Visual Communication / by Jeannine Cook

As I yield to the siren calls of spring bursting forth in the garden, I find myself thinking about how plants communicate their needs. They grow lustily if they like where they are and have all their needs met. If they are in the wrong place in terms of light or moisture, the gardener soon knows that they are not happy - leaves yellow or droop - or worse! The same visual communications often leave me laughing when you watch a cat or do tell you, the "subservient" human, what they want, or don't want.

In the same way, visual communication in art is vital. Every artist realises, sooner or later, that it is not just enough to be able to execute technically perfect paintings, drawings or other works. Pretty pictures are ten a penny in the world. But, just as in the advertising world, visual images need to carry weight and impact. In advertising, the messages are deliberate, planned and directed at certain audiences.

Usually in art, the situation is more diffuse. For a start, the communications are dependent on the times in which the artist lives. In early Christian times, for instance, there was an extensive vocabulary of symbols used to convey specific messages. In just one arbitrary example, take an anchor. It could symbolise hope in Jesus Christ, and represent sanctuary and commitment. It could convey safe arrival of a ship to harbour and thus mean faithfulness, shelter and hope. It also symbolised St. Clement, the poor unfortunate martyred 4th Bishop of Rome who was tossed into the sea with an anchor around his neck, one hundred years after Christ's death. (My thanks to the History of Painting website for this information.) By extension, the anchor was a sign used for the hidden Christian burial chambers, the Catacombs in Rome, possibly because Hebrews 6 19-20 says, "We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure..." It was frequently used in conjunction with fishes, an obvious reference to Jesus telling Peter he would make them "fishers of men".
This image, courtesy of Heather, a moderator on art subjects in Good Reads, is found in the St. Domitillia catacomb in Rome, the epitaph for one Antonia. Sts. Domitillia, Priscilla, Calixtus and Coemetarium majus catacomb cemeteries are full of images of anchors.
This is another image from the tomb of Atimetus, from the St. Sebastian catacombs on the Via Appia. Again, fishes and anchors are simple, powerful visual communications.
As the Renaissance artists developed an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary of symbols for their visual communication, their public understood the messages. Today, we might need to learn the interpretations of those works of art to understand fully what the artists were communicating.
One of the most wondrous examples of that time is Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel. The whole work is a visual metaphor for mankind's need - and desire - for a covenant with God. Michelangelo uses images and symbols from the Book of Genesis as the main vehicles to convey man's need for salvation; every part of the work is as eloquent to us today as it was to the contemporary viewers. However, his contemporaries would probably have understood nuances more readily than many viewers of the ceiling do today.
Each era has developed a specific set of symbols to communicate messages visually, but in today's world, the vocabulary is more diffuse, in that we all have different optics on things, our belief systems are more diverse and the world is a much more universal and complex place. For an artist, it becomes perhaps a much more personal affair: what to communicate as a human being, tapping - hopefully - into universal values and beliefs that can resonate with others.
As Robert Henri observed, "Art cannot be separated from life... we value art not because of the skilled product, but because of its revelation of a life's experience." As artists, we need to live life in awareness and thoughtfulness. Ultimately, I believe, we need to have enough self-confidence and honesty to try to draw on our own souls and innermost core, to understand who we are and what we are trying to do and say. Only then can we develop a clear voice that is our way to communicate visually to others. Some people may hear that voice, others won't. That is the beauty of our diversity. But at least, an artist who dares to reveal his or her life experiences in artwork will be a unique person, conveying images that ring true. That is quite an ambitious goal.