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Painting with Five Basic
Brush Strokes
Image Grammar:
Using Grammatical Structures to
Teach Writing
Harry R. Noden
Painting with Participles
Painting with Absolutes
Painting with Appositives
Painting with Adjectives Shifted Out of Order
Painting with Action Verbs
Combining Strokes
Painting with Participles
• Participles—an –ing verb form tagged on the
beginning or the end of a sentence to enhance
the action
• Weak: The diamond-scaled snakes attacked
their prey.
• Lightly coated: Hissing, slithering, and coiling, the
diamond-scaled snakes attacked their prey.
• Heavily coated: Hissing their forked red tongues
and coiling their cold bodies, the diamond-scaled
snakes attacked their prey.
Participial Painting
Flying through the air on the wings of a dream, the
Olympic long jumper thrust the weight of his
whole body forward. (Cathleen Cory)
Melody froze, dripping with sweat, hoping with all
her might that they wouldn’t hear the noise. A
beam of light swung out into the darkness,
searching. (Becky Swab)
The rhino, caught in the tangled rope, looked for
freedom. (Erika Schreckengost) (Note that Ericka
used the past tense participial form).
Painting with Absolutes
• Absolute—a noun combined with an –ing participle to
create action
• Weak: The mountain climber edged along the
• Stroked: The mountain climber edged along the cliff, hands
shaking, feet trembling.
• Hands shaking, feet trembling, the mountain climber
edged along the cliff.
• Feet trembling on the snow-covered rocks, the mountain
climber edged along the cliff.
(Note that adding three absolutes overloads the picture and
diminishes the effect, while one or two creates a dynamic
More Painting with Absolutes
• Mind racing, anxiety overtaking, the driver
peered once more at the specimen. (Erin
• I glanced at my clock, digits glowing
florescent blue in the inky darkness of my
room. (Jenn Coppolo)
• Jaws cracking, tongue curling, the kitten
yawned tiredly, awaking from her nap. (Tara
Painting with Appositives
• Appositive—a noun phrase that adds a second
image to a preceding noun to expand detail in the
reader’s imagination, providing a new perspective
• Weak: The raccoon enjoys eating turtle eggs.
• Stroked: The raccoon, a scavenger, enjoys eating
turtle eggs.
• Better: The raccoon, a midnight scavenger who
roams lake shorelines in search of food, enjoys
eating turtle eggs.
More Painting with Appositives
• The volcano, a ravenous God of fire, spewed
forth lava and ash across the mountain. (Ben
• The old Navajo woman, a weak and withered
lady, stared blankly. ( Jon Vadnal)
• The waterfall, a tilted pitcher, poured the fresh,
pure spray into the creek. The essence of natural
beauty, tranquil and majestic, it seamed to
enchant the forest with a mystical rush that
echoed throughout the untouched virgin
paradise. (Allie Archer)
Painting with Action Verbs
• By eliminating passive voice and reducing
being verbs, writers can energize action
images. Verbs of passive voice communicate
no action. The image is like a still photograph
with the subject of the action frozen with the
prepositions by or with.
Passive vs. Active Voice
• Passive: The runaway horse was ridden into
town by an old, white-whiskered rancher.
• Active: An old, white-whiskered rancher rode
the runaway horse into town.
• Passive: The grocery store was robbed by two
armed men.
• Active: Two armed men robbed the grocery
Action vs. Being Verbs
• Being Verb: The gravel road was on the left side
of the barn.
• Action Verb: The gravel road curled around the
left side of the barn.
• Being verbs function like passive voice, but can
effectively convey a mood of passivity when a
passage requires it for effect.
• If a student has difficulty replacing a being verb
with an action verb, the being verb may belong
Painting with Adjectives
Shifted Out of Order
• Purpose: to amplify the details of an image, creating a
spotlight that intensifies the image
• Why? To avoid overloading descriptions with too many
consecutive adjectives in normal order, a signature of
childish writing
• Weak: The large, red-eyed, angry bull moose charged the
• Strong: The large bull moose, red-eyed and angry, charged
the intruder.
• “And then, suddenly, in the very dead of night, there came
a sound to my ears, clear, resonant, and unmistakable.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles
Combining Strokes
Example 1
Then it crawled in. A spider, a repulsive, hairy creature, no bigger
than a tarantula, crawled into the room. It crawled across the floor up
onto his nightstand and stopped, as if it were staring at him. He reached
for a nearby copy of Sports Illustrated, rolled it up, and swatted the spider
with all his might.
He looked over only to see a hideous mass of eyes and legs. He had
killed it. Just then, another one crawled in, following the same path as
the first. He killed that one too. Then another one came, and another
and another. There were hundreds of them! Hands trembling, sweat
dripping from his face, he flung the magazine left and right, trying to kill
the spiders, but there were too many. He dropped the magazine.
Helpless now, his eye darted around the room. He could no longer
see the individual spiders. He could just see a thick, black blanket of
movement. He started squirming as he felt their fang-like teeth sink into
his pale flesh like millions of tiny needles piercing his body.
--Adam Porter, Eighth-grade
Combining Brush Strokes
Example 2
The old man, feeble and stiff, tenderly embraced his beloved cello.
A single tear slid down his wrinkled face. His arthritic hands shook as the
bow quivered back and forth. He wore an out-of-style jacket, an oldfashioned plaid. His shaggy eyebrows glistened with sweat, and his
sideburns grew overgrown and wild. His cello, a piece of art, was old and
had clearly been used. Decades of polishing made the wood shiny.
In a scratchy, weak voice, the old man cursed his hands for being so
stiff and sore. He suddenly gasped as a spasm of pain swept through his
arm. Exhausted, he gently laid his cello in the soft velvet case and
lowered himself onto his bed.
As he lay there, memories of his childhood started to stir in his mind.
He remembered coming home after school and practicing the cello for
hours. He remembered playing solos in his high school orchestra, and
then later in his life playing with world known orchestras. Smiling gently,
he brought his cello, his life-long friend and partner, close to him and fell
--Cary Cybulski
Combining Brush Strokes
Example 3
The Snake
Eyes darting,
lips parting,
the snake flicked its tongue.
Body slithering,
scales quivering,
its rattle beat like a drum.
Cold blood boiling,
body coiling,
the snake attacked its prey.
Feet scurrying,
paws hurrying,
the mouse could not get away.
--Michele Leighty
Eighth grade