Finding A Way of Seeing

Magritte, Key of Dreams, 1930

When we hear words are we all seeing the same picture?

I remember this Magritte painting from the cover of John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing”, a mandatory reading assignment for art students. This painting from his Key of Dreams series displays simple flash card type image word pairs. They appear to be accurate, yet they are all wrong –except for the lower right corner. The displacement is the whole point.

      “What one must paint is the image of resemblance—if thought is to become visible in the world.“ —Rene Magritte

The paintings represent objects that are part of our common visual culture. He violates our earliest learning of recognizable words and pictures; A is for apple, B is for bear. Which brings the question. Do we all make the same universal associations? What if we are from different cultures?

As an illustrator I wonder how I can illustrate ideas and associations from someone else’s culture? I need a key in my lower right corner to guide me to the right answer.

Images symbolize concepts. Usually the simplest stylized version is effective because we all can recognize it. The symbol of a house as “home” has become an accepted symbol to guide you back to your “home” page on a website. But does that make sense in every culture? Does every culture have its own way of representing objects and ideas and images as concepts? A simple picture of a house can symbolize home (where you live) but does it say “navigation to the main page” or have we just become accustomed to it?

The word illustrate comes from the Latin illustrare ‘to light up or enlighten. To illustrate is to explain or make something clear by using pictures. It is also to show the meaning or truth of something more clearly by using pictures. My goal in illustrating a story is to add or enhance it in some way. My task of illustrating an idea or concept starts with a visual image that arises from words. The picture may be clear in my mind’s eye but in the translation between thought and the action of drawing many surprising things can happen. Sometimes I end up with nothing at all like I’d imagined and beautiful directions were discovered along the way. When you bring words to life through imagery it is a form of magic.

Some have the gift of words that are driven by imagery – good writing is usually full of visual ques. But a word can mean different things to different people. When you are translating someone else’s words you might not conjure up the same image. Hopefully this is a good and surprising thing – but sometimes not. A friend of mine, an author once had a story interpreted by an illustrator with a different gender. The story works both ways but it was not as imagined or visualized in the writer’s eye.

As an author I write with images. Because I am also an illustrator it would be hard to turn over my words to someone else’s pictures. It is this thought that drives me to succeed at the task set before me – to take great care of the author’s words and to find ways of seeing with another person’s eyes and thousands of years of a whole other culture riding behind it. I have to get it right.