03 August 2015

5 Things Painting Teaches Me About Writing

I've been painting since I was young. Very young. At one point, my teachers rearranged my schedule to include more art, because it seemed that I might find success as a professional. But, growing up in a rural town on the Oregon coast, I balked at the idea of moving to a major city to pursue "art."

But, I still paint although these days I do spend much more time writing. And each creative effort informs the other.

Here's a few insights I have that apply to both writing and painting as a process:

1. Structure makes the process quicker and easier to complete

Here you can see a fibonacci sequence in
my painting of geese
Starting with a clearly defined simple structure doesn't make a picture or a story better, but it does make the process easier to follow. For example, in my short story Vincent and the Invisible Machine, I started with no real structure for the plot, but I explored the dichotomy between the city and the wilderness. Simple enough to hold the story together.

2. Research, Research, Research

Before I start painting or writing, I have an idea of what I want to create. It's not well developed, but it gives me enough of a foundation that I can easily find inspiration. To get started on the geese painting, I googled dozens of images and borrowed elements to form a more general vision for where I wanted it to go.

Since I lived on a ranch with geese as a toddler, I wanted to recreate
what the jerks were like at eye level.

3. Finish the first layer/draft before adding finer detail

The entire canvas is covered with paint
More detail and shading is added

It's just as easy to over edit the first few chapters of a novel as it is to spend too much time on one aspect of a painting. And for me, refraining from getting drawn into detail requires extreme restraint.

When writing my first novel The Ishim Underground, I spent more time rewriting chapters 1 through 4 than I did writing 5 through 23. And not surprisingly, those first chapters are the ones I never felt that I got quite right.

But, there was this time when I was writing a term paper at uni when I obsessed over the first ten pages and spent so much time doing so that I had less than thirty minutes to finish and submit it. I flew through the last two. My professor noticed and he circled the last to pages with a great thick red marker. He wrote in the margin, "This is REALLY good."

I read it again keeping his perspective in mind and realized that he was probably right. When over editing a draft and over working a picture, we lose sight of our original idea and what we are trying to communicate gets drowned out.

4. Take a nice long break BEFORE you finish

Almost finished!!

When I'm writing a novel, I need at least a month before I tackle any rewrites. And with a painting, I like to wait a week before adding the finishing touches.

A little time to process the project when its nearly complete allows my mind an opportunity to sort out what imperfections are acceptable and which require attention. During the time that I set aside before going back, I consider the simplest solutions for the aspects of my painting or writing, which have to be changed.

Painting over a few details or rewriting a section of a story draft can snowball into a major waste of time and effort if not handled objectively. In the worst case, you'll feel like you've ruined your project. In the best case scenario, it will became a nearly distinct project though not necessarily a better one.

5. Strive to improve rather than strive for perfection

In my experience, nothing kills a good story or a good painting faster than the feeling that it is the one that will define my ability as an artist or a writer. I evolve. My work evolves. I gain experience. It's hard to remember that while immersed in the creative process.

When I was younger, I often got 3/5 finished with a picture and then stopped. It would go on the pile of things I never completed and within a few years, thrown out. I lost the opportunity for feedback by not completing my work.

Today, I learn as much from listening to other people's experience of my work as I do from the process of creating it. People are much more forgiving of some aspects and much more sensitive to others than I am. Of course it varies from person to person, but for me, the best possible outcome for a project is not to feel like I got it just right, but to know that someone else enjoyed it.

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