Word Paintings


Sky Painting

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.


Showing off its finest winter wear

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.

This is just one of the many types of exercises we’ll have in store for you in the visual journaling workshop – Once Upon a Time: Your Photographs have Stories to Tell.

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)

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Remembering Toller Cranston


“Everyone has a moment to bloom. There is also a time to drop lightly to the garden path like a drying petal….” Toller Cranston *

I lived and breathed figure skating as I was growing up. All I wanted to do was skate and I knew everything about all of the top skaters in the world. Any reference to skating in the newspaper or magazines was carefully cut out and placed in one of my many scrapbooks.

This past weekend, ironically while watching the Canadian figure skating championships, I heard of the untimely death at 65 years of Toller Cranston, a Canadian and international skating legend. The news brought commentators Scott Hamilton and Tracy Wilson to tears.

For me, it brought back many memories from my skating years and the ways that Toller had an impact on my life, then and now. Here are three ways that he continues to inspire me.

* Do It Your Way and Push the Boundaries

Toller was a true original. He had music inside of him that had to come out through his body and his art. In an age when men’s figure skating was very technical and unemotional, he brought flair and artistry like no one before him. His style did not appeal to everyone, but you could never say that he wasn’t authentic.

Cranston changed skating for the better. He was Canadian men’s champion six times, from 1971-1976 (my formative years). Even after his competitive years were over, he pushed the boundaries of professional skating by pursuing theatre on ice.

“The basis of all art is sincerity. To be yourself, to rely on your own judgement, your own gut feeling of what is right.” ~ from the book, Toller


* Be an Artist of Life

While Toller was known as an artist on ice, he was an artist in every way. He became just as well known for his colourful and fantastical paintings. When my husband and I bought our first house, we decorated our living room around one of Toller’s prints, a gift from my Mom. The walls of our living room were bright pink to highlight the framed piece (which I still have).

Toller was also an artist of life; known for his colourful, exuberant personality and curious nature. As Jeanne Beker says in her Globe and Mail article,

“Life was theatre for Toller, and he always knew precisely how to work the stage… His capacity to love his friends was enormous. And all those he loved loved him right back.”

* Follow Your Destiny No Matter What

I have a couple of books about Toller. The first one, simply called Toller, was written in 1975 by Elva Oglanby and includes stories, poems, pictures, and art. It was given to me by my sister for my 20th birthday. It is clear from this book that Toller Cranston felt his destiny from a young age and, although he definitely suffered from rejection at times, this never stopped him from doing what felt right.

This story has stayed with me my entire life and explains much about Toller Cranston.

“Inhibition is the deadly enemy of all performers. It places limitations on their art so that they are never truly great.  Something is held back – the results are never total. I had not realized the extent to which I was inhibited until one night at a party I really let myself go. I danced a gypsy dance and poured my soul into what I was doing. I forgot the other people in the room – I was in a world of my own. I astonished everyone. Someone said to me, “You idiot! Why don’t you skate that way? It would be sensational!” And that’s exactly what I did. I never have been inhibited since then, not even the slightest bit. You only have to do it once. After that it becomes quite easy … there is no need to be afraid.”


Cranston was a human being; an unusual, complex character. His life had ups and downs, like all of us, but he inspired many, including me. Thank you, Toller. You’ll be missed.


* Idol turned friend, Toller Cranston was mesmerizing – Jeanne Beker, Globe & Mail

Toller Cranston ever the rascal, rogue and original: DiManno, The Toronto Star

See Toller Cranston original artworks at Art Evolution

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Evolution of a Photo Project – Exploring Edges

Have you ever found yourself photographing on a particular theme? A few years ago, I noticed that I was taking a lot of photographs of “edges,” and decided to explore further.

We live in a world of boundaries. borders, and edges – things that separate and things that connect. Stanly Plumly, in his book, The Marriage in the Trees, writes,

“In ornithology there occurs the phrase, the abrupt edge, which is the edge between two types of vegetation… where the advantages of both are most convenient.”

Plumly says that natural edges can be very gradual or more abrupt, like a forest’s edge. On the edge can be found the greatest diversity, chaos, danger, and opportunity.

When I first heard this quote by Plumly, I was blown away. The edge is the place where things happen! Risk and opportunity go hand in hand.

A Project is Born

While walking the beach in Florida with my friend (and poet), Norah Oulahen, we talked about this theme of edges and came up with the idea to do a project together. I provided photographs with “edges” and she wrote poems inspired by the photographs.

This image below reminds me of those conversations.


Imagine how many deep talks and silent thoughts occur while thousands of people walk the beach every day. The surf constantly takes away the footprints but the thoughts and conversations live on.

“I think we are always running from the edge. We want to feel safe. There are risks waiting or disappearing there. Our lives are touched by rim hugs.” ~ Norah Weir Oulahen


This image was taken on the Western coast of Ireland, a place where my ancestors came from and set sail for Canada. As I stood on these rocks, I thought of them leaving their homeland for the unknown. Standing at the edge of a vast body of water sometimes makes us think of people we miss and love, whether alive or dead.

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut, from ThinkExist.com

Field of Layers, available on Imagekind

This is one of those photographic opportunities that you have to train your eyes to see. An ordinary field, yet extraordinarily beautiful when we see the textures, the lines (or edges), and the layers of colour.

Another poem and photo from the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of footprints in the sand, we explore what happens to all of our thoughts at the end (or the edge) of the day. We need to rest and let them simmer.

This is just one way to approach a body of work. You could create your own around a place, a colour, a subject (i.e. hands or solitude), a type of photography (impressionism or black and white). There are so many possibilities. Currently, I’m working on a project on abstract impressions of my hometown.

“For me, creativity is the stuff you do at the edges. But the edges are different for everyone,and the edges change over time. If you visualize the territory you work in as an old Boston Bruins sweatshirt, realize that over time, it stretches out, it gets looser, the edges move away. Stuff that would have been creative last year isn’t creative at all today, because it’s not near the edges any more.” ~ Seth Godin


Have you noticed themes in your own photography? Or, are you currently working on a project?

Check out: David duChemin’s Boat Abstracts and Guy Tal’s thoughts on Projects.

If you would like to learn how to uncover the themes, metaphors, and stories in your photography, please consider the visual journaling workshop coming up in March – Once Upon a Time: Your Photographs have Stories to Tell.

Early registration (at a discounted price) will open up next week for those on our interested list. You can add your name to that list here.


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