The appearance of sound

10th May this year was an important day in my artistic development. I arrived at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which was holding the Sculpture Show exhibition, with this enigmatic but enticing session waiting for me:

Explore different mark-making processes in these monthly, artist-led experimental drawing sessions inspired by the modern collection.

It was the first Drawing Room session I attended, and it had an incredible effect in how I saw my approach to art. No longer was I satisfied to only consider the conventional drawing and painting that I had been learning up till then. I wanted to learn more about other ways to think about the appreciation and creation of art.

This session was the inspiration to start this blog so that I could have somewhere to explore and discuss the things I’m learning. So, what did we do that got me so excited?

Scattered around the room half a dozen sculptures were on display as part of the gallery’s exhibition. Without telling us which, composer/musician Claire Docherty chose a sculpture and described it through playing the violin. While she was doing this, we drew what we heard.

She repeated this twice more, before revealing which sculptures she was depicting. These are the pictures I produced:

Can you tell which picture corresponds to which of these sculptures?

  • A set of 3 twisted, gnarly metal forms, each maybe approx 30cm long. On reveal, Claire commented that she tried to express the shiny highlights in the metal.
  • A grid-like scaffolding structure of white tubes, occupying a few cubic meters.
  • A solid red oblong (approx 2.5m x 1m x 20cm) resting against the wall. This sculpture was close to Claire when she played, and she found it quite oppressive.

Taking each picture in turn:

Picture A

This was the red oblong sculpture.

Claire described that she found this item as quite oppressive, and this was reflected in how she played, where the sounds were quite deep and heavy. This feeling is what I was picking up on when I was drawing the drop forms. I was trying to make them appear very bottom heavy, with a light trail flowing from the tops.

Although the image I drew didn’t look like the sculpture, it did look like Claire’s impression of it.

Picture B

This was my drawing of the music played for the set of 3 twisted, gnarly metal pieces.

When I started drawing this, it originally sounded like a solid form,and I was drawing the slightly bent blue block in the middle. The sounds then became more varied, and I added the black and grey end bars to start breaking up the flow.

But then, the moment that impressed me the most. I heard a different part to the sounds. This part had a different quality to the other sounds, and it felt natural for me to interpret this as a highlight. So I drew the yellow and orange edges to highlight the shape.

I was amazed when in the reveal, Claire described that she tried to play the highlights she could see in the metal. This is exactly what I had heard, and drew. With more experience, I might have heard the twisted nature of the metal too.

Picture C

This leaves the grid-like scaffolding structure. This picture has perhaps the most obvious likeness to the sculpture. The rectangular pieces in a relatively ordered structure reflect the composition of the scaffolding. Claire probably found this the easiest of the sculptures to express in musical form, as the form lends itself to a repetitive musical pattern with discrete sets of notes representing 4 sides.

It was interesting to see that one of the other people attending the session produced a very similar image. Theirs was probably closer to Claire’s playing, as the rectangles in their picture was more orderly than mine. Their image also shared the dual nature of the image I made, although this wasn’t in the sculpture so I presume it was an unintended artifact in the sounds.

Before this exercise, if you had asked me how I thought sound and music could be reflected visually, I would have talked about how mood could be represented. A slow, melancholic piece of music could be drawn as a dark scene; a chirpy piece could be drawn in vivid, bright colours with lots of movement; and so on. This is much like the result of Picture A where it was the oppressiveness felt which was captured.

Doing this exercise however, I realised how much visual detail can be expressed in sound. In Picture B, I clearly heard the representation of a highlight. For Picture C, I heard representations of rectangles.

Immediately following the session, I considered if I could apply this to my drawing and painting. Instead of drawing a sound representation of something, could I draw sound itself? Would that be useful?

If I draw waves crashing against rocks, I could subtly include the sound of that scene within the picture. Perhaps the viewer might subconciously convert images back into sound in the way that Claire did. If so, the picture would be more vivid to the viewer. Would this work? I am yet to try it. Please let me know if you know anything about this technique. A name would be good.

Phew! This is my longest post yet, and illustrates why this session motivated me to create this blog. I haven’t even finished writing up the whole session. There was another third or so where we explored musical notation – but I’ll keep that for another post.



  1. timhards

    I just realised that the technique I ended up talking about is overtly used in comics and manga to give a sense of sound to the scene. I’m still interested to hear about a more subtle use of those visual clues.

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