Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received came not from fellow writers, or teachers, but visual artists.
Such was the case this afternoon as I watched Antonia Tyz-Peeples lead a workshop on painting technique at Rhode Island’s Charlestown Gallery.
The Connecticut artist specializes in large-format wave paintings. I met her six years ago and feel lucky to count her as a friend. Yet no matter how many times we chat, I always learn something new.
Working on a small canvas this afternoon, she gave the audience step-by-step directions on brush technique, color mixing, and proportion. None of that may seem applicable to those of us who deal in ink and paper, but consider some of her advice:
- “People can use their imaginations. They see something, they know there’s more.” How many of us are guilty of spelling it out for the reader? You don’t have to describe every step down a corridor or every article of clothing. Leave something for the reader to do.
- “It’s what you see, not what you think.” She said this while holding a brush tip to the photograph she was painting. In other words, your brain might think your painting needs bright ochre, but if you hold the brush up to the color you’re copying you may find it’s another mix altogether. As writers, we tend to have a vision in our mind of our characters and place details. But just because “egg-yolk sun” sounds good doesn’t mean the sun really looks your breakfast.
- “It’s not magical. I’ve practiced a lot. I paint every day.” Tyz-Peeples is not blowing smoke here – she’s the hardest working artist I know. She’s honed her craft over many years, and she is in her studio by 9 a.m. every day. Writers must practice a similar discipline. Sit at the desk, open up the laptop or notebook and do it regularly. Inspiration will land on your shoulder when you keep your appointment with the work.
- “I find it very important to have multiple things going on.” Maybe this technique isn’t for everyone, but for me a variety of writing projects – as dissimilar as possible – keeps me focused and energized. The quick stuff, like blogs, letters, and essays, give you a sense of achievement for very little time invested. Analytical writing, such as play or book reviews, keeps my critical faculties honed. And for the long haul, I need at least one book-length manuscript that will require years of work. You wouldn’t want to spend all your writing time on quick-hit pieces with a short life span, but you also need relief from the intensive immersion a novel or memoir requires.
- “I can see it with new eyes.” She was talking about letting a canvas sit overnight. For writers, that fallow period might be much longer, days, weeks, or months. I recently returned to my novel after six months of querying to tidy up some loose ends. Its flaws jumped out at me.
- “I’m not going to overthink it.” The visual artist knows when a touch-up here or there has the potential to ruin a painting that’s done; so, too, must writers let the work go eventually.
- Tyz-Peeples had a practical piece of advice that might at first seem unique to painting: Turn the canvas. Making her horizontal painting vertical, she saw not the finished product but the abstract section she was trying to focus on. Plus, she wasn’t bumping her hand on the easel. In journalism school, our professors taught us to squint at the copy we were editing, or mumble it aloud to ourselves. Whatever the tactic, it disrupts the brain’s visual expectations, helping both focus and concentration.
- “I know what the surf looks like. I’ve studied it.” Don’t forget that you, too, know a lot more than you give yourself credit for. You’ve got a lifetime of memories and experiences, good and bad, to draw from. It’s never too late to learn more, but don’t forget just how much you bring to the page.
For further inspiration, check out some of Antonia Tyz-Peeples’s work at www.antoniatyzpeeples.com or follow her on Instagram: antoniatyzpeeples.