If you’ve been following this space for a while, you know that I often draw inspiration from various museum exhibitions I patronize throughout the year, (And if you’ve not been following for a while, I bid you welcome.) Writers can learn a lot from other creative professions, and I am particularly drawn to the way painters approach their artistic practice. I’ve often written about lessons I’ve learned from famous painters (including this post about Matisse and dealing with impossibility of perfection), and Miro’s description of his creative process in I Work Like a Gardener matches my own. It is no surprise, then, that upon visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cubism and The Trompe L’oeil Tradition, I found something I could relate to my writing practice. While the show, which showed the influence of Trompe l’oeil on the cubists, featured many exquisite paintings by the great cubists Picasso, Braque, and Gris, it was a picture of marble texture from a French painting manual which caused me to consider my own writing practice.
Consider the following picture:
It is a full-page example of how to paint textured marble from a French painting manual contemporary with the time Georges Braques was learning to paint. A classically-trained French artist was expected to be able to replicate the look of various materials so that they looked realistic. There are similar examples in the manual which show the materials and techniques needed to paint wood, paper, stone, etc, realistically. The French painter was expected to be able to replicate these materials in their work to such an extent that viewer would not be able to tell the difference between the imitation and the original.
According to the exhibition, the goal was to emulate Parrhasius, who according to Pliny the Elder, entered into a competition with Zeuxis to see who could paint the most realistic painting. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically that a bird flew up to it (thinking they were real grapes). Parrhasius’ painting appeared to be behind a curtain, and Zeuxis requested that the curtain be drawn so that he could see the painting, except the curtain was actually what Parrhasius had painted. Zeuxis admitted defeat and said that while he had deceived birds, Parrhasius’ painting was so realistic that he had deceived another artist.
While this level of skill might seem mythical, the trompe l’oeil painters got pretty close. Consider this painting of two chipped, plaster reliefs by Jean Etienne Liotard from the exhibition:
Braque, being trained in the tradition, was expected to achieve a similar level of skill.
While the cubists did not paint realistic, representational art, they were classically trained. One can see the skill they had for imitating materials and textures, especially, in the works presented in this exhibition. The challenge presented by the gallery cards early in the exhibit was to try to figure out which elements of each paining were painted, and which were collaged. It was often nearly impossible to tell.
Take for example, this painting by Picasso.
In order to achieve this level of skill, an artist would have to spend hours painting entire canvases of textured material, like the one presented above. Its inclusion in this show not withstanding, no one is hanging a picture which imitates a slab of marble on their wall. But, to achieve the requisite skill and become a master artist, painters like Braques and Picasso would have to spend hours in the studio working on pieces that were not intended for exhibition or sale, whose only purpose was to help them hone their own skill. Only by spending hours practicing, could he become the artist they wanted to be.
So, what does this have to do with writing? As I’ve written about before, writing advice tends to focus on product rather than skills: How many words are you going to write each day; how much time are you going to spend writing; how many books/stories/poems are you going to finish/publish/submit this year. These types of goals are important, but they neglect a key component of improving as an artist: intentional practice. While the current theory of writing instruction, from K-12 to the post-graduate level is that writing makes you a better writer is likely true to some extent, it neglects skill development as an important part of a writers’ development. What little skill-based advice there is tends toward over-simplified, trite advice like avoiding alliteration or eliminating adverbs. While I’ve criticized these one-size fits all approaches to writing advice in the past, they are symptomatic of a the larger issue. Skill-based advice and instruction gets boiled down to this type of shallow nonsense because most writers do not take the time to authentically and intentionally work on aspects of their craft as writers for fear of falling off the hamster wheel of productivity.
When was the last time you worked on your metaphors? By this, I mean not trying to come up with a perfect metaphor for a story your working on, but just sitting down and writing a series of metaphors (or similes, or personifications, etc) to get better at the actual skill. When was the last time you wrote dialogue that was unconnected to a character you were already writing? I bet it’s been a long time.
Years ago, I did an exercise from The Creative Writers Notebook where I had to come up with as many portmanteau as possible. Portmanteau is not a device I use often in my writing, but that was all the more reason to do the exercise and to expand my tool box as a writer. It’s been too long since I’ve done those kind of exercises regularly.
Meanwhile, artists post pictures of their figure work, or their progress drawing a particularly difficult body part like hands. Intentional practice and skill development, is a part of their tradition, and it is not, to the same extent a part of ours.
If we look toward non-creative fields, we would see the same thing. A boxer works on the speed bag to improve hand speed, but they do not come into the ring spinning his hands the way they hit the bag; a basketball player works on dribbling drills to improve ball-handling, but the intricate patters they practice are made to improve coordination rather than be practical, in-game moves; a musician practices scales, but does not play those scales straight through in performance. As writers, we should understand that, much like these other pursuits, practicing the component skills of our craft is an essential component of growing in our art.