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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Unmasking the Sprezzatura of Writing: What’s Under My Bed?

Ireland 2013 220

If sprezzatura means to express art in such a manner as to convey a supposed effortlessness, then let’s unmask that, at least in regards to my writing. (I say this with much tongue-in-cheekedness; I am not saying my writing is that good, but hey, how else am I gonna work up to what I really want to talk about: what I found under my bed this morning?)

(Note of interest: I took the above photo of Vermeer’s “Lady Writing Letter With Her Maid” in Dublin this past summer.)

While my goal is to one day get writer friends of mine to share honestly with us what’s under their beds, I guess I will have to show you mine first, so here goes:

This morning while cleaning the bedroom (it started with cleaning my writing room and spread from there), I decided to duck under the bed and pull out everything on my side. I am not going to share what I found under my husband’s side. Not because it’s so bad, but because I am respecting his privacy. NB: My dear husband said this could make one think many things if one reads it. All I mean is that while his side looked much like mine, I will let him choose to reveal or not any clutter there may or may not have been under his bed. 🙂

What was lurking under my side? Plenty of Kleenex that had missed its mark, I am sorry to say. Two issues of Poets and Writers. Two art books. Three library books, two of them wholly untouched and likely to remain so — they grow stale, don’t you find? Several paperbacks. A Woman’s Health. A pair of headphones. Three pair of socks. A marked-up manuscript of my novella. A printed copy of a topic that once interested me but now does not. Toss! A filled journal.

A sprezzatura is, again, supposed to hide, not reveal, the sludge of creativity such as what I found under my bed. In the painting above, we see a carefully staged scene. We don’t see the lady worrying because she can’t find the “mot juste” for her letter. Do we want to see our writers struggling for just the right word?

If you happened to have read and enjoyed any of my stories, know that all of those things (and more!) hiding under my bed go into making up one of my stories. The books are self explanatory. The socks merely keep my feet warm — I can’t stand being cold, and I often am. 😦 The filled journal is deceptive — I am probably the worst journal entry writer ever. I record petty, mundane activities or I rant. I unload the mind. I am not trying to impress. I read the journals of famous people, of those with great minds, and I flinch. Still, my journal entries work for me — if I didn’t empty my mind, there would be no room for anything else.

There might have been a few other odds and ends under the bed that I’ve forgotten: I think there was a hanger, and maybe a neck pillow. Oh and a plastic bag. Neither the hanger nor the plastic bag aided my writing, though: they were just part of the flotsam and jetsam that whatever creative creature lives under my bed pulls in. (Maybe you’re getting the impression that I’m not tidy. Well I’m not. I’m not a slob, but faced with the choice between writing or cleaning, guess which I’ll choose, every time? Ok, almost every time.)

So, who’s first? What’s lurking under your bed? And if you’re a creative type, how does it contribute to your art? Go!

Manet: Portraying Life Exhibit at Toledo Museum of Art now through Jan. 1

It happened so quickly — my husband left the newspaper open for me on the dining room table, since he had to go in so early.  This was this past Saturday.  After I fed the fish I saw the paper and bent closer to examine the Manet painting there.  Then I read that it is at the Toledo Museum of Art, which is only three hours from us!

I squealed, ran upstairs, mapquested it, printed directions, and began frantically texting my husband: “Plz plz plz can we go tomorrow??” He said yes!

Needless to say, we went yesterday, and I am not at all sorry!  I saw many paintings I thought I might never get to see — the collection brings together paintings from nine different countries.

This exhibit is the first of its kind mounted, cosponsored by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Toledo is the only U.S. venue where the show will be.  It will be there until January 1, 2013.

Some of the paintings there: The Tragic Actor, Berthe Moirsot with a Bunch of Violets, The Monet Family, The Railway, and many more!  If you are a Manet lover, you must see this collection.

Portrait of Emilie Ambre as Carmen

There were so many I loved that it’s hard to pick out a favorite.  Some of them I wasn’t familiar with.

A pair of the Dutch tradition in particular stood out: Boy Blowing Bubbles and The Smoker.  They both hold long objects which involve blowing through them — the smoker holds a pipe, of course, and both resultant substances — bubbles and smoke — signal the transitory nature of life.  One is old, one is new.  I would have liked to have seen these paintings side by side, but alas they were in separate galleries.  So I will combine them here, just for you.

 

What do you think?

For more information, go to the museum’s website: http://www.toledomuseum.org/exhibitions/manet/