Did you think we were going to talk about writing about watercolor painting? If it happens, it will only be by accident, as the real purpose of this post is to bring painting skills into a less concrete realm—the written word. Like a watercolor, prose or poetry can be delicate or dark, softly shadowed or brightly highlighted. It can define small details with great precision, or suggest large landscapes with subtle washes of color.
The main thing to know about watercolor is that you can’t control it. My recent playtimes with watercolor painting have helped me to appreciate what a cerebral art form it is; first you think, then you paint. It occurred to me that the process of expository writing is, at its best, similar. As with watercolors, you don’t want to rework exposition because it gets clumsy and loses shape. You want each written passage to flow naturally from one thought to another, taking in the details of the time and space your story moves through. There’s a lot going on, and you can’t stop to write it all in or you’ll end up like Prof. Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) in Wonder Boys (equally good as a book by Michael Chabon) whose unfinished novel was over 2500 pages.
So here I’m adapting some of the basic rules of watercolor painting to help you in your creative writing:
1) Think it through first. Because watercolors don’t leave much room for erasing, and the colors can easily become muddy if overworked, you want to make sure you think through not only your concept, but also the steps you need to take to get there. This may seem backwards to writers, who are usually taught by well-meaning, but ignorant writing instructors to “just do it, and the words will come.” If that were true, how did we get the stereotypical image of the writer stuck behind the keyboard, facing a blank screen? Too many writers sit down to write when they have nothing ready to come out. You have to tell yourself the story first…and then let your fingers bring it out.
2) Look at the world around you, and bring it into your writing. Painters are forever examining flower petals, sunsets, ripples in the water, pebbles on the beach. Meanwhile, writers sit quiet room on sunny afternoons, scraping the surfaces of their own creativity to invent many things that already exist in the world. Why not just start there? Sometimes it’s best to let the real thing speak to you. Sit by a lake, or on a mountaintop, or on a subway car. Look, listen, and feel. Take in the smells. See the big picture and the small details. And scribble a few notes as you do it. Think of your character sitting there, in the context of whatever their plight may be―because all characters have plights―and let them experience the scenery. You’ll be surprised to learn what they’re thinking, and all you’ll have to do is get it down on paper.
3 ) Go with the flow—literally. Watercolors, especially when applied to wet surfaces, will run in all directions. The trick is to enjoy the ride and let it happen. Add other colors and see what they do. It’s about fearlessness, because you are not in control here. This is hard for writers, who tend to be the most anal of the creative bunch. We choose writing because it’s easy to stop and examine our words, erase or backspace, and then rethink. Try not doing that. Go back to steps one and two (from this little instructional guide). Tell yourself the story, and open yourself to what your character is feeling. And when it becomes so real that it flows in your mind like your own memories, then sit down and let it out in one session. No stopping, no rewriting.
4) Use all the colors in your palette. Watercolors capture tremendous variation in color. The painting is layered, with the lightest colors applied first and building to darker tones, while leaving other areas simply untouched. Each color is made warmer or cooler as it darkens by using complimentary colors, which are allowed to “act” on previous layers. Nothing is simply one color, but a combination of shades. Trees may have green, yellow, orange, blue and purple, and so will water. The same is true in writing. No scene or paragraph is simply performing one function. It should have depth and color. Darks and lights. Warms and cools. If one sentence doesn’t absolutely shine, then look for other ways to express that idea with words that challenge each other, as this will make for a much more interesting read. (For example, a “cloudy day” becomes one where “the shadows of the sun fell unevenly on the sides of the houses, the color concentrated where the thick gray clouds allowed just a few rays of light to filter through…”
5) Draw the eye to your subject. Painting, especially watercolor painting, doesn’t try to recreate every single detail, but rather to suggest the entirety of the picture. Some things will be given great attention with individual brush strokes, while other parts of the painting may be rendered with large washes from a broad brush. This helps draw your eye to the part of the painting the artist wants you to see. When you write, you can’t give equal attention to every detail. Not only would it take forever to write, but you would lose the reader in the vast landscape of minutiae. You don’t want to slip into the “and then, and then, and then,” kind of writing. What you do want to do is set the scene with a broad wash of color―long descriptive sentences―and then jump into action with short, pointed phrases, as with fine brush strokes.
6) Organize your subject. Watercolorists edit nature. They group trees, add rocks, brighten sunlight, and heighten shadows. They change backgrounds and foregrounds and times of day and seasons, and combine landscapes to make new ones. A watercolor painting is entirely an “impression” of the moment as the artist views it, whether the subject is a person or a basket of fruit. Similarly, the best fiction writing doesn’t merely report the story, but it organizes the information, steering us toward the elements that will paint a picture in the reader’s mind very close to the author’s imaginings.
7) Paint a written picture. This really summarizes what I’ve been saying all along: you have to approach the whole of your written piece as you would a painting. You are literally taking mental pictures from your own mind, complete with millions of details, and translating them into words. Those words then travel from the page or screen to persons unknown who reassemble the picture in their own minds. And so often, what appears at the other end bares no resemblance to the original image. Remember, at its core, writing is essentially a visual medium. Use the tools of visual artists to enhance what you are trying to say and it will get much easier.
Take your writing all the way–to completing your first novel or screenplay–at the “Write Your Heart Out” women’s weekend workshop July 9-12, 2011 in the spectacular Adirondacks. Using natural settings, we will explore ways to bring out your voice and enhance and extend the boundaries of your creative writing. We’ll specifically focus on bringing dimension and natural momentum to longer pieces (such as novels and screenplays) through character development, dialogue, and expository writing.
To make it easy, the workshop is set on the beautiful shores of Lake George at the historic Wiawaka Holiday House Women’s Retreat. Registration is limited to provide the optimum experience for all participants and the chance for everyone to get personal appraisals and guidance to complete their first major written work. Please go to the camp website (July 9-12, 2011) for more information, and to reserve your space.
The watercolor painters whose work is represented here live and work in the quintessential arts enclave of Saranac Lake, NY, just outside of Lake Placid. Their work is available for sale on the following sites:
Sandra Hildreth and Suzanne Lebeda are both members of the Adirondack Artists Guild; their work is available through the Guild website. More of Suzanne Lebeda’s work is also available via her own website.
Tim Fortune, a founding member of the AAG, works out of the Fortune Studio in Saranac Lake.
© 2011 Arts Enclave