Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ekphrasis: Describing Visual Art

This painting is called "L'Arbor et La Soleil." 
How does it make you feel? What about the painting makes you feel that way?

Ekphrasis is a literary term that refers to a piece of writing that describes a visual work of art. 

Ekphrasis can take the form of either poetry or prose, and a writer can choose to write about either a real object or a fictional object.

No matter what form the writing takes, or whether the subject is a real or imagined object, a writer should follow a few guidelines when writing in the descriptive mode.

Choose a Dominant Impression to Unify the Writing

Choosing a dominant impression is important because it will help control the content of the ekphrasis. The dominant impression for ekphrasis, a typically subjective or impressionistic type of writing, can usually be summed up with mood or emotion words, like “mysterious, joyful, nostalgic, or anxious.” Choosing a dominant impression might require a little prewriting, like clustering or listing, to generate an idea. On the other hand, writers might be so awed or transfixed by a work of art that they already know the type of mood or emotion they want to convey: Without having to think about it, a writer may know exactly how to describe how a work of art makes him or her feel. In that instance, a writer should start prewriting at the point where he or she needs to generate ideas for supporting details.

Add Consistent Supporting Details that Maintain the Dominant Impression

All of the descriptive details in ekphrasis should support the dominant impression. For example, if a writer describes a painting that conveys a feeling of sadness, all of the supporting details in the writing should support that dominant impression. The job of the writer describing this sad painting is to find ways to explain to the reader, then describe to the reader, how and why the painting depicts sadness.

Specific topics for discussion could include, but certainly are not limited to, the work’s composition, design, era, genre, subject matter, style, the evocation of memory, or an interpreted message. To help generate ideas for supporting details based on these topics, a writer might ask, “Why did the artist choose to paint, draw, sculpt, photograph, or design this way?” and “What effect do these choices have on me?” (Wyrick, 2011).

Include Specific and Visceral Details that Allow a Reader to "See" the Work of Art

Writing about a visual work of art requires writing that helps create a specific picture in the mind of the reader. This can be achieved by writers who include specific and visceral language in their descriptions. When writers write using specific language, they use words a reader is able to see in the mind’s eye as vividly as the writer sees the original. For example, instead of writing that a painting is empowering, a writer using specific language might state that a photograph makes the viewer feel empowered because of its realistic depiction of the linked arms of women from all races and ages at a women’s rights rally. The first description is too vague because the word “empowering” might mean different things to different people and does not create a picture in the mind’s eye. Another example is when a writer changes words like “things” or “very good” into more descriptive language like “mud puddles” or “it left me crying.”

No matter the type of ekphrasis a writer is composing, be it verse or a personal essay, there are a few good rules of thumb to follow. Writers should choose, and then stick to a dominant impression of the work of art, using specific and visceral language to convey a clear message to the reader.


Wyrick, J. (2011). Steps to writing well (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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