When making art is like writing – or vice versa

I’ve not been doing much writing these days – partly sidelined by the various promotional activities related to the Oct 12 release of SHELTER: HOMELESSNESS IN OUR COMMUNITY. Partly because I have discovered watercolours.

I have been dabbling in both sketching and watercolours for the past few years, largely as an alternative to using a written journal when I have been traveling . But in the last few months I have been doing it a lot more. And in the process, I have recognized tendencies and practices that seem to serve me well across both media.

Istanbul, 2019

Less is more. I have always been what I think of as a ‘quick and dirty’ writer. My practise is to write a lot and quickly, and not worry too much about the details. In art it’s the same. I like the broad strokes, at least in the early stages, before I start getting much closer.

Know what I want the reader/viewer to get out of the piece. In writing, for me that means identifying and articulating my central premise / theme / the story or scene goal right off the top. (Sometimes I put the premise line at the top of each page to keep me focussed.) In sketching and painting, it’s about being aware of where I want the reader’s eye to go (‘Focal Point’). I am often amazed at many pieces of new artists’ work give no real idea of what they want the viewer to look at – this applies to photogrpahers, too. I am glad I learned this early.

Lean on mentors. In writing, early on I relied on Gary Provost (Make Your Words Work), Constance Hale (Sin and Syntax), The Art of Narrative by Vancouver Island writer Jack Hodgins, and others, as I found my way. For art, I watch a lot of Ian Roberts’ invaluable and admirably concise video series on composition, British artist Liz Chaderton, and the book Loosen up Your Watercolours by Judi Whitton.

The Seven Sisters from Seaford Head, Sussex

Share what I have learned. I don’t know much about art yet. But if someone admires something about a piece, or is curious about it, I will gladly tell them why I did it that way, and how.

Write / sketch or paint first. Edit and add detail later. I love a good first draft – that heady moment when I look at something and really discover what I am working with and how I might continue. It’s a pretty neat moment in art when I see the first marks or washes on the page. So many ways to go! But not too soon!

Sissinghurst, Kent 2021

Do it a lot. I’m a pretty immersive learner. Although right now I call what I do with paint and pencil ‘dabbling’ – as much for the watercolour analogy as anything – I am actually working on it nearly every day for as much as two to three hours. I did pretty much the same when I was writing. Word is that it takes a million words to attain mastery at writing. I wonder how many of my 10-minute watercolour ‘jobbies’ will it take to get anywhere close with art.

Study the work of others. Reading and analysing what’s on the page and how the writer achieved it is one of the best ways for writers to learn their craft. I recently discovered Dan Scott’s Draw Paint Academy where he offfers courses and shows the progress on individual pieces of his own work, and also analyses the work of the great artists. I find I am learning a lot about composition, colour, light, and values from them.

Mimicking David Hockney 2021

Finding the best tools takes time – and in the case of art, even more money. I have spent hours standing in front of displays of notebooks and pens – in an agonized search for the right ones. For art there are even more tools to spend time – and much more money – on. Watercolour paints and pencils comes in many forms, qualities and colours. Paper is a very personal choice – I prefer to work on 5.5 x 8.5 spiral pads of mix media or cold press watercolour paper. But I will keep buying and trying different ones – and the rate I am going I need lots of it!

‘Estuary’ Sept 9, 2021

Process over product. I don’t worry about ‘getting it right’ or being ‘good’. I am always more excited – both in writing and watercolour sketching – on practising the craft than worrying about the outcome – yet.

Always return to ‘Beginner’s mind’. I try to be open to new ways of doing things, new topics and themes all the time… even though no story I have ever written included ‘kitties’, and they are not likely to be a subject of my watercolour sketches. any time soon.

Beach Visit 2020