On Writing #3: Learning from Visual Cues

taken from Manhattan in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
“If you write without ever reading other authors, you are writing in a vacuum.”
-Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg

I believe whole-heartedly in this philosophy, but as you write, you come to learn that your craft can also benefit from absorbing the works of playwrights, painters, dancers, magicians, actors, and even acrobats. I often pay attention to visual cues given, whether subconsciously or consciously, by those around me, and how those cues accurately portray or conceal emotion. Like actors who wear emotion on their faces or painters who shape their subjects' appearance to show their internal lives, we writers use the page, instead of the physical body or canvas, to interpret human feeling. Visual and performance artists put such cues on display to elicit certain immediate reactions with us, their willing viewers. As writers, we can analyse these cues and our responses to better understand how to translate character, relationships, and meaningful interactions onto the page. And unlike observing the strangers who pass through our daily lives (also a helpful exercise, albeit a bit stalker-like!), we are meant to ogle these subjects.

On the off-day when my eyes refuse to focus on the written word, I often filter through my Netflix collection, snag tickets to a play, peruse DeviantArt, or stroll a museum for visual study. Take the artist’s work below, for instance. In this 25 Essential Expressions Challenge, Lois Van Baarle morphs one character’s face into a variety of expressions, each of which conveys a certain emotion.

25 expressions challenge by `loish on deviantART

If you take these expressions and translate them into words, you’re left with descriptions that convey an emotion, without having to state it outright (Remember that age-old saying about "show don't tell"?):
Tired: Bags layered her eyes.
Shocked/Suprised: Her mouth dropped open.
Irritated: Her lips pursed together, and brow furrowed.
An excellent resource for how to evoke emotions in writing can be found at The Bookshelf Muse or her book The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character.

So much of being an artist or a writer is about observation, how a pair of bluebirds clash with the earthen hues of autumn, how a trace of a smile curls someone’s lips when they cry. If you're observant enough to learn from others' visual cues, there's a world to be learned off of the page.

How do you learn from others' visual cues? Or do you rely on your other senses? With this new series, I hope to show how the senses can be used to further the craft of writing. Have an idea or exercise for me?