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Painting with Words

May 13, 2014

Prose is usually painting with words, is it not? Particularly anything poetic, we’d suppose. Still, writing any prose is more similar to putting a painting together than one might realize at first glance. Paints or words, it takes an artist to sculpt it into a shape worth enjoying.

Whether painting or writing, sketch your ‘story’ in first. Rough it in. Add detail later, one step at a time. Fill it in, flesh it out, add colors, shading, highlights. Keep at it until it’s done. But wait, don’t overdo it. Walk away between once-overs. Step away between rewrites.

There are definite similarities between creating paintings and novels. At least for me. I tend to start with a quick, sometimes rough, sketch, and then gradually add detail, filling either out until it feels finished; though definitely avoiding detailing it beyond its best first freshness.

There’s likely a fine line between done and overdone. Crisp but not burnt. Fresh, not wilted. You get the idea. When working on art, whether painted or written, persist with its original self so that it doesn’t become stewed or muddy, or something completely different. Unless it needs to change that much: but wouldn’t it simply be time for a new canvas or another novel if that was the case?

To some degree, you’ve got to separate your concepts. A canvas for every painting. A novel for every story. Yes, a tapestry can have multiple story threads (plot-lines, character threads, colors, ideas), but there is an overall concept to be adhered to for cohesive feel. The overall picture has to look right. It should feel right. It isn’t really science. It’s art. There isn’t always an obvious formula.

When I first started (or got back into) writing fiction in earnest a number of years ago, I didn’t realize my artistic prose process was basically the same as when I’m painting (a decades long method). At some point the similitude was staring me in the face. ‘Hey, this is the same thing!’ It was essentially the same approach.

Get the spirit of your idea down. Then begin the building and polishing. But because it’s easy to get lost in the work and reworking, always remember: don’t polish any natural newness away. You might end up grinding all your colors down into greyish oblivion.

Yes, if you need or want to do a different painting or story, maybe you should just go to a new canvas or story shell for that. Come back to this one later perhaps. Walking away is always good exercise, artistically. Step away, come back later. Look again with rested eyes. Give your first idea, your instinctive creation, a fighting chance.

Start something creative, step away. Go do something else. Live life, do chores, go to work, spend time with family, exercise, whatever. Start your painting or story, then do something uncreative, or otherly creative. The point is to step away from the art and come back to it later. Writer’s block? You might not get it if you are rested creatively when you come back to your art.

I typically start numerous paintings over some time, from originally inspired sketches to the various stages of each, toggling between them (until one and then more are finally done), and I’ve come to do the same thing with my novels. Because it works. For me, anyway. Sketch, walk away. Sketch something new on another canvas. Go back and start filling out within the sketch. Step away. This toggling between works offers fresh perspective, and especially lessens the unrealistic, and often unhealthy, perfectionistic criticism that comes from staring at one thing for too long.

You know how if you look at a word or something – even your own name – for very long (too long), it will start to look really weird? Beyond recognition. Wrong. It will seem wrong. Your brain begins to reject it for what it actually is. You aren’t giving that word or other image a fair shake. You can’t. The same thing happens with stories or paintings. This is why it’s good to step away from art for a day, a week, or maybe even a month or more. Whatever it takes for you, at any given time.

Come back to your art and try to look at it like you are somebody else. Not the original artist. Not you, for the moment. Try to see what others might see. Not really a critic either, because, what do real critics really create? If they were truly creative, they wouldn’t spend so much of their life criticizing. They would be creating like so many of us artist types are trying to do.

Remember to come back to your art with a generous spirit, an honest attitude, before you go at it again. Give your work a generous gaze. Be its parent in a way. Love it for what it is and can be. Work with it, not against it. Build on what you instinctively began in the first place. Trust your artistic gut first, your inner editor second. And perhaps tell your critic in the mirror to take a flying leap.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, does it follow that you might need to give yourself a thousand words to describe a picture? A picture you’ve seen, imagined or been told about. Use all the words. All the colors. All the paints. Harness all the tools that you have. Just paint until you get there. But, stop when you’re done. If you’re listening, the story will tell you when it gets to the end.

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