Accessing the visual language
Imagine visiting a place where the native tongue is not your own and, oddly, you can understand everything they say but... you can't speak the language yourself. That'd be weird.
The peculiar thing is that many artists at all levels are kind of in the same situation. I know this because, as a teacher of about a million years, I've seen it time and time again. Students come to my classes because they are looking for another way to approach the act of creating and expression but when faced with the challenge of attempting a new visual language, I get a lot of the deer-in-the-headlights faces. As a curious person, this gave me pause. How come people can understand a variety of visual languages but can't speak them on their own?
Allow me to show you what I mean. The images below reflect variety in expression, intent, style, mood and message (the components of visual language). Take a quick look at each one, I have no doubt that you can assign accurate meaning to each. You already know. At a glance you can devine the meaning, purpose, period, and message of each of the images to which an aesthetic has been applied. I put the meerkat photo in as an example of something that has no applied aesthetic, it's just a picture of a meerkat.
You are already fluent in many visual languages.
Several times in my classes I've had attendees who were interior designers and each time I thought, "Oh boy, wonder what they are gonna bring to the table." Interior designers have to be fluent in many visual styles, it's their job. And yet, when it comes time for them to begin play time on canvas, they freeze. There's a disconnect somewhere between what they know and what they will let themselves do. It's not that they don't understand all of the aforementioned components and how to apply them for a client, they do. They just can't seem to do it for themselves. I personally believe it's just the simple fear of "doing it wrong" that holds them back. Usually I try to get them to reframe the problem and pretend that they are their own client. That helps. Explaining that there is no wrong when it comes to discovery helps too.
Part of the problem seems to be that artists don't really trust their own aesthetic, they don't see that the aesthetic they apply in their everyday lives also applies to the work they do on canvas or paper or photography.
Here's where you start with this:
A) Figure out what you like and why. Post-modern or Victorian? Steampunk or Dolce & Gabbana? Siesta blue or Pomegranate red.
B) Figure out what interests you. Roadside vernacular, Asian anything, Civil war history, Olympic pole vaulting, environmental issues, road maps... whatever.
C) Start applying A to C in anyway you can think of. Paint is always good, collage, montage, etching, photography and/or all of the above and just see what shows up.
D) Look for the chunks of things in what you've done that are compelling, you don't really have to know why, go with your gut and repeat the process.
E) Find the meaning, the intent, the message, the method.
F) Run like the wind.