9. The Visual Language Of Art – Developing Personal Content & Style – Part 2

Over the past 18 years of teaching workshops, I have learned more than any student I have ever had the privilege to teach about many things:  How we see, certainly – but mysteriously, how we feel and how we seem able to communicate our inner life through the art of painting and drawing.

The Last Battle by Lesley Humphrey. Acrylic & pastel on handmade paper. Color, line, placement on the paper, and even the textural choice of paper can help infuse the viewer with your emotional idea.

There are many wonderful books and teachers that can lead the student into the realm of metaphor and symbol, and I have no intention of re-inventing the wheel here.  Still, I feel it extremely valuable for my students to understand that, regardless of race, gender, theology (or lack thereof), country of origin or sexual orientation – in fact all the ways that tend to separate us one from another – we can all come together in some deep, common, perhaps archetypal understanding via the arts.  I put it to you that even those amongst us least trained in the visual arts can understand the emotional, as well as the more simplistic ‘exterior’ elements of the visual language.

During workshops, in the following exercise I hold up abstract linear elements and ask them to write down what they feel, quickly and without censoring.  There are no right or wrong answers.  I invite you now to do the same in this small experiment.  Look at the following pictures, and rapidly record how each makes you feel.  What does it make you think of – instantly?  Later, I will give you a list of the universal responses given by students over the years.  Bear in mind that I do this in each and every workshop, so this study has worked time and time again.






6. (ipad art - by Ashley Humphrey)

The Power of Line:

Line is often a vital component when designing paintings.  In realism as well as abstract art, it is a way the artist guides the viewer through the work, determining how his eye enters and the movement it takes throughout the visual journey throughout.  This line of movement can also be an “invisible line”!…

  • I am thinking of a masterful Dutch painting where the glance of one card player sends us over to another, who then points us with his finger to the second fellow with a large, dominant feather who curls us over to the strong line of the table, where we meet a cheater and back into the card game by the line of his cards.

Line as an underlying visual element also can affect the viewer emotionally, who instinctively understands rudimentary symbols.  The following is a list of what other students have ‘felt’ when viewing these images:

  1. Explosion, energy, excitement, power, burst, bomb, intensity…
  2. Meander, organic, landscape, slow, movement, feminine….
  3. Light, springtime, delicate, happy, feminine, butterfly, air
  4. City, man-made, structure, male, commerce
  5. Disharmony, discord, chaos!  Instead of just one type of emotional line, all are present.
  6. Cool.  Jackson Pollock.  Several lines of similar types that differ in color or still equal unity because the type of line remains constant.

The Power Of Color:

Now, let’s do the same experiment with color:







The results:

  1. Sunny, happy, warm, smiling, sunflower, day, light, summer.
  2. Spring, grass, nature, organic, growing, outdoors, landscape, young.
  3. Ice, sky, cool, calm, water, wind, hospital walls..
  4. Royal, holy, rich, regal, spiritual, Mardi Gras…
  5. Fire, danger, hot, power, stop, love, warning, blood, heat, rage, energetic
  6. Earth, soil, natural, calm..

Naturally, different cultures and nationalities have different interpretations of certain color symbols, especially when they are strong, cultural symbols.  However, it is surprising to me how often these colors communicate ideas just by themselves.  When we choose to paint from emotional rather than visual content, these are the types of archetypal considerations we must incorporate for our work to communicate our internal content to the viewer.  (If one wishes to do so.)

Anecdote:  The Cute Grandson In The Cowboy Hat Painting

Many’s the time when I have been asked to jury art shows locally (I live in Texas).  I cannot remember an art show without a painting something similar to this:  It’s an outdoor scene painted on a large canvas.  There’s a small boy in over-sized, blue overalls wearing his big brother’s brown cowboy boots and his grandfather’s ten gallon hat (probably black) on his head.  He’s sitting playing in the brown sand that is speckled with the obligatory Texas bluebonnets here and there.  He has a brown lasso or gun belt somewhere near or pointing to the floor.  Maude, sad that she hasn’t won a prize says “I thought I did a good job on my grandson.  Isn’t he just the cutest thing?”  Now, he may be the cutest little boy on the planet, but he’s on a vertical canvas, sitting on the floor (bringing us down…).  He’s dressed in dark blue, brown and black (somber, cool colors) which makes most of the canvas covered in dark, cool colors.  Maude wants us to feel happy and love the youth and happiness of the little boy.  What is Maude to do?

  • She can change the colors and/or make the painting high-key overall
  • She can change the canvas format and his position within it to have him higher
  • She can ensure all the lines are emphasized “UP”, and light and upward moving to create a happier, more juvenile visual journey.
  • She can soften lines and edges, especially those that point to the edge of the canvas/support, like the gun belt or lasso perhaps painted to harsh….

You get the picture.  Now.. look at your paintings in this fashion, taking care to evaluate the importance of your line and the emotional impact it makes upon your viewer.  They are smarter than you give them credit! 

I hope you enjoyed it.  You now have lots to work upon..  Enjoy!

Want to see the process in action? Click below.

Final Word….



My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”.  In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information.  The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey.  If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."

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