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  • Writer's picturesarahgoddardartist

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

If you are organising an arts exhibition, and thinking about access for disabled people, there are things that may be immediately obvious, such as level access for wheelchair users. I also included a chair in my exhibition earlier this year at the Gardens Gallery, inviting visitors to sit down if they wished to. This wasn't explicitly a chair for people with fatigue or mobility issues. It fitted with the theme of the paintings that it was next to, which were inspired by my own experience of Long Covid, and I found it sympathetic way of incorporating a resting place into the exhibition, which could be used by anybody.

A chair in the corner of an art gallery, facing towards several abstract paintings hanging on the wall. The chair has a crocheted blanket draped over it, and there is a sign on the floor next to it, with the words "Sit, Rest, Breathe" written on it.
Sit, Rest, Breathe chair

While working on the Fragile With Attitude exhibition that I took part in at Westonbirt Arboretum, we thought a lot about accessibility. This included creating audio descriptions for the artworks. This was a fantastic addition to the exhibition, but it an addition to exhibitions that many people may not think about, partly because there can be an assumption that people with sight loss might not have any interest in visual arts. However, as a visually impaired artist myself, I am well aware that having a visual impairment does not mean that a person will not be interested in visual art.

While preparing the text for my audio descriptions of my paintings, I put quite a lot of thought into what information to include. As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. A simple image can convey complex ideas and express emotion in an immediate way that is very different from how a written description conveys ideas. This immediacy and ability to convey emotions is one of the reasons why I am drawn to visual art to express myself. But it raises a challenge when choosing which of those thousand words to use when putting together an audio description.

;When creating an audio description, the primary audience that I have in mind is people with sight loss. I am not trying to replicate the same experience that a person would have when looking at the painting, but I want to create a parallel experience for a visitor with sight loss. Of course I need to provide visual information: the colours and subject matter; the orientation and size of the image; the medium used. But, especially with an abstract painting, I think it is important not to over-describe every visual element of the image. If it is a landscape, I think that telling the listener what time of day and in what season the reference photo was taken will give them a better impression of the painting than an over-laboured description of the exact shades of colours I have used. I hope to provide enough information for the listener to gain an idea of what is conveyed by the painting, and allow them to reconstruct that, and to respond to it.

It has been my experience that when sighted viewers look at my art, different people will experience the same artwork differently. It might remind them of something, arouse emotions, or they might spot a pattern in an abstract painting that makes them think of a particular object. I have been told that my painting Breathe - Twilight reminds people of flowing silk, of peacock feathers, sea waves.

Breathe – Twilight is a landscape-orientation abstract acrylic painting of a twilight sky painted in dark shades of blue and teal. This is a textured painting, with roughly diagonal lines hatched loosely through the sky. These lines move diagonally up and to the left from a line a third of the way up the painting. Below this line, the lines of texture move diagonally down and to the left, roughly mirroring those above. The sky is painted in dark teal, with some loose areas of lighter sky blue and green, running in patterns along the lines of the texture. The ridges built up in the texture of the painting are topped with a darker indigo shade. Across the imaginary line of reflection that lies a third of the way up the painting, there are textured gold dots and dashes, painted with thick acrylic paint. In groups of dots and dashes, these mark out “breathe” in Morse code.
Breathe - Twilight

If I were to write an audio description after an exhibition, I would be able to include some of these descriptions within it, as I think that they provide an interesting insight into how other people have responded to the artworks. As well as the visual description, I also like to include something of the inspiration behind the paintings, to provide an interpretation. I hope that this might help to express the sorts of emotions and ideas that the artwork is intended to convey.

You can listen to the audio descriptions that I created for the Westonbirt exhibition on the Fragile with Attitude collection page on my website.

If you have vision loss, what information would you like to hear included in an audio description?

If you are an artist, have you considered using audio descriptions, or even including alt text in your social media posts? I think the idea of getting it wrong can be off-putting for many. I am not by any means an access expert, but I am learning as I go along and want to do what I can to make art more accessible. The process of writing audio descriptions has also made me spend time looking at my paintings in different ways, which has proved to help me find ideas for future paintings.

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