In his book, The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton introduces the 19th century art critic, painter, and educator John Ruskin. Born in 1819, Ruskin was a complex character, who I’d like to learn more about.
Ruskin was passionate about teaching people how to draw (he wrote the book, The Elements of Drawing). His goal was not that they should become excellent draw-ers, but that they would learn to see (much like one of my heroes, Frederick Franck).
For this post, I’d like to share with you Ruskin’s habit of creating “word paintings.”
He thought it was important to write about what you saw. For our purposes, we’ll talk about “word paintings” with photographs.
“We were all, Ruskin argued, able to turn out adequate word paintings. A failure was only the result of not asking ourselves enough questions, of not being more precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt.” ~ Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
Here’s an example of one of Ruskin’s word paintings.
“Dawn purple, flushed, delicate. Bank of grey cloud, heavy at six. Then the lighted purple cloud showing through it, open sky of dull yellow above – all grey, and darker scud going across it obliquely, from the southwest, moving fast, yet never stirring from its place, at last melting away. It expands into a sky of brassy flaked light on grey – passes away into grey morning.” ~ Ruskin, The Art of Travel
This is a pretty literal reflection on what Ruskin saw, but he goes on to say that these word paintings would not only describe what something looked like, but also how it made us feel, as well as its psychological value and importance to us.
Ideally, we would write a word painting before we take the photograph, however, if the experience is still fresh enough, it can be done after the fact.
Here’s an example from one of my recent photographs.
Outside my front door is a sea of white covering everything in its path. I notice the branches of the trees, which only yesterday seemed like a chaotic jumble, but now stand out with their fresh coat of snow. The lack of wind keeps the snow snugly in place. The temperature is milder than it’s been all week. Everything is getting a little reprieve from the bitter cold and seems to be celebrating. The branches on this particular tree reach out in both directions as if they are embracing winter. The beauty of this winter white wonderland takes my breath away. I stop to appreciate the scene, knowing it won’t last forever.
Try writing a word painting (in your head or on paper) the next time something stops you in wonder.
We’re only registering 25 participants for this workshop, which starts Monday, March 2nd. Registration will open on Saturday, February 7th.
Articles on Ruskin
Mike Leigh and Emma Thompson have got him all wrong (via The Guardian)