What can writers learn from abstract art?

By accident, I found myself contemplating Breon O’Casey’s exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery one Day 10 in January. I’d never heard of him before but was fascinated by his approach. It made me think about abstract/ impressionist art and how it relates to the way we use words.

An artist could paint a very realistic picture, replicating what he or she sees in great detail – be it a portrait, pastoral country scene or seascape – like traditional art. They could focus on the subtleties of the light, the drama and existence of the people within, trying to capture it as true-to-life as the scene before their eyes.

But looking at and trying to understand O’Casey’s paintings, it struck me that abstract art is about finding and representing the essence of something – one element that really resonates or captures the artist’s eye or imagination. It doesn’t matter if that then takes them on a completely different journey or direction; it’s just the starting point for the thought process. It could even just be a particular detail; a line, a shape, a colour, a texture, a shadow or a reflection.


This painting is called ‘Shower’. You could say that the nails in the centre are falling droplets of water between two shower curtains. But you probably wouldn’t say that if you didn’t know the painting was called ‘Shower’.

Pink dots

This one was hung next to ‘Shower’. It’s called ‘Pink Dots’. It looks almost the same, but the pink dots are just pink dots – you’re not invited to interpret any other meaning.

It’s the same with ‘White Centre’ (left) and ‘Magic Flute’ (right) below.

Magic Flute and White Centre

It’s just an exploration; he’s not trying to be realistic. I think he’s just playing with ideas of perception. Shapes and forms don’t have any particular meaning until he gives them words, which make you try to see what he’s telling you it is in the picture.

Leda and the Swan

This one is called ‘Leda and the Swan’. I tried to find both Leda and the swan and the only way I could see them was if this was a woman with two large red breasts, looking down at a white swan’s wings. I think he’s taking a completely different angle, distilling a simple but powerful perspective of this meeting.

It made me wonder how I could do this with language… If I move away from the literal, what can I create?

Later that day I walked the coast path around Porthcurno, thinking of different ways to write about walks for a book pitch we were doing. Inspired by O’Casey’s paintings, I had a crack at writing about what I saw in a different way:


Like a hanging chain, twisting, kinks
Curled over glinting granite
Clinging to the line that skirts the hard rock and thin air

Far out, flailing strands of ink pierce the horizon
Hanging down from the sky like
Damp shower curtains billowing in the breeze,
They flap eastwards.


I think this would still be far too obvious for O’Casey but it was an interesting process nonetheless!


Latest Stories