Ekphrasis: a writing technique

This Greek word relates to writing that is effectively triggered in response to art or music. I came across the word by chance in a Writer’s Digest article and discovered that it is an ancient concept with many adaptations and interpretations.

As a tourist in Edinburgh years ago I came across a book of poems and stories inspired by works in the National Galleries of Scotland. The book contained beautiful replicas of various artworks along with pieces that had been inspired by art. It was a glorious mix, providing a variety of viewpoints into what can be interpreted or instigated by taking the time to look at art and engage your imagination. The book is one of a number of works published following a competition originally devised to raise awareness of the various collections “to encourage writers to find imaginative links, from the personal to the universal, between art and the written word”. You can find out more about the competition here.

Years ago I used to regularly visit the Art Gallery of NSW. How I loved entering the grand building after walking through the lush green lawns of the Domain, taking shade from the gracious old trees. The tiled entrance to the gallery, skirting past the information desk and heading into the permanent collection, looking for old favourites before discovering new installations. There were many that I loved, and can still imagine them clearly years later. These included Cymon and Iphigenia by Lord Frederic Leighton, Across the Blacksoil Plains by George W Lambert and The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon by Sir Edward John Poynter. I also enjoyed the Australian gallery, becoming increasingly familiar with the styles of John Brack, Margaret Preston, Brett Whiteley and others.

What I am going to do now, though, is take the time to look through my collection of books from the works of galleries that I have visited and use them as the basis for writing prompts. Some of these may grow legs and expand into short stories or something even larger. They offer a window into another time and place, an alternative reality.

Have you ever used a piece of art as the source of creative inspiration?

[Photo: spent jacaranda blossoms on stairs at Old Buttery, Bellingen]

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8 thoughts on “Ekphrasis: a writing technique

  1. I remember doing so once at school. But I have been thinking about this quite a lot over the past year, seeing as one of my favourite writers, Sylvia Linsteadt, is publishing a book very soon that was inspired by a number of artworks by Rima Staines. Usually we think of the story coming first, and then perhaps some illustrations; but in this case it was topsy-turvy, the art coming first, and then the stories growing from there. If you are interested, you can find out about the book here: https://unbound.com/books/tatterdemalion A trade paperback will also be released next year.

    • Thanks for your comments, Therese, and for a great example. I will have a look at link as I’m intrigued by the concept. Your comments reminded me of a writing exercise at school (back in year 4 from memory – oh so long ago!) where the teacher played part of the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky and we were able to write, inspired by the music. I can see myself going off on another tangent of writing influenced by art!

      • Yes, Sylvia Linsteadt actually began writing from Rima’s art when she was feeling blocked and had no ideas—and a whole novel ended up coming out of it! It’s a great idea, to use someone else’s imagery or sounds to spark your own ideas.

  2. No, but 20 years ago I used to love visiting the Queensland Art Gallery and park myself for hours to fall into a Fred Williams work – a sort of side view of a creek. Reverie! But one without words.

    • That sounds like bliss to me! There is something wonderful about art that transforms you and takes you somewhere else, including deep contemplation. Thank you for sharing, Rowena, and your recollection is so vivid.

  3. There is a blogger who makes cakes based on books she has read! I’m not quite sure how the system works, but after she’s read a book she makes (or invents from scratch) a cake that reflects how the book comes across to her

    • What a great idea! I can honestly say I’ve never been motivated by a book in that way but I find the idea intriguing. Depending on what you are reading, there would be quite some variety in the cakes, I would imagine. Thank you for sharing such an interesting approach.

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