The art of writing about art – a cure for writer’s block

This weekend past, I was shown a beautiful and enjoyable way to start new writing – with a beneficial side effect of getting rid of writer’s block: begin by responding to a picture. The technical term for this is Ekphrasis – see previous blog post a year ago, here.  And for me, it is hugely enjoyable, and a promising way forward.

This weekend’s workshop was called “Hidden Gems Open Masterclass: Ekphrasis: the art of writing about art”, held in City Art Centre, Edinburgh and tutored by Kate Hastie.  We met to receive some practical guidelines on Ekphrasis – and then simply took the lift down, to select an artwork in the new exhibition in the basement, “Hidden Gems”, and write poem or prose lines about it.

“Every painting is a library of information”  – Kate Hastie

This was a wonderful quote by our tutor for the afternoon, Kate Hastie, who is launching a book of poets’ responses to every artwork in the whole exhibition, this Wednesday evening – book called “Seen/Unseen“, which will afterwards be available to purchase in the giftshop.  (So if you’re visiting Edinburgh before the close of the exhibition, on 13 May 2018 you can try writing about a painting and then buy the book of poems and possibly go around the exhibition again, with fresh ears.  The City Art centre is just across the road from the Market Street exit from the main train station, Waverley – so easy to get to).

Sometimes we seize up when we really want to write, and Kate explained that we need to use little tricks to get our minds to talk or write about something easy – and this is often objects.  We may be staring blankly at a blank screen, but when we are asked to describe what we’re wearing or had for breakfast, there’s no problem.  Looking at pictures instantly gives us something to respond to.  And asking questions will draw out more responses.  Our tutor gave us some excellent questions.

Ekphrasis – how to

Find a picture which you’d like to spend time with.

Set a timer to look at it for about 10 to 15 minutes and write in response.

At first, simply describe what you see.  What colours?  Textures?  Lines?

Then write down whatever else comes to mind

When your timer for 15 minutes is up, leave the artwork and then look at what you’ve written.  (It may be helpful to have a table to lean on, for revision).  I found the looking and writing enjoyable but intense, and felt a bit tired directly after.

Underline or circle anything you’ve written which surprises you.  These are likely to be the most interesting responses to readers.

Take 5 minutes to put together a verse on Time in the artwork.  Answer 3 questions: What do you imagine happened after the artwork was made?  What do you imagine happened before?  What changes in the artwork and will never be the same again?

Allow 5 more minutes for personal response: What is the size of the artwork compared to your body?  Compare a colour in the artwork to something in your house.  Write this into a verse.

Take 5 more minutes and choose one sense not visual and write about that in relation to the artwork.  e.g. the sound of the artwork, its smell, its touch…  This can become a third verse/stanza.

Put all of your writing on the artwork together, cut out some parts, move bits around.

Now look at what you’ve written.  Is it a draft for a poem/prose piece?


Creative Takeaways

  • Try ekphrasis as a writing warmup/practice repeatedly over a long time, daily if possible
  • A hugely beneficial side effect is that you notice each artwork more deeply.
  • Standing in a gallery, feeling overwhelmed by the choice?  Do a 360 degree view, right where you are and pick ONE.  (I had to do this, there were so many intriguing works – and surprised myself by what I felt drawn to)
  • If you’re not within travel distance of a gallery, you can always get a new book out of a library or if you live too far from a library, you can order an art book online.  Make sure it’s a book new to you.  Or just go online to Saatchi online or a national art gallery, look until something grabs your attention.  Just be careful you don’t get too engrossed in the act of looking, and absorb your writing time!
  • Still feel you need encouragement to write?  Try reading my thoughts on this, back in August, here.




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