Barocci’s Hands: Artists, Writers and Elements

It’s a beautiful sketch. I’m certain that Barocci didn’t draw these hands for show, but only to be referenced as elements for his saleable paintings. Great artists have always collected and referenced elements for use in their own compositions. Constable had notebooks full of elements for landscapes,  and I learned this summer that Gordon Smith, now in his nineties, asks friends to bring him photos of natural elements—branches, beaches, cloud formations—for his paintings.

Most writers are readers, and we roam landscapes of prose, admiring other authors’ figurative language. But admiring isn’t active, the way sketching is. I wondered how exactly other writers go about collecting elements for their compositions. It occurred to me that in the same way that Barocci made records of emotive hands, many of us amass and write down streamlined adjectives, powerful verbs and efficient connectors.

The elements of figurative language include simile, metaphor, alliteration, imagery, onomatopoeia, personification, hyperbole, opposition, oxymoron, paradox, idiom, allusion. Colour words, tastes, textures, odours… What a lot of elements! It almost seems as if using so many would result in an elaborately over-written narrative. But, when I take a favourite thriller by a marvelously restrained writer down from the shelf and open it at random, I check the elements off on a list. What do I find? The author uses, not fancy words, but figurative language throughout. I make another checklist, and take down another bestseller, and again my list is thick with checkmarks.larger flight

Now, when I revise, I print out another copy of the list of the elements of figurative language. And as I read my own work, I check off similes, metaphors, alliteration, imagery… Excellent elements don’t necessarily make for excellent storytelling, any more than beautifully drawn hands guarantee that the final painting will be a masterpiece. But the resulting work would be less satisfying without them.

Here is one of Barocci’s finished paintings—and take a look at the way the figures’ hands direct the eye about the composition…

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