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Visualization in Art: What Does an Idea Look Like?

Author: Lucy Lamp

From verbal to visual language

How do artists translate their ideas and inspiration into visual language?  What does an idea look like? 

Sometimes artists—especially those exploring the qualities of a particular medium of art--work intuitively, without planning anything ahead of time. They just jump in and do whatever comes to mind as they work.

More often, artists plan consciously how to translate their idea from thoughts or writing—verbal language—into visual language, like line, shape, and color.

Either way, the concept is translated from the verbal into the visual. Every artwork consists of and can be analyzed according to its formal elements—the ABC’s of visual language.  Like verbal language there are many formal elements, and they can be combined in endless ways to express complex ideas.

Where do artists begin?

The concept or inspiration for an idea is broken down into specific elements that support the idea in the most effective way. Using visual language, an artist can manipulate the viewer’s experience with the artwork. An artist chooses formal elements to evoke a visceral response that is emotional and unconscious at first.

Some viewers leave it at that—enjoying their visceral and emotional response--without   feeling the need to translate it into words.

Others attempt to translate their experience into verbal language, basing their interpretation on their own knowledge and life experience.

Others seek information from outside themselves, such as the artist’s intent, cultural and historical environment it came from, the artist’s life story, or the opinion of an art historian or critic. They translate their experience according to the information they obtain.

In any case, a viewer’s response—even if only for a fraction of a second—is always unconscious at first, coming from that place within that is beyond words. That is what makes art distinctive, and whether or not a viewer understands it, there is always a response to the visual language of the artwork.  Successful artists use that language in a purposeful way.


Translating an idea into visual language

What is the artist’s process of taking an idea and translating it into visual language?


Detailed Planning  Some artists plan exactly what the final artwork will look like ahead of time.  They sketch out or model the idea in multiple ways—both verbally and visually--and refine it until they arrive at what they feel is the most effective way to express it. The final result looks very much, if not exactly like, what they plan.

Siah Armajani: Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge

Bridge Book       Siah Armajani,1991
woodcut, letterpress on paper
     9.0625 x 13.125 x 0.5 inches
Edition:  Archive I      Publisher:  Walker Art Center and Minnesota Center for Book Arts, Minneapolis
Owner:  Walker Art Center
Commissioned with funds provided in part by the Surdna Foundation, 1992

Model for the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge    Siah Armajani, 1985
wood, paint        12 x 74 x 4 inches

Walker Art Center         Acquired in connection with the construction of the Sculpture Garden, 1986



Rough Idea   Other artists have a rough idea of how their concept will look as an art object. They might make a few preliminary sketches. Then, as they work from that rough idea, they allow the object to refine itself, so to speak, allowing it to grow and change until it reaches its final form as an artwork. The final result may or may not look like the artist’s original plan.




Vision or Flash of Insight  Some have a flash of insight or a vision, an image in their mind’s eye that they work from. They work on it with no preliminary planning, using the image in their mind to direct them.

Vision for a Sculpture: Lucy Lamp

  Lucy Lamp   water dreams (memory of water)   watercolor, 5x7 in   1999


Lucy Lamp   memory of water     cast bronze    H3"2" x L 5'1" x W3'6"      2000




Cathartic (in the moment) no planning Artists working in a cathartic manner allow what is inside them—i.e. emotions, psychological aspects, or life challenges they might be facing---- to pour out from within them as they work, with no idea of what the final product will be. They simply choose the art media they want to work with and see what happens. Often this manner of working is very therapeutic. Art therapists encourage the people they work with to use this method as part of their healing process.

All of these processes translate a cconcept into visual language, with varying degrees of consiousness.



Web Link: Excellent example of extensive and complex planning over a period of years, including writing, drawing, modeling, and much more

Christo and Jeanne-Claude


The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Central Park, New York Ciity, 2005  photos by Jeffrey Shreve

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are known for their extremely large scale, complex projects working with public buildings, public sites and the landscape itself.

Each project takes years from original conception to final installation, and hundreds of workers to implement them.  Extensive planning and preparation is undertaken for each project. The cost to create these large scale projects is immense, but the artists have always funded the projects on their own, among other things selling their drawings and plans to provide the income needed.

They have an extensive, informative website that provides information about and details of each project. Also included are the many prepatory sketches, writings models, and other planning materials needed for each project.

The website is a rich source of information about the process of taking an idea and translating it into visual form--on a very large scale. Take some time to study the website.

"Christo and Jeanne-Claude"

Creating the art object

Once the idea is broken down into visual language, an artist creates a tangible object that embodies the artist’s idea. This often begins with choosing the artistic medium most appropriate to the idea. Artistic media include drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, sculpture, installation art, artist’s books, performance art, video or film, digital art, and interactive internet sites. An artwork might also be a combination of different media—referred to as  multi-media—or even a combination of different disciplines, such as music, theater, or dance.


Many Ideas--One Medium   

Some artists work exclusively in one medium, expressing many ideas in that medium.

Pablo Picasso:  Painting

Pablo Picasso (Spanish,1881–1973) was a child prodigy, spending hours at the museum, painting from master artists, faithfully reproducing the paintings in exact detail. He was a prolific artist, often creating works of art in one day. He spent his long life pursuing his ideas, exploring and experimenting with them, never content to leave them alone. This is apparent in the many different periods he went through in his artmaking. Although Picasso worked in other media (drawing, printmaking, and sculpture) he used painting as a means to evolve his ideas radically--many times--throughout his life.


Seated Harlequin 1901 oil on canvas 32 3/4 x 24 1/8 in     Metropolitan Museum of Art  Mr. and Mrs. John L. Loeb Gift, 1960                     



           Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler Oil on canvas 45 5/8 x 45 5/8

Art Institute of Chicago Gift of Mrs. Gilbert W. Chapman in memory of Charles B. Goodspeed, 1948




                                                           Girl Before a Mirror 1932  Oil on canvas 64 x 51 1/4"                                                         The Museum of Modern Arts, NY   Gift of Mrs. Simon Guggenheim.    © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York                                 


Pablo Picasso Official Website

Everyone wants to understand painting. Why don’t they try to understand the song of the birds? Why do they love a night, a flower, everything which surrounds man, without attempting to understand them? Whereas where painting is concerned, they want to understand. Let them understand above all that the artist works from necessity; that he, too, is a minute element of the world to whom one should ascribe no more importance than so many things in nature which charm us but which we do not explain to ourselves. Those who attempts to explain a picture are on the wrong track most of the time. Gertrude Stein, overjoyed, told me some time ago that she had finally understood what my picture represented: three musicians. It was a still-life!

---Pablo Picasso (1)


One Idea, Many Media

Other artists pursue a central idea through many different media.

Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, 1929--)

Yayoi Kusama has been as obsessive as Picasso in exploring her ideas and prolofic in producing them in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, collage, performance art, sculpture, installation,environmental art, and as an author.

The concept of repetition, pattern, and infinity, and the landscape of the mind are common elements in her work. Kusama is candid in discussing how the act of creating became a weapon in her battle against mental illness.


Self-Obliteration by Dots   1968
Performance, documented with photographs by Hal Reif


Yayoi Kusama, Nets series 1997-98   acrylic on canvas


Mirror Room (Pumpkin) 1991
Mirrors, Wood, Paper Mache, Paint   200cm x 200cm x 200 cm.
Collection, Hara Museum, Tokyo

Yayoi Kusama's Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees at the Singapore Biennale 2006 on Orchard Road, Singapore.  Photo courtesy of Sengkang, August 2006

Yayoi Kusama's official website:

Here is what I am!
 One day, looking at a red flower-patterned table cloth...
I turned my eyes to the ceiling and saw the same red flower pattern
everywhere, even on the window glass and posts.
The room, my body, the entire universe was filled with it,
my self was eliminated, and I had returned and been reduced
to the infinity of eternal time and the absolute of space...

I firmly believe that the creative philosophy of art is ultimately born in solitary meditation and rises from the quietude of the reposed soul to glitter and flutter in the splendour of the five colours.

--Yayoi Kusama (2)


Process of Working. Through trial and error you can discover the process of working that is most effective for you. This is an individual thing, varying greatly from artist to artist. One of the joys of working as an artist is knowing that you can choose to create in any way you choose---there are no right or wrong ways to imagine, design, or produce art---only the ways that work for you.



Source: (1) * Boisgeloup, winter 1934, quoted in Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock -, Richard Friedenthal, Thames and Hudson, London, 1963, pp. 259-260 (translation Daphne Woodward (2) Yayoi Kusama (Contemporary Artists). 2000 Phaidon Pres


These exercises will help you to translate your ideas into visual language.

Drawing Emotions

This exercise will help you to relax and move into the intuitive part of your brain where your creativity comes from.

Select a variety of colors of any drawing medium--i.e. colored pencil, crayon, pastels--and a large sheet of paper. Write down as many different emotions as you can think of, for example, love, anger, peacefulenss, excitement, sadness, joy.

Then take each emotion and,  after imagining the feeling of the emotion wihtin yourself,  "draw" it, selecting colors, shapes, and lines that seem to "feel" like the emotion. For this exercise, do not use symbols or images that represent it, like a heart shape for love. Let the process of your drawing be intuitive and not intellectual. It will look like a lot of lines and colors, but you will have translated a concept--an emotion--into visual language.


Drawing to Music

This also helps you to access that part of your brain where your creativity comes from.

Get yourself as large a drawing surface you can find. Lay out a variety of drawing media in different colors. Then, put on some of your favorite music, particularly the kind that really makes you feel something. The music should go on for at least 15 minutes, whether it’s one piece or a number of different ones. Let the music play without interruption.

While the music is playing, relax and enjoy it. Feel the music inside you. Let it flow through your body. Choose the colors and media that feel the most like the music. Let the music flow through your body and through your arms and through your hands onto the paper. Keep doing this for as long as you want to, and allow yourself to become one with the music. Let the music move across the whole paper as you draw. The drawing will not look like anything, just different types of lines in different colors.

Lucy Lamp something like that  oil on canvas 20005

visual representation of a jazz composition composed by Jeffrey Shreve

Most people find this to be a very relaxing and stress relieving activity. You can do this whenever you feel the need to relax. You will find that different genres of music produce different results.


Creating a Visual Image of a Concept

Look back to the list you made for the previous packet on inspiration (memory, story, dream, etc.)

Select from your list either the thing you believe in or a hope/goal/aspiration. What color(s) would it be? What kinds of lines or shapes would it have?

Create a design that you feel expresses it, without using any recognizable symbols.


Creating a Visual Image of a Narrative

Select from your list the dream, memory, story, or something you enjoy.

What kind of space or place is it in? What time of day is it?  What is the weather like? Who, if  anyone, is in it?  What are they doing? What kinds of objects do you see? 

Lucy Lamp what the woods told me (detail)

Take the answers to these questions, and any of your own questions, and make a color sketch of it. Don’t worry about what it looks like, or whether or not you think you can draw. Just draw what you see in your mind. Now you have translated a narrative into visual language. You have told a story in pictures rather than words.

Source: image: Lucy Lamp