WORD: Picture this

When I completed my master’s degree in British and American literature (which culminated in a six-hour written exam), my brain was a toasted English muffin, its nooks and crannies saturated with melted words like a Salvador Dali painting. For the first time in my life the thought of reading made me want to lie down in a dark room or—the horror—watch daytime television. Clearly a remedy was in order. And it came in the form of a drawing class.

I’d never exercised the part of my brain that translated an image onto paper via a pencil. I felt like a toddler learning to walk—totter forward eagerly, stumble, fall, heave myself up, totter again (with varying degrees of enthusiasm). After about two months, I’d advanced to a reasonable level of dexterity, emboldening me to progress to oil painting. And that’s when the fun really started.

Oil paints are a merciful media. As Bob Ross used to say, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” Judging by my “accidents,” I am a very happy painter indeed. My happiness while painting, though, is due to the fact that I am on a constant learning curve. If I drew as a toddler, I paint as a third grader. Or a fifth grader, if I get into “the flow,” a sensation akin to a runner’s high.

It wasn’t until I began writing fiction that I truly appreciated what painting teaches me. The decisions painters make are similar to those writers make when crafting a story. The choice of subject to paint/write about naturally dictates the size of canvas/length of story. A monumental landscape begs for a large canvas (100,000-word-plus novel) while a study of a hand, for instance, is best suited to a smaller canvas (short story). Choosing perspective (horizon line, depth, distance) is not unlike deciding on plot, point of view, protagonist, antagonist. Setting up the palette with the oil colors to best capture the intended image is like setting the tone of a story—dark, humorous, romantic, suspenseful, etc. Shades of those colors (yellow to gold) is akin to shades of meaning of words (adhere, cohere, cling, cleave, stick), the all-important nuance. The devils are in the details. The curve of a lip may be a smile or a sneer (or a mystery like Mona Lisa) while a well-placed comma makes all the difference to the meaning of a sentence (as Lynne Truss pointed out in her book, "Eats, shoots & leaves").

The wisdom of the advice for a painter to step away from the canvas in order to observe it with fresh eyes is applicable to writing as well. Putting a manuscript away for awhile and then reading it with a new perspective yields a better revision. The best gift painting offers to the craft of writing, though, is the gift of looking. You never truly see anything—a face, a landscape, an object—until you try to draw or paint it. And, until you wrestle with the craft of wordsmithing, I’m not sure you truly know or understand anything either.

My sample drawing/paintings below: a value study drawing, reproductions of paintings by Hopper, Van Gogh, and Gauguin.

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