I’m in Georgia O’Keefe country — at Ghost Ranch, no less — attending a five-day painting retreat taught by Tesia Blackburn, the Acrylic Diva, whose tagline is “explorations for creating art that nourish the soul.” I didn’t think I had time for this, but my friend Lisa was so persuasive (and frankly bossy) that I couldn’t say no. And here I am in the painted desert painting.
What I didn’t expect was how much I could learn about writing from a painting workshop. Here are my top 8 lessons so far:
1. Tell your inner editor to shut up. With so much color and form surrounding us, Tesia’s first exercise was based on the Japanese principle of Notan, which uses contrasting dark and light to create harmony. She invited each of us to sketch the forms of the mesa just outside the studio using charcoal. No shading, just dark lines or masses and white space. At the end of the exercise, we realized that my friend had folded up her image and was trying to look unobtrusive. When we made her show it (well, I did), hers was one of the most striking of the images produced by the students, but she had decided it didn’t look like it should. Her inner editor almost succeeded in shouting her down. As Tesia said, “The art doesn’t care how you feel about it.”
2. A good composition takes a contrast of values. In art terms, the most intense color is a 10. The palest, lightest color is a 1. Most beginning artists tend to end up with colorful pieces that have almost identical mid-range values. They lack the intensity of a saturated dark color and thirst for some areas of lighter value. Writing, too, requires variation in emotional tone.
3. Know when to stop. I think I’ll stop right there.
4. Listen to the paint; see what’s on the paper. Almost everyone at the workshop starts with an idea in mind, but sometimes the paint (or here in New Mexico, the atmospheric humidity) has a mind of its own. The result is sometimes a happy accident. The product doesn’t turn out as expected; it takes off in a direction of its own. I have been astounded at how many times a piece of writing has taken a dog-leg turn… and ended up somewhere more interesting.
5. Try to get away from the “thingness” – the representation of something – and get to the spirit of it. In writing terms, I think of this as self-consciousness. When I write with a tone in mind, but not necessarily an outline, the writing seems to take a more interesting shape.
6. Loosen up. One way to do this, Tesia suggests, is to repeat an idea as a theme or a series but with different approaches. It’s like baseball, she says; you just have to keep going to bat and swinging for the fences.
7. Simplify. My Notan exercise was a perfect example. Initially I captured lots of detail from the surrounding mesa. It ended up looking like a line drawing of a golf course. The more I simplified, the better it got.
8. Fix the problem. Many first attempts just aren’t quite right. Acrylic, like writing, lends itself to editing. Paint over… or backspace/delete and cut/paste. But to find the solution, you have to have an inkling about what’s wrong with the composition.
Even if I wasn’t benefiting from the painting workshop (Tesia is AMAZING), I’d still come away fed by this magical place. Check out the pictures (click to see full size)…