What I learned from abstract painting class, part 2

In my last post, I wrote about a few things I learned from the abstract painting class I took recently. Here's what happened next. During our third class, we learned about color and how to use it in narrative. We started out by painting seven gradations of color between yellow and red. This seemed initially to be a very easy task, but I soon learned that a single drop of red can totally change everything.

Some things have a lot more impact than others — a lesson that can also apply to writing. Certain storytelling elements explode all over everything else. In way, it's about contrast, and knowing when to add in that splash of red to change where the story is going. I think this knowledge (for me) only comes from experimentation. The more I write, the more I understand where to place certain phrases or sentences for impact, and the more I know when a certain scene will make the most impact.

After the yellow-to-red exercise, we were asked to paint a piece of music using seven colors. I chose to paint Massive Attack's "Angel," a song that iTunes tells me I've listened to 80 times (and that's not counting the number of times I've heard it outside of iTunes). I know it so well because I listen to Massive Attack so often when writing. Here's what I painted:

If you haven't heard the song before, you should take a listen:

That pointy section where it changes from purple to blue is the part of the song where the guitars kick in. This exercise was interesting to me because while several of the students in the class painted an overall feeling they got from a piece of music, I painted a story. I heard the music telling a story, and it came out of me in a progression of colors.

I think this is because I think about story and narrative all day! I can't escape it. Interestingly, the next exercise was to tell a story with color. Our teacher asked us to paint an emotionally vivid experience — a climax of some sort — and to paint the lead-up to it and the aftermath. Well, the week of this class I had just finished revising Huntress for the third time, so I painted one of the climactic scenes in my novel.

This painting came very easily to me, probably because I'd been thinking about this book for so long. I knew immediately what all the colors were. I read the painting from the bottom up — the scene begins at the bottom of the painting, and it proceeds up toward the top.

Only a few people in this world have read Huntress, so I have no idea what this painting says to those of you who haven't read it. Does it make sense? Is it climactic? What kind of mood does it evoke?

I'll tell you what it says to me: change. Something major happens where that orange ball with the little flame is.

I really enjoyed this week of the painting class because it allowed me to work with narrative in graphic form. I had never consciously done that before (although it became clear to me that I think that way subconsciously), and I think this is a tool I can use in the future to help me work my way through blocks in writing.

Thinking about things in color is also a wonderful exercise. Colors come with a lot of emotional weight behind them, and imagining a scene as a series of colors just makes so much sense to me instinctually — probably because I've been a very instinctual writer my whole life. I know there are plenty of logical lessons for storytelling (evidenced by countless books on craft, not to mention workshops, conferences, etc.), but they have rarely made sense to me. I can hear advice from teachers about how to build momentum in a story, but it often takes a visual image for that advice to click.

I remember last summer I was at the SCBWI national conference in Los Angeles, and Holly Black gave a talk on the structure of a fantasy novel. When she drew a diagram of two inverted, intersecting Vs to illustrate the way two story lines work together, it suddenly all made sense to me. It's kind of funny to me that as a person of words, I often best understand concepts through images.

Next time: My last post about painting class, involving glazes and collage.