The idea of painting as a visual language is not new. But we rarely consider the correlation of the pen and the brush. For beginning and often-confused artists (like me), who struggle, (daily), seeing the similarities may be helpful.

The word “composition” is a key. Composing in writing has rules of grammar and punctuation and “elements of style”. Because these are emphasized throughout our school years and we learn them over time, we don’t feel lacking because in the third grade we wrote differently than in the college. Yet, even though one may have not had any art training since the third grade, as adults, when we pick up a brush and don’t know what to do with it, we deem we are talentless. I’m not exactly sure what “talent” is. There are examples after examples of seemingly talented folks who don’t make good art and vice versa, but that’s another subject.

Connecting the familiar idea of writing with a less familiar idea of painting may lessen the pangs of immediate judgement, which is too often death to art-making.

The elements and principles of design are helpful. Sort of. (I have handouts, we’ve studied them, look them up if you’re not familiar—they’re easily found). Sometimes knowing there are “rules” to follow makes painting less mysterious. But creativity is very often about breaking rules. If we’re after poetry in painting (and we are), think of rules like those in Haiku. Rules may be the ticket. But the abandonment of ee cummings or Jack Kerouac, may also inspire. Be aware of your preference and play to that. Or, do an “about face”. Look for rules to break to see what happens. (Are you imagining examples?)

When writing/painting, nouns/objects play the biggest role. They are modified by “adjectives”. Verbs add action or tension. The story you want to tell, the statement you want to make, informs your choices. I think this is sometimes the hardest part of the process–choosing a subject. Subject is what often drives one to paint and a well-chosen subject can provide a lot of fuel for the endeavor.But alas, I’ve been there too. Anxious to dig into colors, harmonies, texture and line, but have no idea and not sure where to look for one . Just as writers advise, prepare by observing, taking time. “Notice what you notice”. And then honor what comes forth.  Write/paint without thinking.

A simplistic example: You love trees, you’ve been to the forest, you take some photos or you recall memoires (very, very hard to work from just memories. By all means do it, but it’s hard.) So what about those trees do you love—are they massive and majestic and will outlast us all and that moves you? – are they saplings, elegant and graceful and a little fragile? –it is hot and they offer shade? –or has a storm taken the leaves and they are black with rain and rich moss? How many to make the whole interesting? If it’s one tree, how do you make it enough? Trees, etc. are the nouns. Adjectives are shape, size and color and will describe the space, the temperature, the time of day, the time of year. And a verb will determine tension and relationships between objects. It connects things.

Your technique (i.e. Haiku, Kerouac or Shakespeare, etc.) is the thing you develop by connecting to your subject and by the doing. Like your signature, it must flow from you to not feel stilted or false. It may be a way of applying paint never seen before or it may emulate a favorite artist until your own technique, your own vocabulary, emerges. Play with this. Observe whether you like to blend, to scrape and scratch or to draw; whether color is subtle or vibrant or you are driven to strong contrasts. Know that anything you like is worthy, just be aware. Practice that–being aware. Your job is to connect to a subject (story, idea, place, person or thing), and then balance, harmonize and unify by a techniques that suit you.

So now imagine those trees in the hands of various artists—Pollock’s would be dancing (actually, dripping), Turner’s would be shrouded in a mist, or a storm, but light would emanate, and Rothko would be painting a meditation. Van Gogh? Picasso? They all tell different stories about the same subject. Their approach often stems from curiosity. About what are you curious? To what do you connect? What story is yours? Think of painting in this way and see if it doesn’t open up possibilities.

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