On Developing a Visual Voice

It seems to me that there are several parts to this process, and several important approaches to this self discovery process.

Pure Form: I believe – and my belief is supported by more than 30 years of work with children in creative learning environments – that each of us is born with an innate preference/leaning toward a particular way of perceiving and giving form that is directly connected to what I (and my colleagues in this work) call the sensory alphabet (see below). This vocabulary of non-verbal qualities – line, color, shape, space, light, texture, movement, sound and rhythm-- is a way of thinking about and organizing one’s individual strengths of perception and invention. Looking at one’s preferences and natural tendencies through this lens serves as both a way to self discovery and as a bridge to understand other creative work. This vocabulary is not just an artistic one – it can hold as true to creative work in business as in design, in science as in art. 

Think about whichof these constructs is easiest for you to notice, to manipulate, to play with –is it pattern (rhythm) or texture or color? What did you love as a young child?  Which of these elements are most important to you in your home, your environment? What artists do you resonate to? Design exercises and experiences for yourself that feed your mind’s natural interests, or find teachers that share your sensibilities (look at their work and see what they say about it) who can provide classes that feed your perceptual strengths.

An understanding of your own creative style in terms of this vocabulary can be the starting place for finding your voice – and even help you find the best and strongest medium for work.  For example, if color is my strong suite, I might take time to do dye and discharge samples, study Albers and other colorist’s work, take photos exploring color themes, investigate watercolor and glazing, look at color as understood by chemists and physicists, etc. If movement is a strong suite, I might see how to incorporate moving elements in my textile work, take up techniques that use my body in strenuous and challenging fashion, look at how movement blurs an image and how to capture that sense with dyeing or printing, I might even want to dye fabrics and construct garments for dance performances or architectural installations with moving components. 

Most of us have three or four of these strong suites that interact in interesting ways and can pose intriguing puzzles for our work. Tracking down your strongest perceptual elements is usually just a matter of paying attention to preference, to what you notice in a space, to the materials that call your name. Journaling about childhood preferences and doing detective work in your closet, your home, your memory bank can help you name your sensory strengths.

Content and themes: Another part of personal voice has to do with content and subject matter –Many artists who are just starting out jump around from one topic to another, one genre to another and this is an important part of learning. Sooner or later though the time comes to get beyond the surface of a topic or interest, whether it is rural landscapes or flowers or political activism or portraiture. Committing to solving the same problem different ways has a real benefit In the process of finding one’s voice. How do you pick?  Start with something that holds some passion for you – something with enough personal interest that you might have a chance of making it interesting to someone else. 

Sometimes the content of one’s work is directly related to “formal” interests (for example, an artist interested in rhythm, might find a study of African mudcloth patterns particularly inspiring and influential, or maybe exploring the visual idea of windows would appeal to an artist who likes spatial concepts.) For others, a theme or content is something important because of experience, story and memory – journaling can help you identify these kinds of themes. 

Themes and content lead one to develop personal imagery, ways of handling materials and tools, narrative content sometimes.

Materials and media – Part of one’s voice has to do with the materials and media that are central to the form. Both experimentation and fluency play a role. Experimentation means taking the time and having the will to push a media or material beyond what you have seen others do with it. Fluency means playing with possibilities and with the borders between media, combining it with other materials and using new tools with the medium. Fluency also requires “just sticking to it” long enough to get beyond the first easy idea, and this I think is the dirty little secret behind developing facility and technical skills. A lot of artists want their first of something to be fabulous, but most of us who have stuck with it long enough know that expertise does clarify the voice. Experience with the technical handling of the media, the tools, the physical material of one’s art and craft means that the message becomes clear, the hand of the artist is consciously visible rather than intrusively visible. You’ve simply got to keep at it and the “it” has to be something you like enough to carry you over the drudge, slog and boring parts.

Creative process – Finally, the entire process that you as an artist use to come up with and bring to life original work is part of your voice. No two people have identical creative processes. Some of us need lots of incubation and collection time. We want to look at other people’s work and make sketches. Other people need to amass piles of materials to dive into with no idea of the outcome; other artists are meticulous planners, with sketches and maquettes. Some need people around, music, noise and lots of feedback; other artists require long periods of solitude and silence. The more you know about and respect your own creative process, the clearer your voice will ring.

Knowing and respecting your creative process is again a matter of paying attention, of doing personal detective work through journaling, of metacognitive investigation—ie. thinking about thinking.


The Sensory Alphabet

From New World Kids, A Parent’s Guide to Creative ThinkingBy Susan Marcus and Susie Monday


Human vision is distinguished by the color-detecting ability of our eyes, and so for us color is often the element of discernment — and the visual language of emotion. Green with envy, seeing red, walking around under a black cloud, emotion transforms itself into colorful characters, colorful language, poetic passion. Paint on canvas creates sunny weather or an emotional storm; and music paints a picture solemn or spritely. Where is your color sense alive? In cooking or chemistry, stargazing or paint mixing, finding rainbows, delighting in a feather’s iridescence or in an outlandishly fashionable fashion sense?


Sound has the inherent quality of acting directly on the emotions without going through the intellect. Listen. The world is speaking to you in a thousand different voices. When we listen, we put ourselves in the moment. Present to an argument, a plea, a whine, a bird call, wind in the trees or a symphony. Besides the obvious (musicians and music), actors, politicians, priests and teachers invoke action with tone, timber, tempo and sound. Writers (and readers) listen as words unfurl on the page. Painters may paint a sound and runners may use one to make the miles fly. Ecologists, anthropologists, birdwatchers, linguists and physicians – all use sound to diagnose, distinguish and define.


Space is omni dimensional, geographic and temporal, both geometrically present outside of us, and metaphorically present inside the fences of our imaginations. With space, what isn’t is

as important as what is: the inside of a basket, the silences between the notes, the pause between the speakers, the room inside the walls. The way a canvas size or a room’s dimensions determine how we move within it. As humans we can’t help but pay attention to space as space and space as time. How long? How wide? How fast? How slow? Where and when? Think about how these people use and analyze space: mechanical engineers, publishers, architects, dancers, cartographers, chess players, editors, sit com writers.


Movement is about change and getting from here to there, from up to down, from then to now. We talk about how ideas move us, how ambition gets us there, that responsibility keeps us tied down, how our imaginations run away and our philosophies collide. A storyline must move right along or it loses our attention; cycles of days and years and viewpoints become the stuff of history; cycles in our bodies, in weather, in nature present whole worlds of study. Kinesthetic learners must move into knowledge, often quite literally, finding the meaning of a concept by physically moving into it. Movers include (but

are not limited to) explorers, botanists, meteorologists, dancers, acrobats, athletes, construction workers, industrial designers.


Rhythm is the heartbeat element, holding things together in big and little patterns. We each have a personal rhythm that is as distinct as our fingerprints, recognizable beneath the changing tides of emotional rhythms that rock and rollus through the day. Rhythm at first thought is audible and invisible – drum beats, finger taps, cadences and cacaphony, but imagine the world without stripes, dots and dashes, without the visual patterns of steps, of lines of shoes, of the this and that way of the lines in a leaf. Without rhythm who could be a pianist, a mathematician, a poet, an actor, a director, a salesman, a video editor, a debator, a basketball player, a waiter, a politician, an animal behaviorist or a juggler?


Light delights as the most elusive and changeable element of form: giving contour, creating mood, illuminating all manners of truth. The sea sparkles, pearls have luster, silk shimmers, we “see the light.” Stage designers, cinematographers, photographers and architects are obvious masters of light and shadow– but think too about light as perceived by physicists, by glass artists, by poets and urban planners. Without light, we’re literally and figuratively “in the dark.” Fireflies, fireworks, shadow play and starlight are some of our first light-filled fascinations – what are others?


Line, the elemental foundation for print and number, has determined much about 20th Century life and success in our culture. Isobars, arteries, fault lines, line drives, battle lines, lines of credit, timelines, lines of type, notes, numbers and people — stretchy, slinky, fixed or floating, dotted or dashed, lines connect two or more points. And the points are, as mathematicians remind us, infinite. Writers pen story lines; programmers, lines of code. Biologists decipher lines of DNA; entrepreneurs develop product lines. Singers follow melodic lines; jazz musicians improvise upon them. Where do you enter the element of line? As story teller or scribbler? With delight for a maze or an appreciation for ballet?


“Shapes shape other shapes.” As shapefinders we look for symmetries, for foreground and background, the donut and the hole, for the whole of the thing that is greater than its parts. Putting puzzles together is playing around with shape, and so is the literary love of beginning, middle and end. Pleasing shapes play their part in our neighborhoods, our furniture, our plates, platters, shoes and cars. Shapemakers include sculptors and typographers, mathematicians with their worlds of symmetries, microbiologists, industrial designers and couture clothiers. We shape play with shells and rocks, clay and cookie dough, big bouncing balls and smooth, sleek kitty cats.


At its most direct, tactile information is as close as it gets, up close and personal, right at our fingertips. Smooth, woven, wrapped, slippery, shiny, course, rigid and reedy. We see texture, too, and hear it in a voice or a song. Our days are rough or smooth, our moods even or edgy, our needs piercing or pointed. Surgeons, weavers, gardeners, art collectors, textile designers and chefs must all pay close attention to texture. Does your child explore texture in the sand box, through a microscope’s lens, coiling clay snakes, eating ice cream or squishing toes in the mud?

For more about the Sensory Alphabet see:

The Missing Alphabet