps us escape reality. Whether you’ve a gift for it or not doesn’t matter. 

It’s what it inspires in you that does.

About Charlotte Newman

Charlotte Newman is a London-based writer. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in The London Magazine, Litro, Reflex Press anthologies and Popshot magazine among others. She is currently working on her first book, examining myth, memory and magpies. 

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