My painting is a half-formed thing
‘They’ll sell you thousands of greens; Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any sort of green you like, but that particular green, never.’ (Pablo Picasso).
Recently, I took a five-week art course. At the same time, I was facilitating a five-week writing course, and owe a debt to the participants of the latter for sparking a discussion about the correlation between Picasso’s quest for ‘that particular green’ and the writer’s for the mot juste.
If a picture paints a thousand words (in various shades), then a metaphor, a conceit, a well-turned phrase can surely spark a range of images – maybe not a thousand, but who’s counting?
All types of artist and their art can prompt the responder/beholder to travel beyond the marks on canvas, paper or clay, or the chords of an instrument, and construct meaning with a personal resonance (if, in fact, you believe that art of any kind has to ‘speak’ that way or impart meaning. Many people believe in art for art’s sake). Even if art is there purely for its own sake (and why shouldn’t it be?), our response to it is not mere passive observation; we are not consumers of an art ‘product’ but engaged in an active and interactive response to the work.
Look at these lines by Byron:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
If those lines were used as a picture caption, would that be akin to telling us what the picture was about rather than letting us consider for ourselves, or might the caption enhance and embellish the visual image?
And what if the lines were rearranged:
Of starry climes and cloudless night
She walks in beauty like the skies
God forbid that anyone should think I’m trying to ‘improve’ the lines; would any writer have such hubris? It’s more about using a literal form of word-play, rearranging the lines to create a different but no less harmonic resonance.
To the writer, words are as malleable as all types of pigment and implement are to the visual artist. On my art course, I’ve gone from using charcoal (see pear) to building up a watercolour image from an ink sketch (below).
I’ve been introduced to ‘scumbling’ and ‘impasto’ – scoring a palette knife across wet paint – in acrylic painting, and have come to adore the elasticity in all these forms, the sense of going over things, adding a bit here and expunging there. Even though the paint dries, the medium isn’t necessarily fixed, much as a piece of writing can be edited and adapted: a story inspiring a haiku, say, or a haiku evoking a prose poem.
I’ve also learnt the complementary use of layering and accrual of colour from neutral or compound tones, eg, my watercolour of a drystone wall encompasses a range of greens that might not have satisfied Picasso (I think he had slightly more exacting standards than me), but were all coaxed from ultramarine, burnt sienna and cadmium yellow (OK, and a bit of black ink). At one point I got confused between ultramarine and cobalt blue, mixing them up literally and figuratively, but that only resulted in yet another ‘particular’ green.
I see a parallel between this ‘layering’ technique and the accrual of detail and ‘colour’ in descriptive writing. I’ve written about this parallel, and about the literal use of colour in writing, in Writing in Education, Issue 71, Spring 2017.
Finally, there seems to me a pleasing overlap between all art forms in the way they push boundaries and experiment richly with voice, form and content.
The ‘difficult’ prose style of James Joyce and more recently, Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, echo the challenges posed by Surrealist artists such as Magritte and Dali. These are singular voices reminding us that we’re not passive ‘consumers’ of art, and that a book, a painting, a guitar riff, is not a Big Mac.
Whether we initiate the gaze of others or feel it turned upon us, we should keep minds open and ever-ready to be flooded and even overwhelmed by the strange and dissonant without feeling a need to make sense of it; but rather, let that strangeness seep in and through us, percolate and spread internally like a water-dipped brush adding another layer of colour to the tonal range beneath.