Is a Picture Really Worth a Thousand Words?
I can’t remember when I first heard this saying, but it was a long time ago. It may have been in high school during an Honors English class. Or perhaps earlier, in sixth grade, in that weird-but-wonderful class taught by the world’s coolest art teacher, Mrs. Rainbow. Maybe I first heard someone say it on TV, or maybe it came from my Mother who adored pithy sayings, or – who knows? – it could even have been some daffy cartoon character on a long-ago morning. If so, the saying went in one ear and out the other because the character had a ridiculous quacking voice and, besides, who really listens to cartoons?
Whatever the circumstances, I’m sure I believed the words. It’s a no-brainer, right? A picture is worth a thousand words. Simple. Everybody knows it.
But I’m not so sure.
To me, the saying hints that images are better than words. According to Wikipedia, the first instance in print was arguably an advertisement for Auto Supplies in Piqua, Ohio, in 1913. Many more usages of the saying soon followed, and I imagine it didn’t take long for it to enter the common lexicon. To the detriment of language.
Words deserve their due, I say.
I don’t hate pictures. Not at all! As an artist, how could I hate pictures? I’ve worked in many artistic media: I’ve painted (my Fine Arts degree is in oil painting), I’ve worked in metals, in ceramics, in photography. I’m also a musician. And I’m a published author.
As a writer, I use words as though they were paints. Nouns and verbs are manipulated on the page as if they were Cobalt Blue or Alizarin Crimson on stretched canvas. Paragraphs and dialogue, as if they were perspective and composition. Story arcs, as if they were negative space. I’ve come to understand that writing and painting are so very similar: which word do I use – “stalk”, “reed”, or “spear” – to describe a blade of ocean grass? Which color do I use – Viridian Green, Hooker Green, or Phthalo Green – to visually render the same foliage?
Is one way of portraying the world better than the other? I think not.
Words paint a picture for the reader, right? Then why not let them do what they do best? Getting lost in a book and using my imagination to create my own mental picture of the action, the setting, the characters – all of it! – is what I most love about reading. Curling up on a cushy couch on a rainy day, picturing the bleached hot landscape of a favorite book … it’s sublime. Think about it: a reader is actually treated to two art forms in one!
And no two readers experience it the same way.
If I, as a writer, can prompt my readers to imagine scenes they’ve never seen, I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Creating a world in a stranger’s mind is…something beautiful …something to be proud of. Someday, I may take a vacation from writing. I may drag out my paint tubes and crusty brushes and wrinkled canvases. Most likely, I will enjoy every moment of putting color to work, and will be thrilled to be creating visual artwork again. But don’t be fooled: never again will I believe that painting is better than writing.