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?