Sunday, April 3, 2011

Chew on the Bristle End of the Brush

“Chew on the bristle end of the brush,” and other random thoughts from, Impressionist Landscapes: Monet to Sargent.

“Look at all those little blobs of paint.” There we were, the author and the Impressionists, hanging in the basement of the Speed Art Museum. As usual, I had to do all the talking, and being a word guy, I turned the subject to writing. All those little blob of color? They’re like words. Stick enough together and you get a picture—or a book. Maybe not a good book, but then, maybe not a good painting either. Which lead to my next thought...

“Some of these paintings are kind of, you know, blah.” Well they were. Some were amazing, sparkling with vibrant colors that leapt off the canvas, but some were flat and dull. Apparently painting with blobs isn’t easy. Just putting color on a canvas isn’t enough. Dimension comes from contrast. The brights have to be super-bright, the darks deeply dark. The same is true in writing. Putting colorful words on a page isn’t enough. Even something as realistic as contemporary YA needs intense depth and contrast to hold a teen’s interest. So I had to ask...

“What’s with the fog?” Turns out, Claude Monet developed cataracts that left his world shrouded in purple fog. He painted what he could see. I have my own world view, too—my own mental cataracts. I don’t have personal experience being any other category on the census form, but YA readers are sophisticated enough to know if I’m faking it. Characters have to be whole, feelings have to be true. But speaking of faking it...

“I can’t define Impressionism, but I know it when I see it.” The exhibit is arranged chronologically. At the start, the paintings are clearly influenced by earlier art movements. At the end, there are hints of the styles to come. I know because somebody else said so. But with that nudge, I started seeing influences and hints throughout the exhibit. Book categories show the same blending. Writers may think in terms of age ranges and genres, but from Tween to upper YA, contemporary to fantasy, young readers don’t do boundaries.

And a final thought...

“Those blobs look like water.” Impressionist paintings are a wonderful visual reminder of the important writing rule—Show, Don’t Tell. For example, Impressionists paint the sea in dabs of yellow and green, with sparkles of white and streaks of red that blend into purple shadows. Yet at a distance, the canvas looks blue and wavy. The painter implies, the viewer infers. Just as an author should. Imply the crashing waves, the roaring surf, the salty spray. The reader will infer the sea—and the sun and the beach and the surf boards and the lounge chairs and could somebody put a little lotion on my back?

Please enjoy the extras below and feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts on art, writing, or just your—you know—impressions.

The Wikipedia article on Impressionism contains (horror) words, but also many pretty blobs of color.

The Speed Art Museum exhibit Impressionist Landscapes: Monet to Sargent is up through May 22 2011.

Trick of the Eye by Dennis Haseley. I’m throwing you a bit of a double curve with this recommendation. The book is recommended for 12 and up, so it’s a little young to be strictly YA. Also, the paintings in it pre-date Impressionism. But still... it’s a worthy read. The hero, a young boy, becomes engrossed in paintings which speak to him as he tries to remember a horrible crime. Apart from teaching a bit of art history, the book also shows just how easily we readers can accept the author’s vision and run with it. We really can walk into paintings and talk to the subjects inside.

In honor of the cross-dressing scene at Big Bob’s Truck Stop and Country Store (in my work in progress) Kurt poses next to Monet’s Woman with a Parasol.


Katie McGarry said...

Wonderful post, Kurt! I especially love how you talk about whether or not our YA readers will know if we are faking. I believe teenage readers can spot a fake faster than an adult reader.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I love how you linked the use of color, contrast and texture to using "show don't tell." It reminded me of a quote by Chekov I have over my desk: "Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show the glint of light on the broken glass."

Kurt Hampe said...

Katie and Vicky, Thanks for kind words.

I once took an oral presentation class in which the teacher said, "Don't use slang unless you really know it. If you try to fake it, your audience will know before you do." Of course I'm sooooooo cool that I don't have to fake it. Except that cool probably isn't called cool anymore. Does that make me uncool? Uncool isn't cool to say either is it? I think I'll go put on my high-waters with black shoes and white socks and sulk.

Vicky, thanks for the Chekov Quote. He's a model for writing and hard work. Isn't it amazing that he could write all those stories and still find time to pilot the Enterprise? Oh dear, dated reference again... Back to being uncool.


Lisa Tapp said...

I'm a huge fan of Impressionism. I love the way the picture changes as you move around the room: from afar the image is clear and full of life and movement, but as you approach all sense of the subject matter is distorted. Books are often like that. Looking at each word, each sentence as a whole, you see one meaning. While you can completely distort that meaning by focusing on one sentence, or, as the author, changing one word. Thanks for the comparison.

Kurt Hampe said...

Lisa, that's a great connection to make, thanks for saying it so well. I'm a fan in that I like color and abstraction--Monet's water lilies are that and more. I married into a nice collection of Impressionist prints, several of which are on the walls right now. My wife married into a poster of a 1972 BMW M1.

Lisa Tapp said...

Hmmm.. . so I hope she's a fan of BMW's???

Kurt Hampe said...

We compromise well.

I also came with a Julius Friedman poster that is a collection of close-up photos of the front ends of colorful hot rods. It's a suprisingly Impressionist-looking print with all those blobs of color. I never cared for hot rods, but the poster is actually beautiful because you don't see cars, you see pretty shiny things. Which we could probably turn into a writing analogy if we worked at it.

Lisa Tapp said...

Okay, I'm up for a little work: On your poster, the individual car has little appeal. But blended with the bright colors of the other cars, it becomes an object of beauty. In our stories, an individual character has little to offer. It's only in weaving his actions and feelings with other characters that he achieves true beauty.

Anyone else???

Kurt Hampe said...

Nice one Lisa.
Here's a completely different art/writing riff, still using a Julius Freidman theme. Friedman does prints on metal. They aren't images overlaid on the metal; rather the metal itself is treated to become photo-sensitive. So you see the photographic image and the metal's color/texture and whatever is reflected in the metal (possibly you). Or put it another way--the very definition of a photo print has changed, and how you see it depends on how you look at it. And for a double-whammy, the original image can be digitally doctored before it's put on metal, so nothing needs to be "real" in the old sense of photographs.

Maybe electronic books represent the same sort of shift. Multiple stories can be overlaid, allowing the reader to choose among many adventures in ways never possible in paper books. And because the stories come from our imaginations, they needn't be any more "real" than a digital image.

You can see lots of Freidman prints on his website at:
The photos on metal are in the Figuratives section. There's a picture of one of the hot-rods in the Photos section. And since this is a YA blog, I should warn you, there are also (gasp) nudes.

And just to tie it back into Impressionism, some of his photos of trees reflected in rippled water look very Impressionistic.


Kristin Lenz said...

I'm back from Florida and catching up on all that I missed. Your post reminds me that it's been too long since I've visited an art institute/gallery. Thanks for the "extras" you included at the end, and I loved the umbrella picture!

Kurt Hampe said...

Kristin L. welcome back, hope you had a good trip and thanks for commenting.

Thanks, too, for the complement on the umbrella picture. My wife took it and I applied a software effect to get the paint blob look. In the picture, I’m wearing a baseball hat with a bandana for a ribbon, and we wrapped my head in mesh for the veil. We used a blanket for the dress/bustle. We couldn’t find a patch of blue sky like the Monet picture, but we did try several locations—so for a while I was posing in the front yard in costume drag. The neighbors don’t even ask anymore.

Speaking as you were of visiting museums... My Bio post picture came from a Segway tour of Eden Park, which is where The Cincinnati Art Museum is located. They have a nice cafe, and you know, art stuff. The Indianapolis Museum of Art is definitely worth the drive. They've got a wonderful garden with outdoor sculpture. The last time Tina and I visited, the museum atrium had been done up in purple and gold ribbons and paper lamps for a Hindu wedding. The families were all milling around outside in traditional costume, including the groom who made his appearance on horseback. Another wedding party showed up on the grounds at the same time to take unscheduled pictures. Uh-oh.