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First – find a painting. There are some great online resources to pick your way through, e.g. art gallery website collections and video tours and Time Out and The Guardian have lists of virtual tours across the world – see below:


  1. The Courtauld Gallery has a great virtual tour:
  2. As does the Royal Academy – and National Portrait Gallery ­ worth having a look at past National Portrait Awards and the work of the 65 artists in the BAME artists’ group.
  3. The National Gallery and the Tate Gallery’s ‘Walk through British Art’,

And – brilliant art galleries from around the country – these are the ones I know particularly – but there’ll be lots of others:

  1. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
  2. Manchester Art Gallery,
  3. Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool:
  4. Birmingham Art Gallery,
  5. Jerwood Art Gallery in Hastings, which has a refreshingly non mono-cultural writing and media section
  6. Looking for local galleries, I was impressed with the Bath Victoria Art Gallery, which actually has a section devoted to ekphrastic writing which you can download as a pdf.

Artists for inspiration – I find I can get inspired by pretty much anything, once I really start looking, but a few suggestions are:

Look up movements, from pre-historic, to ancient, to medieval, to modern. Look for paintings with a narrative. Try:

  • Pre-Raphaelites
  • Impressionists
  • Expressionists
  • Surrealists

 Websites for inspiration

  • Painting for storytelling on the National Gallery website – this might be for kids, but who’s proud?

When you have captured a few paintings that intrigue you, here are a few approaches that people have found useful as triggers for writing:

  • Wind the clock back
  • Wind the clock forwards
  • Capture as many thoughts, words, details as you can and write them down
  • Reflect on what details in the painting mean.
  • What would you smell? Hear?
  • If there are characters, what would they be saying? Invent dialog,
  • Imagine what’s just beyond the edges of the pictures. What’s happening?
  • Imagine the picture is a still at the start, middle or end of a video – play the video forward or back in your head.
  • Ask lots of questions about the painting – Where is it set and why is it set there?
  • What’s the mood of the picture – how does it make you feel
  • Why is the person looking sad/happy?
  • What are the names of the people and animals in the picture?
  • Who are their friends, family, neighbours, enemies?
  • Speculate about the subjects’ lives
  • Build your characters – What are each of the characters saying and feeling
  • If the picture is not contemporary, transpose it to the present
  • If the picture is contemporary, transpose it to the past
  • What other information do you need to research to bring it alive
  • Relate the painting to an incident in your own life – or in the life of somebody else

And now?

Try writing an opening paragraph to a book describing the scene

Decide: is this a dramatic high point from which your story will goes back? How would you fill in the back story?

Or is it a story which will build slowly and chronologically?

Will it have one, two, or several points of view?

Try writing another paragraph – and another

And – GOOD LUCK! But be careful – ekphrastic writing is habit-forming – you may become addicted!

© Gill Harry 2020