Sunday, March 8, 2009

Story and Metaphor in Art Form: How Writing and Painting Whisper or Shout Their Truths


God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world—C.S. Lewis
A few days ago I painted on a canvas for the first time in over twenty years…okay, thirty years. It was a thrilling experience but also refreshing and freeing to use a different medium to express myself and tap into that place—that force—that resides inside us and speaks to us: God in Art and Art in God.

Part of the thrill was that I was being coached by one of the coolest painters I know: Teresa Young, master painter (see my previous post on her “emotional landscapes”). What’s interesting is that while she instructed me on some of the painting methods, it struck us both how many similarities existed in composition, technique and structure between visual art and storytelling.

Take direction, for instance.
A fiction writer uses plot and subplots to move a story and its characters through a textured and colored tapestry of theme. According to Teresa, every painting flows, often directionally (like many photographs) from the lower left to upper right, leading the eye from one place to another, exploring a theme, idea or emotion. Plot is motion. So is the paint brush.

You think only writers tell stories. Well, look again at visual art. Every work of art expresses an artist’s feelings, thoughts and emotions; an artist’s story. We are all stories, after all, and we all have many stories inside us. The writer’s medium is the word; the painter’s is the visual image. Isn’t it a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words? The range and type of story varies equally in both media. For instance, writing ranges from poetry or poetic prose (e.g., Ulysses by James Joyce) that requires substantial interpretation to allegory (obvious symbols) or creative non-fiction (like this blog post) whose artistry lies mostly in its composition and reporting style. Paintings also display a range from the poetry of abstract or surrealistic art (e.g., the surrealism of Salvadore Dali or the “emotional landscapes” of Teresa Young), which requires more interpretation, to realistic “photographic” art whose interpretation lies more in its composition (e.g., the detailed realism of Tomislav Tikulin).

The “language” that writers and painters use finds its parallels in form, structure and intent.

For example, let’s take metaphor. The writer uses one concept or image to evoke the feeling of another; “raining cats and dogs” for instance. The painter can evoke the feeling of one medium with another, achieving the same effect as metaphor—producing a stronger more compelling image through oblique metaphor and another perspective. For instance, a painter using acrylics may evoke the tone and emotion of a watercolor by using soft brushstrokes or another medium (e.g., using a sponge or cloth to apply the paint) and lighter softer colors to achieve that signature wash.

A story’s depth is achieved through animating three-dimensional characters that reflect a multi-layered theme. A painting’s depth works through the dance of light, shadows and textures and the use of techniques like fading and detail. Chiaroscuro in story and in painting play on contrast, perspective and the interplay of light and color to pull the viewer and reader deep into the artwork.

Painters echo elements from one part of a painting to another to make it cohesive and provide a “complete” piece that is ultimately satisfying to the viewer. Painters do this by using repeated elements like shapes, curves, and color schemes to get the same flow, or using a faded version of a similar image elsewhere. Techniques that writers use to achieve the same echoing effects for a satisfying story include parallel plotting, mirrored plots, framing (particularly of story promise with climax and dénouement), and themed beginnings and endings.

You’ve heard of writer’s block? There’s also painter’s block; the painter staring at the white canvas, paint brush poised to make that first stroke. Luckily, there’s something called painting-over the dry; not unlike editing a paragraph using the control-shift “x” and “v” key on the computer. Writers continually revise their first drafts, cutting out extraneous exposition and adding thematic details. The writer’s revision process is all about fine-tuning, simplifying and polishing. Painters also “edit” their art through similar means. We even use similar language for both media: “polishing”, “adding color”, “making it flow”, “adding texture”, etc.

Every artist is a reporter of life and truth; every artist chooses the medium that best expresses his or her art. I started out in the visual arts. I was all ready to pursue a fine arts degree in university to become a commercial artist. Then, right on registration day, I opted out of art altogether and went into the science program. Heck, I went all the way to getting a Masters of Science degree, taught university science courses and consulted in the environment. Now, here I am writing science fiction. Cool, how we choose our path…




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.


9 comments:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Expression is what art is all about. It allows feelings to be brought forth like a writer. One can help the other.

SF Girl said...

Well said, Jean-Luc... It's all about expression... of the truth... :)

I also agree that one helps the other. How many of us practice several forms of art? Surely, on some level they are all just dialects of the same language or different languages of overall communication...And just as a multilinguist can better communicate between cultures, so can an artist who expresses her art through several media bridges philosophies to report a more universal truth...

Hmmm... does that make sense in some profound way or was it the tawny port singing to me?...

Princess Haiku said...

This is a beautifully written discussion, Nina.

SF Girl said...

Thank you, Princess! I appreciate that, particularly from you, as you are a gifted artist of several forms. I wonder how many we can master before we lose or dilute the "message" of our soul? Or is that possible?... If our souls are truly "connected" perhaps the possibilities for expression are infinite, only limited by our own perception... Or is it my tawny port singing to me again?...

There are an awful lot of art forms out there... for instance, music (from percussion to orchestra), the myriad of visual arts (from webdesign and photography to 3-D animation and sculpting), and writing from poetry to non-fiction...

Donna Farley said...

Your posts get better and better, Nina! :-)

I too abandoned the visual arts on the threshold of post-secondary education. I went instead to a hodge-podge of history, language, archeology and mythology that continues to serve me well...but how nice it is to have the opportunity to go and revisit that earlier enthusiasm!

SF Girl said...

Indeed it is, Donna! And it all does serve one well too, doesn't it? One's path, no matter how convoluted, is always an interesting one of discovery and so never a loss.

Toulouse LeTrek said...

So, Nina, when are your writing workshop DVDs coming out?

SF Girl said...

Soon, Toulouse, my friend... soon... I'll let you -- and the world -- know when it's closer to launch date. Thanks for the interest! You can go to www.ninamunteanu.com for the latest on it.

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