A Writer Learns to Paint


Summer Evening, Beaver Island (watercolor, 11 x 14)

Several years ago I wintered in a Lake Michigan cottage so close to the shore that all I saw from its wall of windows was a beach/water/sky scene that shifted shape and color by the hour. I?d seen this lake before. I?d grown up with it, played in it, written books about it, traveled every possible mile around it, but that framed window view made my heart leap in a way that announced something new.

A writer for 25 years, I?ve learned to take note when my heart jumps, whether at northern lights, butterfly legs tickling my hair, or a poem floating like a lily in my brain. These are my wild children, gifts of grace, little genies empowered to grant wishes or lead me into adventure. I realized, as I stood before that Lake Michigan view, that I had to record it, but that this time, words wouldn?t suffice. I would have to learn to paint.

Sharing What I?ve Learned

At the time I decided to take on this project, I wasn?t yet a painter, but I was a creative person, and just as importantly, a professional creative person. In my career as a writer, I?d done books with eight trade and four textbook publishers. I had a hunch that I could compensate for some of my undeveloped painting skills by relying on some of the things I?d learned in 25 years making a living as a writer.

1) Never Forget the Importance of Truth
For years I have urged first-time writers in the workshops I teach to forget performance and just use words to dig out their truth. So I didn?t worry too much about my lack of training. I used a slant brush too big for detail and mixed and pushed around my old tube paints until they told at least some of the truth I saw out my window. I tried just to get the colors right and the size and direction of the waves. The results seemed fresh and honest, even to me, my worst critic.

2) Don?t Hesitate to Revise, Revise & Revise
I am a compulsive reviser of words and did not hesitate to wipe off, paint over, mix on the paper, or do whatever I had to do to make that day?s view appear on my paper. Each day I worked on my little painting until it looked right and then I quit. I never gave up or threw one out. At least half of them turned about to be usable.

3) Embrace a Useful Slogan
My first paintings seemed so clumsy, I almost quit, but I have a slogan that has long served as my life preserver when my inner critic storms in: “Professionals Finish!” I rely on it to strengthen my spine. I made myself do at least 10 small paintings before succumbing to the stamp of disapproval. I posted the paintings in a row across the top of a big piece of foam board. The shared horizon?the only line I?d penciled on each card?unified the paintings and blew my mind. I finished all 160, each one a record of a day.

4) Remember to Expand Your Opportunities
One hundred and sixty paintings offered tantalizing possibilities. It never occurred to me not to publish them. I am used to the book world, in which reproduction not only improves a manuscript?s appearance but also makes it widely available. Reproductions, I reasoned, will make my work affordable and can be sold alongside my books. Working on small “canvasses” turned out to be fortuitous. Four-color scanning of such small paintings proved so inexpensive that I fit 36 of them on an 18 x 24-inch poster, called it Window On Lake Michigan and ordered 1,000 copies. It was a one-woman show for 25 bucks and it sold out.

The Payoff: The Sweet Side of Taking Risks
Continually trying new things isn?t necessarily a recipe for success. I?ve been advised to cut it out and develop a specialized area. That?s wise advice and I offer it here lest readers assume that explorers end up with much more than a larger self. I, however, am incurably hyperactive and lack athletic prowess, so I take risks in art to feed my need for excitement. Adding art to my writing has produced a lifetime of creativity sky-miles. I can go anywhere.

Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and chair of ASTM International?s subcommittee on artists? materials.

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