George uncaps a crumpled tube and squeezes a tendril of Prussian Blue onto his palette.
Alongside the blue, he pushes out a line of deep Alizarin Crimson. Now for an earth tone… George’s fingers run over three different shades of brown before settling on Burnt Sienna.
The blue, crimson, and sienna swirl together under the blunt tip of the palette knife. Within seconds a shimmering shade of black emerges.
Black like the sharps and flats on a piano. Black like the spaces between stars.
George loads his brush and steps toward the easel.
A devoted artist learns to mimic the play of light and shadow; color and texture in such lifelike ways that she experiences the visible world differently than you or I. Her perception is heightened. She sees elements of art in ordinary things everywhere she goes.
Viewing the world that way, she never, ever lacks inspiration.
As lyricists, we too can learn how to see. Using words alone, you can paint murals directly onto the domed ceiling inside your listener’s skull.
No expensive tubes of paint for us. Instead we mix nouns, adjectives, and verbs in the perfect proportions create all the colors we need. Many songs, after all, tell stories–and description is of utmost importance in any form of storytelling.
So how do we describe scenes? By writing imagery that appeals to your listener’s senses.
Sight is the sense people think of first when we use the word “imagery”. Because those of us with functioning eyes use them all day every day, we’re barely conscious of how complex and miraculous sight really is.
Let’s unpack a few different aspects of sight and look at how to use each one in a lyric.
Interior decorators know that the color of a room’s walls give that room a distinct mood and feel. Oil painters learn to mix thousands upon thousands of hues on their palettes.
Colors are as rich and fascinating as musical tones, and in combinations they can create myriad moods and feelings. They can clash. They can harmonize.
But how do we use color to great visual effect in our lyrics?
One option is to simply call hues by their proper names–cerulean blue, viridian, crimson, magenta. Wander around in an art supply store if you ever need to restock your mental palette.
Colors can be bold, soft, earthy, pastel. You can cross the sensory border into touch by describing colors as “warm” or “cool”.
Another effective way to describe color is to make simple comparisons. Peggy wears a lemon dress. The mobster’s tie is gunmetal gray. You can grind down any plant, any fruit, any object in the world to steal their pigments.
The shape of many ordinary objects will be obvious to your listener–there’s probably no need to remind her that an oven is a cube and a ball is round.
But shapes in themselves can sometimes be interesting: pointed, boxy, angular, curvaceous, bent, warped, plump, slender, half-melted, oblong.
Again, as we saw with color, comparisons are an effective tool for description: *clouds like tufts of wool* is a great example of how making a comparison can convey a shape with just a few words.
The visual size of an object can tell us whether it’s near or far. If you and I ride to the top of a ferris wheel, we’ll look down and see all tiny tents, tiny people.
Actual size can also affect how we feel about a place or a thing–we’ll react differently to something that’s adorably dollhouse-sized than we will to something awesomely vast.
Texture is where the sense of sight overlaps a bit with the sense of touch. By looking at the surface of an object, we immediately imagine what it would feel like to touch that object.
Ever noticed the phrase “ENLARGED TO SHOW TEXTURE” written in fine print toward the bottom of a cereal box? There’s a reason food photographers zoom in: they know that the more texture they show you, the more vividly their food will appeal to your senses.
Texture stirs your listener’s appetite for sensory experience. Experiment with zooming in close to show us surfaces–whether they’re smooth, slimy, prickly, leathery, veined, velvety, ribbed, grainy, or rough like a cat’s tongue.
Spacing & Arrangement
Where texture gives us a zoomed-in view, describing the arrangement of objects is one way to step back from the easel and give your listener a zoomed-out, more panoramic picture of a scene.
Describing the way objects are spaced can be tricky. They may be scattered, salted, single file, or arranged in an arc.
If adjectives aren’t doing the trick, try imagining the kind of physical gesture that could cause those objects to fall where they did.
“God took the stars and he tossed ’em…” –Tom Waits’s “Green Grass”.
Light & Lustre
The way light and shadow play on things fundamentally affects how they look to us. Light is utterly essential to vision.
Turn off the lights in a room. Light one candle in the darkness. Look around. It’s like a totally different room, isn’t it? Everything flickers.
Ever walked under a fluorescent light that’s on the fritz? It’s unsettling. It’s like a facial tic.
Faced with the task of describing the myriad ways minerals reflect and absorb light, geologists use some fascinating language for describing the way surfaces shine: pearly. Metallic. Glassy. Waxen. Silky. Glittering. Iridescent.
Experiment with the play of light and shadow on objects, rooms, and faces. It’s an essential ingredient in describing a vivid, believable world in your lyric.
Visual imagery allows your listener to actually see the scenes you’re describing and become immersed in the world of your song.
You can create poetic harmonies by linking objects through any of the aspects listed above: shape, color, texture, lustre, size. Lots of beautiful similes and metaphors await discovery there.
Where All the Senses Connect
The eyes aren’t connected just with vision, either; vision intersects with the other senses.
When you see one person kissing another on the cheek, you experience some of that friendly peck for yourself, don’t you? Watch a girl bite an apple, and you imagine the taste. When you see a photo of a woman in a silky robe, you instinctively imagine what the robe feels like against her skin. Watch a silent film of a man firing a gun, and you hear the gunshot in your mind.
So sight often comes packaged with a ghostly bit of touch, taste, smell, or sound as well. The senses all connect in the middle like spokes in a wheel.
In upcoming posts we’ll be covering each of the senses in turn–heightening the raw descriptive power of your lyrics and learning to savor the sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations of life.