Monday, 3 March 2014

Painting and Writing and Life - Heather Dyer

 © William Cho
I visited the studio of an abstract painter once. There was a group of us. All the others were painters; I was the only writer. We started flicking through a portfolio of abstract paintings, and I have to say that they all looked much the same to me: like wallpaper samples. But every now and again when the next painting was revealed, these other painters would collectively say: “Ah! Now that’s interesting!” Their reactions were spontaneous and genuine – and I realized then that they were seeing something that I was missing.

I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve come to understand that appreciating abstract art is about how a painting makes you feel. It’s not about what you think it is. But this is a difficult mindset to get into. Like a lot of people, I like to understand something. I like to know what it’s about. I need to be able to articulate what it is telling me. I’m not used to asking myself how a painting makes me feel.
I visited another abstract painter’s studio yesterday. She had a canvas leaning up against the wall that looked unfinished to me. There was an outline of what could have been the figure of a woman in the middle, and a pool of yellow in one corner and some bright splashes in the other. I wanted to know what it was about: was the woman falling? Was this the sky and this the ground? Which way up was it supposed to be? I wanted to be about something – I wanted to understand the message. “It’s not about anything,” said the artist. “It’s what it is, that’s all.” 
A Young Lady's Adventure by Paul Klee
This painter works by feeling. She doesn’t know what she’s going to paint before she starts a canvas, she only knows the colours she wants to use, and which brushes. Then she’ll ‘play around’ until some combination of colours appears that she can ‘have a conversation with’. Then she follows the conversation to see where it leads – which might be nowhere. Or it might become something bigger than she herself was capable of, if she’d tried to impose a plan on it beforehand.
Painting and writing are both creative activities, and I recognized parallels in how she described her process. I know that my trouble with writing is that I need to know where it’s heading, I need to know what the message is, well before it appears. I know that this inhibits my creativity, and presents me from feeling the ‘conversation’ that the book might want to have with me.
I asked her how she managed it. “The first thing you have to do,” she said, “is stop. Then, you have to feel with your heart where you need to go next. You need to be playful, you need to be brave, and you need to take risks. And you mustn’t be afraid to make mistakes.”

I know she’s right. The best stuff is always the stuff that we never intended to write about. The best things can’t be articulated, and the most wonderful thing about writing fiction is when a story surprises you, and turns out – to your delight – better than you feel you could have made it. The same process would seem to apply both to painting and to writing – and also, in fact, to life.


Nick Green said...

I think that visual art is a language that one learns to speak. (I don't really speak it, I have to say). But I think a good comparison is where you're sitting next to someone on a train, and they're reading a book in Chinese, and smiling or frowning at a page of what - to you - appears to be meaningless symbols. They speak the language, so they can understand what is there. No mystery, really - and yet one of the greatest mysteries of all.

Joan Lennon said...

I love that Paul Klee picture - thanks for writing about this very interesting area.

David Thorpe said...

Before modernism, most art was narrative - it evoked stories, whether biblical or mythological. Perhaps that was your unconscious expectation, as a writer?

Heather Dyer said...

Yes - perhaps painting has its own language. The temptation is to make a story out of it, perhaps as a writer but perhaps just out of a need to intellectualize the 'message'. Maybe painting and poetry and music are art forms that sometimes impart messages that simply can't be articulated in words - which is their purpose, I suppose.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

With writing too I think you can make a 'misake' just like a potter suddenly finds a smidgen of blue cobalt on an otherwise white pot... and then you can claim that 'mistake' as your own... sheer brilliance!

Heather Dyer said...

Yes Dianne - love it when that happens!

Lynn said...

As someone who's both a writer and an abstract painter, I found this a really interesting post.

In my experience, writing a story generally engages one part of my brain; while making an abstract painting engages another, the more intuitive side, the one which responds in a pre-linguistic, sub-conscious, emotional way to external stimuli. (And I do believe that there is good and bad in abstract art, just as in writing.) Put into art school lingo, the artist is using such elements as line, shape, space, value, colour, texture, form...the basic elements of all art, ie. the language of art.

However, there is a definite over lap zone.

With writing, there is sometimes a point where it seems to write itself. When the writer lets go and is driven by what's going on in their subconscious, and that often produces the most fluid, interesting writing.

Abstract painter Rebecca Crowell recently said: 'There's a moment deep into a painting when it starts to breathe--it starts to be alive and let you know what it will become.' This is also true with a story, when the writer is tapped into both sides or the brain, or however one wishes to imagine it. Having a 'conversation' as you wonderfully put it, with what's being created.

Sorry this has turned into such a long, rambling comment! But you certainly got me thinking about the similarities and differences between these two creative pursuits. Thanks!

Heather Dyer said...

That's lovely Lynn - nicely put. God, the relief when your novel (and painting no doubt) starts to 'breathe'!

Sue Hyams said...

Fascinating post! Especially as I went to the Paul Klee exhibition at the Tate yesterday. I didn't understand it all, or like it all, but there were definitely paintings I was drawn to without knowing why. Just a feeling. Love the parallel between art and writing - so true!