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Five Things Painting Taught Me About Writing

melissadecarlo [1]Melissa DeCarlo [2] has worked as an artist, graphic designer, grant writer, and at one time (that time being when computers were the size of a refrigerator) a computer programmer. Born and raised in Oklahoma, she now lives in East Texas with her husband and a motley crew of rescue animals. Her first novel The Art of Crash Landing [3] releases this week.

There was a time in my life when I became discouraged with writing, and so I stopped writing and turned to visual art. For seven years, painting and sculpting were my creative outlet. Eventually, I found my way back to writing and rarely make visual art anymore, but that time spent trying to communicate with paint and clay was an important part of my life.

Connect with Melissa on Facebook [4] and Twitter [5].

Five Things Painting Taught Me About Writing

[pullquote]“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” — Kurt Vonnegut.[/pullquote]

Like everyone else, I’m a lot things: a writer, a spouse, a parent, a pet owner, an amateur artist, a reluctant doer of laundry and an enthusiastic eater of donuts. When faced with a stubborn piece of writing, I search through my collection of life-experiences for something to help me make sense of the world or at least the work before me. I don’t know that I’ve learned much from the laundry-doing or donut-eating, but there are a few things I learned from making visual art that have served me well as a writer.

Here are five things of those things.

“Indiscriminate pursuit of perfection infallibly leads to mediocrity.” — Henry Fuseli

1-HenryFuseli [6]
Henry Fuseli “Silence” 1799-1801

In art classes we were encouraged to keep things loose for as long as possible, to resist the urge to perfect one area before moving to the next. There’s just nothing quite like spending hours capturing every detail on an ear only to step back from the easel and realize it should have been placed a half-inch lower. Sure, I tackle a novel one chunk at a time, but I’m learning not to tighten up too early. With my last book I spent too long perfecting scenes that didn’t make it into the final manuscript. I’ll never forget a man I once met at a writer’s conference. He was excited about his novel’s perfect first chapter. At some point in our conversation it became clear that although he’d been working on it for five years, all he had was the first chapter. Remembering that guy still gives me chills. You know those scenes I had to cut from my novel? One was my first chapter.

“Swing a bigger brush – you don’t know what you’re missing.” — Charles Hawthorne

2-CharlesHawthorne [7]
Charles Hawthorn “Artist in Plein Air” 1910

I can’t tell you how many times I solved a problem I was having on a painting by switching to a different-sized brush, and yet when my agent suggested my novel was “too small” it took me longer than it should have to solve the problem. A big canvas calls for a big brush; my book needed higher stakes. For instance, a short story might be about a boy teaching his brother to ride a bike, but in a novel dusk is falling, and the boys are new to neighborhood and haven’t yet made any friends, and their mother is always late getting home from the second job she took when her husband died, and wait…what is that weird light coming from the neighbor’s window? Not that there aren’t exceptions in writing and in painting (Seurat anyone?) but generally if you’re working on a large canvas, swing a big brush.

The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”  — Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon “Head VI: 1949 [8]
Francis Bacon “Head VI: 1949

Sometimes it’s what’s been left out of a painting or a piece of writing that makes it interesting. What we don’t tell our readers will take on a shape of its own and build tension in the work. I’m not suggesting we deliberately confuse anyone, but we should be careful to leave space in the narrative. Be a tease. It’s the unanswered questions that keep a reader turning pages.

“I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have the light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost.” — Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse “The Dessert. Harmony in Red” 1908 [9]
Henri Matisse “The Dessert. Harmony in Red” 1908

The word sprezzatura was originally used to describe the effortless grace of the aristocracy, but I first came across it in reference to artists. Nonchalant mastery is the definition, and who doesn’t want that? Reading a beautifully written novel always leaves me feeling both admiration and despair. It’s discouraging when someone seems to effortlessly accomplish a task I find so freakin’ hard. Yet the word mastery is half of that definition, and that gives me hope. Maybe my favorite authors haven’t actually been bestowed with gifts unavailable to me. Maybe they’ve just been quietly mastering the skills needed to make it look easy.

Salvador Dali “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)” 1936 [10]
Salvador Dali “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)” 1936

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” — Salvador Dali

Copying the masters is a time-honored tradition in painting. Why, I wonder, is it so rarely encouraged for writers? I once had to try to exactly copy a Lucian Freud [11]for an oil-painting class. This didn’t unduly influence the style of my subsequent work, but learning how to mix and use such varied skin tones improved every portrait I attempted afterwards. I’m not advocating plagiarism, but I do think that a purposeful study of other writers’ work
is useful. I know a lot of writers won’t read other books while they’re writing because they fear their own work will be influenced. I say, “Influence away!” ArtofCrashLandingCover-WEB [3]Most mornings I read a dozen pages of some beloved novel, one with style, with sprezzatura if you will, in hopes that a few minutes spent immersed in
mastery will lend just a little grace to my day’s work. At the very least this habit helps to remind me why I’m sitting at my desk in the first place.

What life experiences or non-writing creative endeavors help you when you’re faced with a difficult writing challenge or help you make sense of the work in front of you?