Painting with Silence

There’s no light without dark. No joy without sadness. No victory without defeat. And no sound without silence.

Sound and silence are two sides of the same coin, fully dependent on one another. They are equal entities, and yet one is formally defined as the mere absence of the other.

zsun-fu-775149-unsplash.jpgPhoto by ZSun Fu

Merriam-Webster defines silence as “forbearance from speech or noise; muteness–often used interjectionally” (Silence). In other words, silence is the absence of a thing but not a thing itself. This is a limiting view of silence. A canvas is white to begin with, but that does not mean that a painter has no need for white paint. To the contrary, white paint is used to create highlights, adding the dimensionality that brings a subject to life. Often, white paint is responsible for the most emotional, powerful details of a painting—the spark in one’s iris, the trail of a tear, the breaking of clouds, the crest of a wave. Without white paint, the colors on the canvas would be overwhelming, flat, and ultimately meaningless. The same can be said about silence, but before an artist can begin painting with it, she must recognize it as a color of its own.


Side Note: I especially adore Everett Shinn’s use of white in his paintings, conveying everything from isolation and serenity to blinding beauty and bitter cold. The first painting of his that I ever saw was Tightrope Walker (1924), pictured above, at the Dayton Art Institute. It caught my eye from across the room and pulled me in until my breath could have blew the walker off his wire. Total invasion of personal space.

Let’s just swoon over these paintings for a moment …


Everett_Shinn_-_The_Canfield_Gambling_House.jpgShinn, Everett. The Canfield Gambling House. 1912.


WhiteBallet.jpgShinn, Everett. The White Ballet. 1904.


shinncafeopenallnight1900Shinn, Everett. All Night Café. 1900.


White paint may occupy a far extreme of the color spectrum, but no matter the color, paint is paint. Likewise, sound and silence are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they are more alike in substance than they are different. Both sound and silence are invisible and temporary—you cannot see it, hold it, smell it, taste it, or keep it. Neither are made of matter—they are produce by matter and perceived by matter—but they are not made of anything tangible. They are ephemeral—dying the moment they are born. Sound and silence have no autonomy; they are completely dependent on the physical world as both conductor and receiver.  Or, perhaps, conductor and perceiver.

evgeni-evgeniev-454219-unsplashPhoto by Evgeni Evgeniev

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? To provide a straightforward answer to that age-old question: no, I think not. But feel free to disagree with me. I’m not following any hard and fast laws of physics here. I’m just … musing … wondering. That is kind of the point of this blog.

The way I see it, the felled tree will produce a vibration when it hits the forest floor, but unless someone or something is around to perceive that vibration as sound, a sound is never ‘made.’ And if a tree remains firmly rooted in the ground with not so much as a breeze to rustle its leaves, is it silent? It is motionless, but silence, like sound, must be perceived. To that end, sound and silence are results of the mental process of hearing. It is our very minds that call sound and silence into existence. Even recorded sound is not sound itself, but imprints and information—data that is translated into a sequence of vibrations and transmitted via a physical channel to a listener who perceives it as sound.

As surely as we cannot escape our own minds, we cannot escape sound and silence. As stated before, they are two sides of the same coin, and that coin is always spinning. There has never been a time when our minds are not perceiving sound and silence. It is our normal, and so we do not marvel at the great mystery of hearing—of perceiving and interpreting that which does not actually exist.

Dreams illustrate the illusion of hearing with great clarity. Think about all the sounds and silences you perceive while you are asleep. Have you ever woken to a loud noise or distinct whisper, only to realize you must have dreamt it? The sounds that we dream seem just as real to us as when we are awake, because waking or sleeping, they exist in the mind.

As with white paint in the palette, I think there may be some utility to these musings for those of us who use sound and silence in our art. Recognizing the cerebral residency of sound and silence expands the artist’s mind and palette to new, creative possibilities for sound design. Sound waves are measurable, but the act of hearing has less to do with that which is measurable and more to do with that which is perceived. And, when it comes to perception, sound can be silent and silence can be sonic.

ian-keefe-354195-unsplashPhoto by Ian Keefe

Let’s take a look at film since, you know, that’s kind of my thing. In film, silence is never actually silent. “You can’t just interrupt the auditory flow and stick in a few inches of blank leader,” explains director and composer Michel Chion. “The spectator would have the impression of a technical break” (Isaza, 2014). Rather, all silences in cinema sound are carefully crafted implied silences. In the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan (1998), Tom Hank’s character crawls ashore Omaha Beach to confront the hell fires of World War II. For an entire minute of screen time, the gunfire and grenade blasts fall away as an eerie, hollow, wind-like howl fills the soundscape. Even the dialogue delivered by a panic-stricken soldier kneeling mere feet from Hank’s character is omitted, as he silently screams “What do we do now, sir?” Though an occasional, distant blast or scream can be heard under the howl, it is a perceived sixty seconds of silence that seemingly draws out narrative time to the point of nearly standing still. The effect sucks the viewer into the character’s mind during an impossibly long moment of sheer disbelief and sensory overwhelm. The result of drowning out the noise of battle and replacing it with an empty, indifferent howl of wind is haunting and bewildering, leaving the viewer feeling as forsaken as the soldiers being slaughtered on the beach.

Saving Private Ryan 2.pngSpeilberg, S. (1998). Saving Private Ryan [Motion picture]. USA: DreamWorks. This photo will link you to the Omaha Beach scene. Please be advised: it’s rated R for intense, prolonged, realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language.

A perceived silence has been used to similar effect in several war movies since. In nearly all cases, the illusion of silence is created by omitting all practical sounds—that is, all the sounds you see on screen—and replacing it with a single sound that does not belong inside the on-screen environment; for instance, a high-pitched whistle as if from a tea pot, or the slow, rhythmic pounding of a heartbeat. If the aim is to create tension, the ‘silence’ may build, gradually increasing in volume and tempo. If the aim is to create a sense of bewilderment, abandonment or hopelessness, as was the case in Saving Private Ryan, then the ‘silence’ may remain constant, unaffected by and contrary to the chaotic environment it represents—uncaring as the nature of war itself.

The Coen Brother’s Oscar-winning thriller No Country for Old Men (2007), compelled audiences to listen more closely with its eerily quiet, virtually scoreless soundtrack. The stretches of perceived silence in the film out numbers those with dialogue and emphatic sound effects. The desolate whistle of the wide-open prairie, the methodical hum of an engine, the fluorescent buzz of motel lights combine to create a suffocating, suspenseful silent symphony that dominates the soundscape of the film. The minimal score, comprised of a mere 16 minutes of music—including the credits—goes largely unnoticed. Sound editor Skip Lievsay explains the intention behind the crafted quiet:

Suspense thrillers in Hollywood are traditionally done almost entirely with music. The idea here was to remove the safety net that lets the audience feel like they know what’s going to happen. I think it makes the movie much more suspenseful. You’re not guided by the score and so you lose that comfort zone. (Lim, 2008)

no-country-for-old-menCoen, E., & Coen, J. (2007). No Country for Old Men [Motion picture]. USA: Paramount. No link for this one; the silence is eerily felt throughout the entire film.

While this minimalist approach to scoring is uncommon, No Country for Old Men was not the first film to use it. The film’s composer, Carter Burwell was inspired by the Hitchcock classic The Birds (1963). In preparation to score his first film for the Coen Brother’s, Blood Simple (1984), Burwell watched The Birds while researching the scores of successful horrors and thrillers. “At the end of every intense scene I would slap myself and go, ‘Oh, I forgot to listen to the music,’” Burwell confessed (Lim, 2008). However, upon rewinding the scenes, Burwell realized that he didn’t miss the music—there was none, just a swell of bird sounds. Music simply was not needed to make the scene effective. A couple of decades later, Burwell employed that same strategy to build suspense in No Country for Old Men. According to an article by the New York Times, Burwell “tried a few ‘abstract musical sounds, just the harmonics of a violin or some percussive sounds,’ but found that even these small touches ‘destroyed the tension that came from the quiet’” (Lim, 2008). A quiet that was deliberately and artfully painted with white.

Having felt the impact of these silences on the screen, I must conclude that silence in film—as in music, theater, or even a rousing speech—is not empty space. It is not untouched canvas or the mere absence of color. Silence is a color of its own, a mysterious mental phenomenon, and a powerful storytelling device that is, at times, really quite loud.

cristian-newman-364529-unsplashPhoto by Cristian Newman


Coen, E., & Coen, J. (2007). No Country for Old Men [Motion Picture]. USA: Paramount.

Isaza, M. (2014). Designing silence. Retrieved from:

Lim, D. (2008). Exploiting sound, exploring silence. New York Times. Retrieved from:

Silence. (2016). Retrieved from:

Spielberg, S. (1998). Saving Private Ryan [Motion picture]. USA: DreamWorks.


Hero Image by Ricardo Mancía

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