Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Painting a novel

The below quote caught my eye in last week's Australian Writers' Centre newsletter:

“Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.”
-Elie Wiesel

As a painter, however, I have to disagree with this statement. I've painted in oils for around 15 years and there is a strong connection between the traditional process of oil painting and my manuscript writing process. I'm not one of those write by the seat of your pants kind of writers. I need to know where I'm going so I can get there. I'll develop the climax of a book from the outset and then plan the journey. I won't be able to stop myself from jumping ahead, blocking out the general plot and scenes in broad strokes before returning to add further detail—much like the process of oil painting.

I was taught to paint in oils by the fabulous Fiona Bilbrough. The traditional method is to first cover the canvas in one colour to form the base of the work. When no white remains, I'll dip a rag in turps and rub away the paint to reveal the basic structures of my subject. This is my plan, similar to a rough guide of my novel.

Once the mysterious shape starts to come to life I'll be compelled to add colour. I'll pick basic tones to outline different areas, much like the process of fleshing out scenes by adding dialogue, descriptions and the characters thoughts. During this stage there will be much adding and subtracting until the structure of the painting emerges. Painting in oils allows for this mouldable approach. Nothing is set in stone. I'll rub back the parts that aren't working, I'll use my medium sized brushes to block in elements, and work and rework until the image begins to hang together. This is similar to the process of creating the second to how-ever-many-drafts-it-takes of a manuscript where I'll push and pull the language until I hit upon the right sentence, the right scene, the right emotion. Where no section is left underdeveloped and each inch of the canvas is worked with the same level finesse.

I'll then use my smallest brushes to add details: a flick of white to the rim of a metallic bowl, the cut of the palette knife for the edge of a table, the purest black added to the shadows. I'll polish the piece until I can run my eyes over the canvas and no section cries out for more development. Much like when I'll read through my manuscript and not cringe, question or struggle. It's ready.

Next I'll go to the framers where they'll prepare my work for public consumption. Whilst writers and artists often create for themselves, they also create for an audience. As a writer I want nothing more than to be told that the reader enjoyed my story, that they couldn't put it down. This is the moment I am waiting for.

The painting is hung. People gather. They stand back. They squint. They lean in close. Their response?

That's the worst. I don't want my audience to be indifferent, I want them to care. A negative reaction is better than none at all. I've spent hours creating this piece, or in the case of my manuscript: years, and in one brief moment my work's worth will be decided. All I can do is hope that my hard work pays off. That someone out there will enjoy my work as much as I've enjoyed creating it.

Two of my still life paintings

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