Posted in Art and Artists, Coursework, Part 1, Research & Reflection

Considering personal visual language


The course notes make the following observation:

“personal visual language by looking at some images by the following artists from different art historic moments, each working in a very different style, but each very firmly absorbed in the activity of drawing: Leonardo da Vinci, Käthe Kollwitz, Cy Twombly and Jenny Saville.”, Course Notes p13

What is a “Visual Language”?

Wikipedia defines it as “The visual language is a system of communication using visual elements” ( which provides a start point. From my software development background I might equate this with something like a UML Diagram ( In fact, this does stand up as a simile for a visual language in art. Colours and forms have innate meaning, and the way that an artist tends to apply them makes up part of the artists’ recognisable style within a body of work. I say within a body of work because an artist can, and often does, vary across time.

The following elaborates on this overall concept:

“The transformation of the world onto two-dimensional surfaces requires a deep understanding of the unspoken codes and symbols. These help to build the visual language and how one choices to introduce their understanding of the world is how diversity within a visual language is created… The tone of artistic voice differs depending on the topic and emotional state of the speaker. This, believe it or not, also implies in the visual language of paintings, design works, and sculptures. Often through the use of color, and its complimentary hues, one can stress the most important feature within a certain piece. … Crucial to the idea of the visual language are many scientific types of research concentrating on the analysis of sight, of eye’s perception, and of the mind.” From

The elements of a visual language equate to the elements of art as a whole ( Point, Line, Shapes, Figure-ground relationship, mass, space, colour and texture. It is the way an artist combines these that make up their visual language. Using this lens I have considered the makeup of the Visual Language of the artists mentioned.

Leonardo da Vinci

The Cartoon of St. Anne – by Leonardo Da Vinci, from

Leonardo worked at a time where artists were prized for their ability to present a beautiful reality. He was able to provide both of these qualities in his work to a degree that was exceptional for his time. Consider the “The Cartoon of St. Anne” as an example. In this work all of the characters depicted are definitely aesthetically pleasing to look at, and are highly realistic. It is likely that they represented the model bring drawn to a reasonable degree, though clearly it impossible to be sure of that at this point. The drapery is both elaborate and seems realistic. This realism and accurate proportion follows through in many of his drawings (, with others being studies to extract visual information for use elsewhere. In other drawings he has a scientific or engineering approach to his drawing work, including anatomy diagrams that presumably came from post mortem examination. The “black on light coloured background” look of many of these drawings is presumably derived from the use of silverpoint as the mechanism for drawing.

Sources about his work are ubiquitous, but the following provides a strong flavour:

Käthe Kollwitz

Woman With Dead Child (1903), from

Kathe’s working is taking a darker turn, in terms of colour and tone as well as subject. Even where the tones are lighter, such as “Something from a nightmare … Woman With Dead Child (1903). ” (See the subject matter is still dark. Kathe worked at a time where beauty wasn’t necessarily expected in art – and she definitely didn’t feel a need to provide it.

The following summarises her visual language well:

“….conjured from scores of expressive lines and smudgy shadows in etchings and lithographs, have the majesty of figures carved in stone, their features chiselled by hard knocks.” From

She seems to be heavily influenced by death and it seeps through her work.


The following quote is illuminating about her work:

“Käthe Kollwitz believed that art should effect social change. She originally envisioned The Downtrodden as part of a triptych related to her cycle of etchings called The Weaver’s Rebellion but ultimately developed it as an independent work.” From

With this lens, the darkness of her work is likely to be part of using her art as a catalyst for social change – which is likely to be the subject of a future blog article.

The following provide further examples and discussion of her work:

Cy Twombly

Quattro Stagioni: Autunno 1993-5 by Cy Twombly 1928-2011
Quattro Stagioni: Autunno 1993–5 , from

With “Cy” the language is shifting again:

“His paintings are predominantly large-scale, freely-scribbled, calligraphic and graffiti-like works on solid fields of mostly gray, tan, or off-white colors. ” From

His works do seem to have a certain resemblance to graffiti, and to be honest I find the underlying visual language quite inaccessible. As indicated in the Tate article on Autunno ( his symbolism shares characteristics with Abstract Expressionism. In fact, the Art Story lists him as an Abstract Expressionist painter – rather than coming after. On this basis his visual language is probably best described as gestural marks, which hero the material that he is using to create them. This mainly seems to have been various forms of paint, though there are also extensive collections of drawings by him.

Further information about his work is available:

Jenny Saville

Reverse, 2003 from

Jenny is a relatively young artist, and is currently producing work and exhibiting. The images  are large and not intended to portray beauty, in fact the artist has described herself as being “Anti beauty” at points, in the following article: The work is, however, very powerful in its imagery. Most of the work is also very large.

The following video provides a tour of her work: The Art of Jenny Saville

Her visual language includes skilfully rendered flesh extended into the grotesque and macabre. Women often look bruised, decaying or even with the feel of the abattoir. Sometimes graffiti like scrawls cover her images, and in other pieces there are lines on the body almost like the subject is being prepped for plastic surgery.

Mirror, 2011-12 from

She sometimes tries to create a set of “simultaneous realities” within her work. (Referred to here: This was particularly in respect of Mirror,  but this does seem to be a theme running across much of her body of work.

Other sources of information about her work include:

So, what have I learnt?

The concepts of visual language and personal voice are clearly entwined. A visual language is wrapped around the subjects and context of the work an artist is doing, and the effect they are looking to produce. If Leonardo were living now would his work end up being more like contemporary work? I suspect the answer is yes, as he was working in the style of his time when he was working. This is the importance of context. This is heading into a question similar to that of the nature/nurture concept (

In terms of drawing style and its relationship to visual language, this exercise has expanded my understanding and appreciation of the concept and possibilities. The element of bringing this back into my own work, however, is still an exercise for the future. One approach would be to attempt drawing in different artists styles, and to use this to help in positioning myself and to extend my own visual language.

2 thoughts on “Considering personal visual language

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