Sunday, August 1, 2010


Although both are forms of communication, art is emotional, abstract and open to interpretation, whereas writing is more direct, precise and explicit.  You can say exactly what you mean with words, but with art you can only suggest.
Making art is also much easier than writing.  It’s soothing and relaxing and you can think about other things while you’re doing it.  It’s much quicker too.
You know what they say about a picture.
When you see something beautiful or interesting, you get out your pencil and paints and capture it in a few minutes, hours or days.  But when you have an interesting idea for a book or a story, it takes weeks, months or years of thinking and word-wrangling to capture it.
     I was once hired to do calligraphy (a combination of art and writing) on wedding invitations.  When my employer saw how quickly I did them, he was outraged.  He thought it took hours to produce a card.  The fact that years of experience allowed me to work fast did not occur to him.  Whether it takes minutes or hours, the result is the same.  But time and effort are often valued more highly than expertise and experience in most forms of art.
     Art also provides a lovely tactile experience that writing doesn't: the feel of a pencil,  the smell of graphite, the tooth and fragrance of the paper, the wet mobility of a brush, the glistening thickness of oil paint plumped up with linseed oil that looks so delicious you want to lick it. 
     All you have in writing is the touch of the keys and the sight of the letters and words on the screen.

    But writing is more powerful than art.  Art can sock you in the eye when you first see it, but once out of sight, it’s out of mind.  Whereas writing can inspire, encourage, educate and amuse you, also change your life.  Sometimes a word is worth a thousand pictures.
     Although art is my livelihood, books saved my life.
When things were at their blackest, books gave me insight and hope for better days.  If I hadn’t had books, I wouldn't have known there were better things in the world.  I wouldn't have known there was art.
I discovered Picasso, Matisse, Michelangelo and Boticelli in books.
     Where art is soothing and easy and quick, writing is painful and hard and slow and can make writers sweat and cry.  Writing makes people think and wonder and question much more than art does.  Writers have to dredge up old hurts and passions, remember and analyze them so we can use them in our characters.  This is a
nasty, painful process, but it makes for good reading.  Of course we can also recall past joys and triumphs for your reading pleasure, but doing that is just as difficult and mind-rending.
     There are rare delights, like the exact word you need coming immediately to your fingertips, or a whole phrase jumping on to the screen, full of energy and life and profound meaning.  But mostly that doesn't happen.  Words require vast amounts of winkling, prying, chiseling and thinking.
     And once we’ve actually got an idea, there’s the difficulty of formulating and clarifying it; we know what we mean but will readers?  Searching brain and Google for the right word and rhythm, keeping up the passion and maintaining the same voice for months requires a lot of staring into space, mental gymnastics and disciplined thought.
     Words are far more exhausting than colours.  And worse yet, after all those exertions, we then have to go back and murder our darlings, ruthlessly delete and pare until we have the purest essence of our story.  Imagine finishing a painting, then having to go back and scrape half the paint off.  Fortunately art isn’t improved by pruning.
     But, in the end, art complements writing and vice versa.



John L said...

Lots of great insights here. As an artist and a writer, I find both forms challenging in different ways. If you are comparing a single picture to a book-length manuscript, I agree that the book is usually a deeper, more challenging experience (depending on the book, of course.) Though if you compare a painting to something more precise and compact like a poem, I think they are more similar in their scope and power to inspire.

And a few great paintings (Guernica?) certainly have as much depth and lasting impression as a novel. I agree that visual art is often something done for enjoyment, whereas few people write for fun. Though there have been plenty of tortured artists who have spent years chasing a certain idea or theme.

Nora Lumiere said...

Good points.
Writing a poem could be compared to painting a picture and reading a poem could be compared to looking at a painting. But I think even poetic words can inspire us in practical ways, unlike pictures, which tend to inspire emotions.
As great as Geurinca is, it wouldn't have nearly the impact it does without the words that tell us what it represents.

Fred Mindlin said...

Very interesting post Nora, I retweeted and also asked my wife to read it--she is an abstract figurative artist and a poet, and so like you she knows both sides of the dilemma whose horns you are dancing around. I'm just a writer, not an artist, so when I see her agonize over her paintings, and often scrape away and redo and redo (part of why she switched to acrylics from watercolor is that watercolor is strictly a one-off medium, whereas acrylics allow almost infinite redos), I'm not sure it's any less painful or difficult than my excruciating rewrites...

She hasn't commented on your piece yet, I'll share her reflections at some point as well. Thanks for such a stimulating reflection.

Warm regards, Fred
Fred Mindlin
Associate Director for Technology Integration
Central California Writing Project
"Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don't know what to do." -- John Holt

Nora Lumiere said...

Yes, watercolors are an unforgiving medium and I love them for that.
It's not that one doesn't suffer or think while producing art, one definitely does, but it just seems easier to me, less demanding of sustained, focused thought.