Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hills Like White Elephants, and other paintings.

Lately, I've been re-reading Alex Powers' "Painting People in Watercolor--a design approach," a favorite of mine, and thought about how similar in approach the design of a good story can be to the design of a good painting. Both furnish aesthetic experiences for a reader or viewer, and it might not be too surprising if they both shared a few conceptual elements.

After covering a lot of design ground, Powers sums up four essential elements in his most successful paintings: 1) less subject; 2) bigger shapes; 3) darker values; and 4) faster painting (for livelier paint quality). If I can translate this to writing, some fiction presents numerous characters, place settings, and motifs or plots, an overall busyness, which can make reading more of a mental challenge than an aesthetic experience. The 'bigger shapes' criteria is related to fiction, because our right-brain, aesthetic appreciation may be challenged to discover interesting shapes meant to illuminate a story, when all those shapes seem to demand equal attention.Powers' darker values advice is related to many artists' tendencies to paint their shapes in a narrow, unexciting range of light to middle value hues (colors), whereas the more adventureous, and aesthetically pleasing paintings will include a vivid use of glowing darks. Similarly, in writing, a bolder palette of values for emotions and actions could be used to accent the fiction's principal 'shapes.' Finally, the faster painting admonition can remind writers that perhaps the originality and energy of a story may be drained by a constant 'noodling,' and 'toning-down,' of any risky material.

I decided to select some classic short fiction piece and work backwards to visualize how a writer's vision might show some affinity with Powers' design principles. Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," a strong, aesthetic reading experience, seemed to surface as a candidate immediately. So here goes. The opening paragraph of the story seemed to contain all the design shapes needed for the story:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station
was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building
and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American
and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would
come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.



Hemingway offers all of the important shapes for a painting in his opening paragraph. The initial sketch includes the two main characters, the long, white hills with no shade or trees, and an abstraction of the railroad track leading away, toward Madrid. The river is suggested by another shape. The sketch might also have shown the couple sitting in shade outside the bar, waiting for their train, but it might introduce too much subject matter--too busy. Small shapes, like table and chairs, might weaken the composition, as in 2).













Some of the initial value range is established here, using warm hues to suggest the heat. The reflected white glare of the hilltops in sunlight suggest the white elephants fancied by the girl, Jig.

Aesthetically, the painting seems to be holding together well thus far. This is a digital painting, using Corel Painter X watercolor tools, and is a lot more forgiving of mistakes than traditional watercolor painting. The eye moves through the painting from the lower right, over the 'paper-doll' silhouettes of the figures--our focal point--and leaves over the hills at the top.














Some of the values are further darkened, and the small format for the blogging images suggested that might be enough. A little decoration in the form of painting splatter is added, think-metaphors for the scatter of dialog between Jig and her partner as they contemplate whether Jig will go through with an abortion.

The man is confident an abortion will be safe, reasonable, and allow them to continue a happy relationship. Jig wants to believe him, but seems ruefully uncertain, right up until the train arrives.

I think most of the major aesthetic shapes of the story are captured in the painting, but the complete aesthetic experience afforded by the intellectual impacts of the couple's dialog can only be experienced by reading and pondering Hemingway's story.

Nonetheless, I think a writer could benefit by visualizing his story, during the conception, during writing, and during revisions, as a composition of major shapes, shaded in a range of values that dramatize their presence, and by critical use of language that supports the vision's selected focal point.
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