What I wouldn’t give to paint a decent picture. I can doodle and draw silly little monsters, and I can color, but as I learned back when my father signed me up for an art class when I was 14, that’s about it. He was an artist, and I was his last hope of painting side by side with one of his four daughters. Alas, the images in my brain got lost on the way to the canvas, and the most glorious thing I managed was a sign I painted for him when I was 5 years old that said, “Do not disturb: Man at art.” The glory came from spelling disturb right.
I’ve always envied artists their tools and environment. When I worked at magazines where staff produced the layout in-house, the art department was always the sunniest, always the most lively. The graphic designers had all of these nifty supplies–brilliant art pencils, pungent markers, pens in a huge assortment of widths–and big, beautiful drawing boards and huge computer monitors, with lots of fun stuff tacked to corkboards around the room. Sketches, cartoons, mock-ups, color.
And studios! An artist’s studio is a den of sensation. Sky lights, track lights, soft brushes, prickly brushes, dusty charcoals, smooth oil pastels, springy sponges, textured papers, nubby canvases, sticky rubber erasers, the smell of paint and turpentine, and quite often, music. Long before I was born, my father converted the garage of the old homestead into a studio. When he was immersed in painting a piece, he’d hang his sign on the door, turn on his radio or pop in a cassette, and create. Sometimes it was jazz, sometimes it was cheesy Muzak, and sometimes it was Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. When CDs first came out, I gave him a copy of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon one year for Christmas, and his eyes lit up because he had just hooked up surround-sound. While I was home on spring break a few months later, one night he called me into his studio, slid a disk into his player, and said, “You’ve gotta hear this. I just got this and I sit in here late at night painting with it on.” He pushed a button and the opening oscillations of “Welcome to the Machine” filled the studio.
Music. While creating. Imagine that.
Ever visit the editorial department of a magazine? But for the clacking of keyboards, it can be like a morgue. I know few writers and even fewer editors who can tolerate music when they’re working. I can’t stand it, myself, and the older I get, the more fussy about it I become. I don’t want someone else’s words in my head. I want my words in my head. With the possible exception of Nox Arcana when I’m writing dark poetry, even instrumentals start to grate after a while. Music exudes mood. I don’t want someone else’s mood in my head any more than I want someone else’s words in my head. I want my mood in my head. Otherwise, I end up picking adjectives that describe the music and not the situation I’m trying to create.
But I’m more selfish still. Not only do I not want to hear music, I don’t want to be aware of the existence of humanity. Nature, fine, but not people. I fully understand the concept of writers’ colonies now. Just give me a bungalow in the woods or a room with an ocean view, and leave me alone until it’s time to eat. If I want to attend a seminar, I will. But go away.
The New Yorker once ran a piece about the differences between writing and painting. I can’t remember the title and issue or I’d link to a summary of it, but it was penned by a writer, not an artist, and the author hit it dead on. Writing is a laborious craft. This word? No, wait, that one. No, the first one is better. Ah ha, this one! Then there’s the hell that is editing. It’s a gimme that whatever you initially crank out needs improvement. You have that negative dashing around the back of your mind from the start, and it takes effort to catch it and lock it up until you’re ready to take it out and wield it mercilessly, otherwise you might never get a word out.
Painting, by comparison, looks like fun. Shading, blending, mixing, dabbing, sweeping, swooshing.
Look at all of those action words. Painting requires movement. Artists can sit, stand, kneel, crouch, bend, stretch, scrunch, lie on the floor. Their arms move. Their bodies are part of their work.
Writing requires sitting on your butt for great stretches of time either clutching a pen so that your hand locks up or tapping away on a keyboard so that the nerves in your wrist rot away. Oh, you can dictate, but you eventually have to transcribe. Even if you have voice-recognition software, you still have to go back and edit.
I suppose writing has a few advantages over painting. If you don’t like something you wrote, you can just backspace over it, or, ironically, “cut and paste” as necessary. You can highlight entire sentences or paragraphs, hit delete, and the offending material is gone. If you’re writing with a pencil, you can erase, with a pen, you can cross things out and the mess won’t matter. From what I’ve seen, it’s not easy to correct mistakes in art, and the bigger the mistake, the harder it is to correct.
Another advantage is that it’s easier to write in public should the mood grab you. If you’re standing in line at the bank and you see something that would make an interesting story or someone whose face would look good on one of your characters, you can just pull out your phone and take notes. People will assume you’re texting. If you’re on a Long Island Railroad commute and take out a laptop, people will think nothing of it. Start painting in public, and soon you’ll have an audience. Sometimes my father would sketch on the train, but when I asked him why he never took an easel to a park or beach, he said, “People come and bug you.”
But still, when you get right down to it, painting is a more efficient form of conveying an idea. A picture gets the point across more quickly than words. Click over to the website of any art gallery or museum–try the Met or the National Gallery of Art–and look at one of the paintings. See it. Study it. Absorb its impact. Then write an essay about it. I’m guessing it will be about 1,000 words.