Telling the Truth About Art By Lying About Paintings

I’m writing about paintings that don’t exist. Let me back up. I’m writing about an artist whose work has largely been lost. When a trusted mentor read my work, she suggested I write about the artist’s paintings. “Make them up,” she said. I was fascinated and daunted.

I’ve since gotten over my fear and have discovered that it’s freeing and fun to imagine what an artist’s work looks like. We only have one of her paintings to go by (as of yet, though I am hopeful that more will come to light), and some titles of her paintings that I fervently believe will one day be returned to the art world, so I do have something to guide me. And there’s my imagination, of course.

It starts with an image. I imagine her painting en plein air, and I look around and ask myself what would interest her. Or I think of where she is and what is happening. Is she in the city? Then she would be fascinated by the building going on. In the country she would adore the sheep, or so I tell myself. Then I allow the image to focus. I ask myself what the weather’s like. I try to “become” her: what is she seeing? Feeling? Smelling? What direction is the wind coming from?

I take it a step further by framing it. It’s not enough that there’s a girl with a lamb. I need to zoom in on one aspect, one angle.

The advantage to this, of course, is that I don’t need to ask the child to stay still. I can force this through my imagination. If the wind needs to blow in another direction, I can do that, too.

It’s powerful and great for imagination-building skills. I dare say it is probably helping my painting skills, though I haven’t painted for some time.

I have seen people become totally paralyzed when asked to use the imagination. It’s only by exercising it that it gets stronger, so if you need to apply this technique, just give it a try with confidence.

Let’s try an exercise, shall we?
Close your eyes. See a simple shape — a high-rise building, a four-leaf clover, or even the moon. Now build a painting. What color is the building? What do you see through the windows? Any signs on it?

That clover, where is it? What is of interest around it? Is a chicken about to eat it?

The moon…is it a full moon or a half? How bright is it?

To properly “build” a painting in your mind, you need to tell a story about it, so let’s keep going.

Go back to the building. What do you want to say about the building, or what story do you want to tell? Are you making a statement about how it looks just like the ten around it, or that it is different? Is it a monument to civilization, or is it competing with the tiny tree below?

The clover…are you highlighting its shape and the luck it supposedly gives, or that the chicken (if your picture has one) is about to eat luck, making itself lucky, or that the chicken doesn’t know that she is eating something “lucky”?

That moon…is it a persistent light despite a smoggy atmosphere, or is it clear and beautiful with the magic that only night can bring, the kind that makes you fall in love with yourself and everything that breathes just by seeing it?

Once you know what your CHARACTER would say about it, that makes things easier. For it’s not your painting. It’s your character’s.

My character equally loves progress and the country, so very likely her paintings would reflect the conflict between these worlds. How could I show this? I could have her painting a pastoral scene with the train running in the background. Or the smoke of a factory could waft above a lake on which a couple is rowing a boat.

Even if you’re not writing about art, this will serve you well when writing description and deciding what’s important to write about. Pretend you have a camera, and use it. That’s all.

Happy Lying!

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