10 Things...Painting Like a Writer


Flow...one of my stream-of-consciousness pieces...but even when the elements barely relate, it still has to work compositionally


Creative picture making is like creative writing. While studying books about writing, when an author describes how to construct compelling sentences, I hear it as if they are talking about building a picture. I often replace the word ‘writer’ with ‘artist’ and find new clues for simplifying an image to get to the point.

The creative process is universal. Studying other creative fields helps me learn better picture design.  This opens me up, and allows me to understand painting from a writer’s perspective.

The list below comes from Roy Peter Clark’s excellent book about writing, “How To Write Short.” Roy explains how CBS Radio correspondent, Peter King, uses a set of strategies for getting straight to the point on air. King's list gives advice about composition. Only, for me it was visual composition.

Here's King's list compared with my strategies for good picture design, with visual examples.



Writing:
Ask for help in identifying long, complicated material. Look for the expert who can take material like science from complicated to comprehensible.

Painting:
Research subject matter. Read-up on your subject and rely on authorities that have worked with it longer than you have. Act like a reporter observing details to describe to a reader...in this case, a viewer. Study other artists' work who’ve tackled the same subject, and be aware of their working methods.


Harold Von Schmidt...a great moment of Revere's Ride, researched right down to the length of the musket, and the motion of the horse.


Writing:
Select the most important piece of information. Like an archeologist, a good writer can find the hunk of gold hidden beneath the surface.

Painting:
Identify the one thing you must get across. Show the point that describes the most. Don’t be distracted by luscious storytelling from the text. It's all communication, but painters do it differently. You don’t have to tell the full story in the painting. It is not required. Let go of the rest and let the visual instill curiosity in the viewer, to keep them coming back. 


Mead Schaeffer captures the spirit of 18th c. highway robbery, explains nothing and captures everything


Writing:
Decide what can be left out. Even famous musicians must learn what notes to leave out.

Painting:
Edit extraneous details. Don’t explain too many details of the character or their clothes, or their attitude, or their family history, or the food they like, or the landscape, or their weapons, or how they raise their children, etc. Less is more.


In this case, lots less...but, in Mead Schaeffer's portrait of the Count of Monte Christo he barely gave us facial details, yet it's plenty.


Writing:
Zero in. Tight writing demands focus. Writers are encouraged to think of picture postcards, to look for the single image to imprint on the reader.

Painting:
Be direct. Sound familiar? I'll tell you flat out: composition. Use cropping to create depth. Unless you’re telling something about a character involved in their landscape, get in close to the subject. Allow the viewer to be a part of the composition. If your p.o.v. is too far back, the viewer is merely an offstage observer. And no, you don’t have to push in so close we’re staring them in the eye.

Dead-on compositional skills from Herbert Paus...I can feel the pilot about to be ripped off the edge of the wing in the next half second... and I can't stop looking at it.

Writing:
Excerpt the most telling quote. Writing teacher Donald Murray’s famous dictum: “brevity comes from selection, not compression.”

Painting:
Find the moment that communicates the story. Melodrama oversells the point. Find a nuance, or even a bold, exciting moment, but don’t paint it like you think it actually feels. Go a step farther. Realize that anyone can paint up a sneaky killer, or the oversexed vixen, or the growling monster. To be truly scary, for example, macabre goes a long way. However, don’t be subtle about your composition. Keep it striking, even when expressing a softer passage.

Donald Teague...we don't even get to see the fist, but the guy is down...strong composition and perfect story-telling.

Writing:
Translate jargon into common English. Think NASA abbreviations: EMU (extravehicular mobility unit) = spacesuit. Cut to the chase.

Painting:
Keep it simple. Allow the viewer to get involved by simplifying complex images. You can easily overwhelm with elements, too many lighting angles, or complicated perspective. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. Even in a battle scene, the viewer must be able to find their way through the activity.

One of mine: Last Battle of the CSS Alabama...think rhythmically when composing...allow the figures to move in and out of the space, which allows the viewer's eye to flow through the picture.

Writing:
Search for and destroy redundant elements. Adverbs are a good target, especially those that reinforce instead of modify, as in ‘totally severed’ or ‘deeply rooted.’

Painting:
Vary elements. Repetitious passages dull the senses. So vary color, value, shape. Give the painting a balanced rhythm of elements. This is especially true for repetitive shapes in the landscape, particularly trees in a forest, or cloud shapes. And this includes repetitive folds in clothing. Use a playful, lyrical sense in designing objects.

Sergio Martinez wouldn't dare repeat forms, even with forms that do repeat...look at that tree....his drawing is consistently rhythmic, and that adds interest.


Writing:
Play the role of the common reader. Would your writing make sense to your family or the mailman? Plumber? Rocket scientist?

Painting:
Become the viewer. What would you want to see if you were looking for the right cover of a book or  painting to enjoy? We know what strikes us, intrigues us. We see it everyday. Especially as artists. Learn to give your work a fresh eye. Pretend you haven’t seen it, or look at it without preconceived ideas of what you will see. You are already an informed viewer. Create from that point of view.

Wham!...Thomas Blackshear hits you right between the eyes....and holds you there.

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