Sunday, October 30, 2016

Painting and Writing: Made from the Same Cloth

I’m by my own admission a creative-minded person. I appreciate good art and especially good paintings. I marvel at the seeming ease of the artwork that I’m attracted to. I have a list of favorite artists and find myself returning repeatedly to see their work at exhibitions. I also love to read a good novel, and over the years, I tend to gravitate toward a certain type of writing that is uniquely descriptive and captivating. I have my favorite authors, those that both inspire me and help to fuel my imagination.

I love to paint. I love the feel of the oil pigments squishing around the bristles and hairs of my well-worn brushes as they glide across on the canvas. I love the blast of bright color as much as the subtle gradations of color. It’s fun to watch what the paint does when you place one shade next to another, the way that similar values complement one another, and opposing values make the canvas pop. Most of all, I love to see the picture in front of me that is so perfectly created by nature come to life on my canvas in my unique interpretation.  However, a successful painting does not happen without some effort, years of practice, and some good instruction.

I also love to write. I’ve been a technical writer for more than twenty years, but I’ve only been writing creatively, other than an occasional newspaper story, for eight months. It’s fun to watch my characters come to life on the page, their personalities developing as I write. It’s fun (and not easy!) to come up with distinctive descriptions that bring them to life. I love to interweave sharp turns and unexpected twists. I enjoy inserting surprises that grab the reader. It’s also satisfying to hear from my readers how much they like the story and, if it is a story under development, how they want to hear more about the characters. Just like with painting, I’ve had to learn a lot about how to create a good story. There’s a certain structure to it. I have to be on guard to “show,” not “tell.” Using the five senses to convey emotions and paint a picture really add body to a story. I’m getting some good instruction, both from experts in the field and from reading books.

I’ve been thinking, as I switch back and forth between the two creative processes, about how much alike both painting a picture and writing a story really is.

When I am ready to start a new painting, I begin by prepping my tools, including choosing my brushes, and selecting and laying out the paint colors and mediums on my palette. I begin the painting by laying an undercoating of thinned out color, effectively transforming the white canvas into a toned canvas. While that dries, I charcoal sketch a thumbnail of the scene in a small sketchbook that I always carry with me. My sketch reveals the values of the scene. I don’t put in a lot of details. Once I’m happy with the sketch, I put it aside and use it as a reference. I sketch the picture on my canvas with a brush, paying attention to composition, always aware of the focal point. I begin the underpainting, using thinned paint, blocking in the large areas of color until all areas in the picture are generally blocked out. For the second stage, I put in the darkest darks with thinned paint. As I do so, I measure and re-measure, making sure that all the shapes relate in size and shape. I progress to lighter and lighter shades, starting with largest shapes and gradually going smaller and smaller, until there’s nothing left but detail work. As I go lighter, my paint becomes thicker, until the lightest light is three dimensional. I review the painting over the next few days and adjust it. Finally, a critique by a fellow artist provides a subjective view of the overall structure, composition and coloring.
When I write, I also prepare my “canvas,” usually writing on the computer in a word processing program. I start with an idea, however small, and I begin to write it down. Usually there is a main character that emerges, and then secondary characters. If the story is historical, I begin to narrow down the era, and then I begin to do research on that time period. Like in painting, this is the drawing. I ask myself what the characters wearing, what are the social norms, what kind of transportation will they be using, and what types of work will they be doing. When I think about my main character, I need to know from the start what she/he wants and what the main obstacle will be.  I contemplate the ‘hook’– what will propel the reader forward through the story. This is the focus, the thing that pulls the reader’s attention, similar to a focal point of a painting. Then, I start writing, putting in an underpainting of the story, a stripped-down version of a story line and setting. The second stage incorporates the emotions and sensual descriptions of the actions, thoughts, and view of the characters and the setting. The detail work is in the editing, taking out unnecessary words, rearranging sections, deleting and rewriting, cleaning up spelling and punctuation. Having an editor review the final draft provides the subjective view of the writing. Sharing with writers that I trust to provide constructive feedback is also valuable.

Both painting and creative writing are fun, involve a lot of prep work, good instruction, and a whole lot of rolling up of the sleeves and digging in. They are both sometimes aggravating, and more often, truly rewarding. I feel pretty lucky that I don’t have to choose between the two. I can do one or the other, whenever I choose. And, I’m lucky to have a fantastic community of writers and artists to learn from, share my work with, and exchange information. What more can I ask for?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Flash Fiction

Here's more of my flash fiction.

Treasured Tag
Big, billowing clouds stretch across the cerulean sky as sea gulls dip and weave among the choppy waves, searching for food. I pull my jacket tighter around my body as the cool wind whips my long hair wildly across my face. It is late September. The summer crowds are gone now, the camp grounds empty. Vacationing families have departed to their cities and towns in the suburbs, back to rush hour commutes and after school sports programs. As if on loan, the beaches were "returned" to us locals for safe keeping.

As I stroll along the edge of the wet sand, a glint of silver catches the corner of my eye and draws my attention to a wall of sharp rocks protecting the beach from erosion. My curiosity whetted, I divert from my regular route to investigate. Wedged in with sea shell fragments and bits of dried seaweed is a rectangular stainless steel tag threaded with a beaded chain.

I bend down and wipe away the debris that hides the thin tag and chain. Examining it closer, I realize that it is a military dog tag. It is badly scratched and slightly bent, as if it traveled the ocean currents for some time.

Embossed on the plain metal tag is a name, Murphy, Paul. Under that, there appears to be a nine digit number, most likely a social security number, though a few of the digits are worn down completely. At the end of the numbers are the letters "AF," indicating that he served in the US Air Force. Some of the next line is missing; "ositive" is the only text that is legible. The bottom line contains a few letters, "tholic", possibly the soldier’s religion, which I guess is Catholic.

Dog tags are primarily used for the identification of dead or wounded soldiers. Upon entering the armed services, soldiers are usually issued two identical tags, one to be left with the dead soldier’s body if conditions prevent immediate recovery, the other is for notification purposes. I know this because my father served in Viet Nam from 1964 to 1970. His dog tags lie on my mother’s bedroom bureau next to the folded American flag and a photo of him taken in uniform just before he shipped out. I was just five years old then, but I have a distinct memory of being tossed into the air and playfully tickled, his cheery laugh echoing in my ears.

My father’s body came back to us in a plain flag-draped coffin. It was a difficult time, but at least my mother and I have closure. Can Paul Murphy’s family say the same? What happened to Paul Murphy? Is he alive and separated from his dog tags, missing in action, or dead? If he is dead, did he die at sea in the line of duty or under more mysterious circumstances? Since he is in the US Air Force, is he a pilot, and if so, did his plane crash? I also wonder how far the dog tag traveled, where its mate is, and when and how it came to be part of the vast ocean.

I think that I will check with the local branch of the VFW to see if I can trace this mysterious soldier and find out what happened to him. Perhaps I can return this tag to the soldier’s family and help to solve a puzzle, and thereby, provide some comfort. If he is alive, perhaps I can return the tag to him in person.

Market Place

This is a painting that I completed recently of the Market Place in Guilford. The Market Place is a hopping lunch time hangout and it also sells groceries. The medium of the painting is oil on panel.