What I learned from abstract painting class, part 3

I've been blogging about what I learned about writing from an abstract painting class I took recently. Take a look at part 1 and part 2. In the fourth class we learned how to work with glazes. A glaze is basically a small amount of color mixed into a large amount of matte (or gloss) medium. When it's painted over something, it creates a sort of shiny, transparent finish. Our teacher explained that if you want to change something about a painting, but you don't want to change too much of it, you can apply a glaze.

So, on to the exercise. First we were given blank sheets of tarpaper (the stuff they use for roofing), and were instructed to paint only white lines that were no more than 1 inch apart. After that, I mixed a couple of glazes, using drops of yellow and blue, and glazed the white-on-black lines. Here's what came of it:

The white lines I initially painted reminded me a lot of trees. This is why I mixed the yellow and blue glazes — to make green. Hey, I remembered something from elementary school art class!

I wasn't sure what to think about this one. The glazing effect seems a little bit too light for me. I want it to be more dramatic! On the other hand, an interesting thing happened during the painting of the lines. I was so involved with painting the lines, 1 inch apart, that I had no idea what image would emerge at the end. When I had covered the whole thing with lines and stepped back (perspective!), I was really amazed to see what looked like a tree.

I missed the fifth week of class because I finally succumbed to the cold that was going around, but I did return for the last class, in which we worked with collage.

I did a lot of collage when I was an angsty teenager. I remember tearing lots of things out of magazines and happily assembling them into wordy posters that I thought were very cool. As an adult, they're a bit painful for me to look at because it's so clear that I was lonely and barraged with emotions I didn't understand. So, working with collage was a bit strange for me. It brought back a lot of difficult feelings, and perhaps that's why I wasn't too keen on doing it.

During the class we did several exercises that involved collaging very rapidly, then passing the paintings on to other class members to re-collage. I didn't really understand this. By the time we got to the last exercise of the night, I probably was a bit frustrated.

However, I did find some interesting paint-spattered paper that I collaged onto tarpaper in strips, and then I painted around the spaces. Here's the finished product:

I started painting this one horizontally, but it made a lot more sense to me when I rotated it into a vertical rectangle. I feel like there's a sense of journey in it, moving from bottom to top again, like the Huntress painting.

It might be appropriate that I ended the class with this painting, because I feel like I'm at the very beginning of a journey here. I still don't know much about painting, but now I have a lot of paint, and some ideas of things I could do. There are some images in my head from a book I'm thinking about writing, and I really want to paint them. There's a lot of orange in these images, and I'd like to begin by painting a bunch of orange squares. I realize this sounds bizarre, but hey, I'm letting myself do whatever with this! I want to keep painting as a fun thing — playtime, you know.

I find that as I develop as a writer, I'm less and less likely to just play with words in the way I did as a teenager. Writing has been a job for me for several years now, and sometimes it's a good idea to remind myself that being creative is about more than figuring out the best word to use in a sentence. That's good too, but painting seems to be so open and unbounded to me. There's no grammar! There's no spelling! And yet it does allow me to write, in a way, with images.

All I need now is a drop cloth and some room to make a mess.

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.

What I learned from abstract painting class, part 1

Recently I took a six-week class in abstract acrylic painting taught by Maria Nikl. My interest in painting arose from a meditation retreat about creativity that I went on several years ago at Spirit Rock. During this retreat, we painted every afternoon, and I discovered that it was an entirely transformative experience. Without that retreat and without all that painting, I think I would have never finished writing Ash. I went into the retreat feeling extremely restricted and blocked, and when I left I was completely open to the creative process. Part of this unblocking came about because of the painting — because I was not a painter, and yet I discovered that painting was a wonderful pathway into writing.

Afterward, I bought some paints and dabbled a little bit, but I never really did much on my own. This past winter I decided to finally go there, so I signed up for this class. I knew that I wanted to do abstract painting because I had no desire to paint objects that were recognizable; I wanted the canvas to be wide open to any experience and emotion.

Well, the class was amazing! I have very little background in art, and a lot of what I learned was revelatory to me. I think that's because I went into the class knowing that I knew very little, and therefore was open to learning a lot. Also, I went into it believing that I'm a writer, and thus whether or not my painting was good didn't matter. It was very freeing.

With that beginner's mind, I learned many things that are useful in writing. Today I'm going to blog about the first two weeks of the painting class; next time I'll finish up with the last three weeks.

For the first class, our teacher blindfolded us, and then a partner handed us paintbrushes already loaded with paint. We did not choose the color of the paint or the type of brush we were using; we just painted blindly. This is what came of it:

I was totally stunned when I saw this. (After our blindfolds were removed we were allowed to finish the paintings with our eyes open, but what I did was mostly enhance what was already there.) Our teacher explained that even if we couldn't see what we were doing, we clearly had an image in our head of what we were painting.

I think this says a lot about trusting the artistic instinct. Sometimes I do feel like I'm writing in the dark, and it's only when I've stepped back and taken another look at it that I realize what I mean.

Of course, painting blindfolded is also just a lot of fun. It was a great way to begin because it removed any expectations. We were blindfolded! We had no idea what we were doing! It's a good reminder to let go of those expectations when writing, as well.

During the second week, we were told to paint in only rectangles, using only three colors. This is what I did:

At first, I didn't like this painting at all. Then, a few weeks later, I took it out and turned it around. Originally the red bar had been at the top (you can tell because the paint drips down the white bar from top to bottom), and that felt very oppressive. But when the red bar was turned so that it was on the left side, it finally clicked for me.

I think this painting showed me a few things about writing. First, painting with those restrictions — only three colors, only rectangles — is a lot like retelling a fairy tale. You might say, huh? But it is very similar. It's about setting boundaries within which you're freed to play. By only using three colors, I had to focus on composition in order to make an impact. Where do I place those rectangles to be most interesting? When do I use the color red?

Within the boundaries of a fairy tale, there are certain things you must do, but within those boundaries, your composition of the fairy tale elements can change. Sometimes putting some limits around your writing is a great way to actually stretch yourself. This is why I think fan fiction is so useful. You have to play within a set of rules, but having those rules can enable you, paradoxically, to think outside the box.

The other thing this painting showed me is the value of perspective. With an abstract painting, you can turn it 90 or 180 degrees and discover a totally different image there. This different perspective is gained by physically stepping back, away from the painting, and seeing it from a distance.

It's very important to do this with writing, as well. With writing you can become so deeply enmeshed in a fictional world that you lose sight of the forest for the trees. You have to figuratively step back and take a look at the whole story. Does it begin at the right place? Is there a chapter in the middle that should be moved to the beginning or the end? Distance and perspective: these are absolutely vital for writing. The ability to separate yourself from your work and view it as something distinct, with a life of its own.

Our teacher told us that it was important to take these moments — to step away from the painting and view it from across the room or from a different angle. This allows you to listen to what the painting is telling you; it allows you to engage with it and, hopefully, understand what it's trying to say.

I think this is the struggle every author has with their book at some point. What is the book trying to say? What is the story being told? It's not always the one we start off telling, and the only way to figure it out is to gain some perspective on it.

Next time I'll blog about working with color and narrative in painting, but I'm curious: Are any of you painters or artists in addition to being writers? Do those different practices inform each other? How?