On Painting and Writing – An Analogy

copyright Mia Laing 2013

Finished paintings 2013

I’ve been beavering away in my studio the last few weeks, paintbrushes busy, easel creaking madly, music giving me some energetic company…but VERY quiet on all social media fronts as I’ve had a ssshhhhh….commission.  I said ssshhhhh!

I was nervous about taking on a portrait commission…they are hard.  Super hard.  Capturing the correct detail in a face, emotion, light, essence of a personality, all with a paintbrush and oil paint.  It can go all so horribly wrong.  A millimetre out on an eye or mouth…or teeth, yikes, can make or break a painting.  Especially when I am not into super realism and am slowly moving to more painterly brushstrokes.

Not only did I accept this portrait commission, but in accepting it, I took on not one, but FOUR faces…and two fur children too.  Six beloveds in one 30 x 40 inch canvas.

I have a little secret…I’ve only ever painted two beloveds at a time…and those beloveds have been mine.  Massive step.

I  have totally enjoyed the progress, as I always do, every figurative painting.  The raw umber underpainting which I use to hate, but now love, as I know it so, so works to create the right tones from the start and helps with the super sleuthing of working through a painting; the blocking in of colour; the fine detail work at the end.  The handing over to the client…okay, I lie, this stills scares the daylights out of me!

I think a lot when I paint and during the last few weeks, as the muddle of the early stages of a very detailed and busy painting evolved, I’ve queried how my client  would respond to the mess of paint in the early stages….I mean, seriously, at the early stages, even I’m not sure how I’m going to turn this amateur mark making around.

I have pondered, as you do, paintbrush in hand, various ways of explaining the process of oil painting to non painting clients, when it hit me…painting is just like writing.

Yep.  Writing.

First you brainstorm, also known as ‘free writing’, ‘writing down the bones’ or plain and simply getting words from brain onto paper.  Its quick.  Loose.  It involves spelling errors and very little punctuation, but it gets it down.

In painting, this early stage is known as the ‘underpainting’.  I work in the Graesaille method, a traditional paint technique that involves painting the entire image in a tonal underpainting…for me, its quick, loose, messy in parts, involves one paint colour (raw Umber) and gives me the bones of the painting.

Next in writing comes basic refining…rearranging words and sentences, growing the bones of the story into a longer, more involved and succinct piece.  Turning a sentence into a paragraph, one paragraph into a whole series of flowing paragraphs, a page of paragraphs into a few pages…a 100 pages…a book maybe.  This stage is all about growth and padding a piece out.  Nutting out the whole story.  It takes time, perseverance, a good knowledge of words and the rules of language…and a basic feel for the finished piece.

In painting, this is also a basic refining stage…adding colour to those mapped out tonal areas, covering the whole canvas in colour.  It takes thought and time to mix the correct tones in colour.  To pick out warm or cool darks and the same again with lights.The whole canvas slowly and surely gets covered and starts to come alive.  The light and warmth glows forth from each brush stroke. It’s time-consuming and takes energy and perseverance, a good knowledge of the rules of oil painting, colour theory and the how too of placing paint on canvas…and slowly the piece forms toward its final mark making.

The last stage of writing, is editing.  Careful, involved, thoughtful and insightful cleaning of every single word and full stop.  Words are weighed, replaced, exchanged and rearranged with pedantic thought.  This stage is satisfying and rewarding.  It starts to look good, then amazing and finally finished.

My favourite stage for satisfaction in painting is this stage…cleaning and softening hard edges, small strokes to add highlights, glazing gentle colour, perfecting tone, adding touches of inspiring marks, darkening darks.  There is a lot of pondering of softness of edges and tonal strengths in this stage.  It’s so satisfying to see it nearly finished then possibly finished and with the final job of signature marking it is finally finished.

See, writing and painting…such a great analogy.

I cannot wait to share my final painting…its drying on the ‘contemplation wall’…awaiting final small marks and gestures.

Awaiting my next commission…yes…ANOTHER commission to join it!!  Two in a month…wowsers.  They both involve fur children…and you know how much I love fur children!  Sharing two hush, hush paintings is going to be exceptional in the next few weeks!

Watch this space!!!

Mia x

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8 thoughts on “On Painting and Writing – An Analogy

  1. Great analogy between painting and writing. I understand exactly what you mean about sharing the early stages of a painting—I would never voluntarily share my first drafts with anyone. I go to a group where we write and then read what we’ve written, but no criticism is allowed. Even then, I don’t feel comfortable, because even as I’m read it aloud, I’m already wanting to fix things and make them better!

    I like the analogy with the second stage in a painting, the bit where you add the colour, because that’s where you add the colour in writing, too. That’s where you flesh everything out and really bring the story to life.

    Then there’s the finer editing, where as you say, ‘Words are weighed, replaced, exchanged and rearranged’. Absolutely! Then sometimes put back how they were originally!

    I love the name, ‘Contemplation Wall’, and I can’t wait to see the works when they are finished!

    • Thanks Louise, busy times and I’m sad that my regular writing has slipped into the background. It’s such a juggle of habit and routine to keep up two joys. Painting comes in as priority for the moment…maybe one day I will pursue the writing more. I’m looking forward to reading your book when it’s been ‘weighed, replaced, exchanged and rearranged’!!!

  2. Love the comparison between painting and writing. Given that the process is so labor-intensive and often makes no sense to anyone but yourself, I’m always loathe to let anyone see anything that I’ve written that isn’t finalized or at least 80% to the finish line. I do have to say that sometimes it can be hard to judge when something is ‘finished’ because given my penchant for perfectionism, I always think there’s something that can be better.
    Glad to hear that your studio is humming with activity and I’m excited to see the final product!

    • Thanks Lillian, I loved your last poem but haven’t had a chance to say so! Perfectionism usually comes into my art more than my writing, but I do edit and edit before publishing! Chin up with your studies, it will be worth it in the end!

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