Writing Tip: Write Like a Painter

Written by Brandon O'Brien on August 15th, 2013

After a conversation with my granddaddy about his process for painting portraits, I realized that his creative process and mine are quite similar. Maybe he paints like a writer. Or maybe I write like a painter.

1. Start with composition. The first thing a painter does is lay out the composition of his subject. Granddaddy does this by sketching lightly in paint where the primary objects will be; deciding what’s in the foreground, what’s in the background. The purpose of this step is to prioritize. What in the painting is most important, and how will you ensure it receives the focus it deserves?

I do this in my writing—especially when I have a strict word-count limit—by outlining. I’m currently writing a book review that can be no longer than 1250 words. This is how I started:

Intro: 125 words
Summary: 600 words
Commentary: 400 words
Conclusion: 125 words

My parameters are established. There’s a good chance I’ll break my own rules. But this keeps me mindful, at the very least, that the hero of this assignment is summary —it gets the most words. Everything else is background and shadow.

2. Apply color in layers. Granddaddy works in layers. The first application of color is fairly flat. Depth and dimension is added gradually, layer by layer. The same is often true for my writing. My first layer of text is usually quite colorless. My goal is simply to get the information on the paper. Here are the things I think, in no particular order. For a book review, the prose might be as boring as, “They use 19th-century sources.” That’s true, but it ain’t pretty. That’s okay. Depth and dimension come later. By the way, that sentence eventually became, “They lead us on a brisk walk through 19th-century sources.” Better.

3. Walk away. “If you look at your painting long enough,” Granddaddy told me this weekend, “your eyes can convince your mind that everything looks alright. But if you go away for a couple of hours and come back, the mistakes just jump right out at you.” Walking away is an important part of my writing process. When I’m mired in an unsatisfactory draft, I usually need 24 hours’ worth of distance to regain clear vision. Sometimes it takes several drafts and several periods of distance before I see clearly.

4. Hone, sharpen, and define. The final step in portraiture is sharpening crucial details so that the viewers eye goes where you want it to go. At this point in my writing I pay attention to alliteration, sentence structure, or repetition. My goal is to identify how specific writing tools will draw the readers eyes to the right places. A couple of short sentences prepare the reader for a long sentence, in which the truly important information is communicated. A metaphor from the introduction and stitched through the paragraphs can be tied off in the conclusion.

I’ve said more here than I know about painting. But I do know this for sure: a simile can save a writer. Write like a painter.


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