The Art of Ekphrastic Writing

Author Judy Darley explores the art of writing about art – and provides an ekphrastic flash fiction story inspired by a sculpture…

by Judy Darley

If you’ve ever walked into an art gallery and felt moved by a work of art, you’re not alone. Whatever its medium, art is crafted in order to communicate – to provoke discussion, evoke a feeling, or capture a moment to share with others. Creative writing works in much the same way, and when these two forms collide, something extraordinary can occur.

As an art lover since childhood, I’ve been indulging in ekphrastic writing since long before I knew the term existed. It springs from the Greek for ‘description’, and is used to define vivid writing about art, from reviews to poetry and flash fiction (also known as sudden fiction). For me, it’s most often about narrative. I see characters or moods in works of art and want to know more.

Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl with a Pearl Earring was prompted by Johannes Vermeer’s painting of the same name and falls into this category, as does The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, which was inspired by Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house at the Rijksmuseum.

Famous poems about art show leaps of the imagination too, with John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn urging us to contemplate that the act of casting these youths in clay freezes them in time:

‘Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare.’

Ekphrastic writing offers the chance to dream up and populate backstories to the artwork on show. I wrote my flash fiction story Self-Contained from the point of view of a sculpture by Moira Purver [see below], which I saw at the RWA’s Open Exhibition in 2014. The story’s a particular favourite of mine and appears in my latest short fiction collection, The Stairs Are a Snowcapped Mountain.

Lesley Trussler’s Lost Glove series – available to buy at the RWA 169 Open here

The sheer variety of ingenious art displayed at the RWA’s Open Exhibitions provides a treasure trove of inspiration for creative minds, and the current Open Exhibition 169 is no exception. For instance, Lesley Trussler’s Lost Glove series offers countless questions you could use fiction to answer. Who lost these gloves? Did their search for their lost glove result in any interesting, potentially life-changing encounters? And most importantly, were their icy fingers reunited with warm wool?

The figures in Martine Baldwin’s Place Between suggests an intriguing tableau you could explore, while Yvette Blumberg’s Swing Shadows presents possibilities of either a sweet nostalgic story or chilling horror, depending on the route you choose.

The beauty of ekphrastic writing is that you can use art as a springboard to carry your tale in any direction you choose. Where will your imagination take you?

The RWA’s 169 Annual Open Exhibition is on until 8 Jan 2023.


A flash fiction story by Judy Darley

Self-Contained Man by Moira Purver. Bronze resin, limited edition of 25. Available to buy at TheGalleryat41

She’d made him with painstaking care. He knew this because she told him so, later, when he was bronze-cast and impervious to wind and rain and the passage of time. She’d shaped him in clay, she said, drawing out his limbs, his jawline, the sheer slope of his spine as he cradled a knee against his torso.

He was one of two, she’d murmured, but he didn’t know what that meant.

He wondered sometimes what it would be like to uncurl, to stand upright, but she’d made him like this, she explained, to reveal his inner strength. By having him sit, one buttock flush against the soul of his foot, she could show the world his power, unspent, unspoken. Self-contained.

Sole, s, o, l, e, she corrected him, as he tried out the word on her, not soul, s, o, u, l. He struggled with the nuance of the spelling, the spell, which took it from a thing that carried people like her from one place to another, to an entity she carried inside herself, but which apparently he did not.

Or may not. She couldn’t be certain, she admitted, when he queried this. When he asked how he could truly know whether he had a soul or not.

The fact he had the curiosity to ask, she said, made her doubt her answer, unable to commit to a definite no. She seemed to believe having a soul was evident in the intensity of her feelings. She spoke of joy and sorrow and seemed comforted by his ignorance over both these emotional extremes.

He knelt on the floor of the studio and watched her work and knew that, however insignificant, he felt something. It coiled in him, hot and snug in a space he could not quite identify.

It rose up as he observed the sharpness of her glance, the movement of her fingers through clay, over paper, the touch of her wrist to her forehead. The way sunlight caught in her hair.

He had no hair and no movement; his hands trapped forever in his own embrace. But when she smoothed one palm over his bronze surfaces, traced the textures she’d pressed against his skin, he felt the heat inside him stir.

And then the delivery came, the sculpture, the one that the art museum had been exhibiting, now home again. Encased in packaging she removed tenderly. At once he was eye to eye with someone so familiar it hurt to look – a face to mirror his own.

And she ran her hand over the returned sculpture’s body with an expression of such pride, such satisfaction, that he felt the heat inside him leap to flame. Envy. Now, isn’t that proof of a soul?

Judy Darley is a Bristol-based art-loving fiction writer, journalist and occasional poet. She is the author of three fiction collections: The Stairs Are a Snowcapped Mountain (Reflex Press)Sky Light Rain (Valley Press) and Remember Me To The Bees (Tangent Books). Find Judy at and on Twitter as @JudyDarley.

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