Lessons in Writing from Art Classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts – Glacières
A couple of weeks ago I was accepted onto a part-time fine art course at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts – Glacières. Getting to study at an art school in Paris is something of a dream come true (I always wanted to do art but was too scared in case my Dad found out[i]), but it didn’t seem strictly relevant to this blog so I wasn’t going to talk about it here. I quickly found, however, that what I was doing in the course was immediately useful to my writing.
In this article, I am going to talk about the first classes I took at Glacières and share images of my work. The purpose is not to show-off my art, but I think some stories are better told with pictures. I’m sure it will be clear very quickly why these lessons are also applicable to the writer, and how the process of risk and repetition is useful to any creative endeavour.
This was my very first picture in the very first class. Acutely aware that talented people surrounded me, the only way I could stop myself from panicking and running away was to grab a pen and start scribbling down a picture of the life model. This is something I will also do if I am blocked writing; pick up my notebook write as quickly as possible about whatever is in front of me.
When the teacher came over the first thing she said was that I could draw with anything I wanted, but that maybe I should try starting out with a pencil, or a crayon, or any one of a selection of materials and mediums they had on the side. The picture I had produced was tight and anxious. When she came over, I thought she was going to say “Oh, I can see there’s been some sort of mistake, please hand your name badge in to security on the way out.”
I imagine it wasn’t difficult to spot how nervous I was, and I don’t suppose I was the only one. The teacher moved us into a series of “loosening” exercises (you do a lot of that in theatre as well): drawing without looking, drawing holding three crayons at a time, drawing with your left hand, drawing only sharp downward strokes. Poses lasted no more than two to three minutes, so there was no time to worry about what you were doing. The surprising part is that, at the end, when you look at your work, a lot of it is more exciting, more interesting, and just plain nicer to look at than what you drew when you had more time.
This would be a good point to show you some pictures of what I did so that you can see what I mean. Unfortunately, and following an old habit of mine[ii], I waited until everybody left the class then threw all my work in the bin. I only still have that first drawing because it was in my sketchpad and I forgot about it.
This was a mistake, and plenty of people were happy to tell me it was a mistake.
First, my wife gave me that “he’s done one of those crazy things that make no sense” looks she gives me and told me it was a shame because she would have liked to see them. How does it make sense to be embarrassed of work you did in your first class? Second, my father pointed out that the things you like and don’t like about your drawings change over time: things you hate today might be useful and pleasing in a month. He said that from now on I should take photos of what I’m doing and send them to him (you’ll have seen them if you follow me on twitter, you lucky people). Third, and most surprising, the teacher noticed. She didn’t make a big deal of it, just raised her eyebrows when I came back to the next class and told me I shouldn’t throw away my work anymore. I have no idea how she knew.
So, by now I had learned two things. First, everyone else in the class was better at drawing than I was; no bother, I was used to that. Second, I wasn’t going to get away with hiding just because I wasn’t very good. In the words of the horse from Animal Farm, in whose image I often feel I have modelled my life[iii], I was going to have to work harder.
Fair enough, come the second class I decided to go for it a bit, and try using some of the ideas from the loosening exercises in the drawings.
This is harder to do than it sounds. These drawings are freer than what I did before but they are not exactly free. We have a tendency to reign ourselves back, to second guess, to play it safe; this is not a stupid approach, but rather a response to the fact that when you really go for it you pretty often end up flat on your face with a bloody nose!
We moved into a second session where we were instructed to pick our specific smaller details on the model and draw only them. This reminded me of an exercise that I had done as part of a Future Learn writing course I did a couple of months ago; picking up little things I saw around me, writing about them, and then letting stories grow from them. I did some hand sketches, an eye, stuff like that.
The teacher picked out my work to show to the group, talking about how much she enjoyed the risks I was taking. Now, my lawyer brain was kicking in here: what is the virtue of risk? It seemed to me that the principle quality of increased risk is an increased probability of failure! When I look at the gigantic foot, I mostly think about how the big toe was actually touching the second toe, and how much I wish I’d had the time to develop the definition.
But the fact that I noticed the overlap of the toes only came from my close study, and foot drawings I’ve done since have done a better job of showing the interaction of the digits. Little details that you don’t ordinarily notice can be the very things that, when we miss them, stop the picture from seeming or feeling real. I have no doubt that this is just as true of dialogue or description as it is of drawing.
I tried to think about what risks I had taken with the image. I’d been using the mixing of the flat and side of the pencil, experimenting more with pressing harder and softer as I drew, and I’d started out with broad sweeps of a graphite chunk. Maybe the biggest thing was drawing it big: the foot here is about twice the size of and actual foot. It is hard to quantify risk, or to tie it to particular factors or qualities. But you know when you’re taking risks because you feel uncomfortable, a little out of control, like you’re skirting the edge of the whole thing falling apart.
Funnily enough, attacking different techniques and trying things out was also a way to overcome my anxiety and get less fussy about what I was doing. There are only four other beginners like me in the group. I remember recently reading a short story that was so good that I couldn’t write for the rest of the day; the words on my page just looked so clumsy compared to what I had read. Looking at the other students work gave me a similar feeling, but surrendering technique[iv], throwing paint and stabbing with charcoal, are all ways that help me break through my own fear. Picking up a different medium, or style, or piece of equipment, helps me get going when I’m stuck by the pressure.
I don’t know what I was doing with my last drawing of the day. I don’t even know why I like it (that thumb is all over the place). But I left the class feeling free, even elated,
I came in the next day with several tubes of Gouache in my bag, as instructed by the teacher. Gouache is like a cross between Aryllic and Watercolour, an opaque water based paint that I had never used before this class. I was feeling confident: I’d cracked this art school thing, you just had to go for it and the art would take care of itself.
Hmmm…. There was definitely stuff that I liked here, but somewhere in the whole huge brushes and lose control thing I’d managed to only keep the wrong sorts of control and mostly make a mess. I had some more ideas of things to try, so I tried to do some more detailed work in the longer poses.
The paintings were awful (I did some others that were even worse than those above). I was stood thinking how this was a really bad idea and I should throw them away quick, when the teacher came over and started talking again about how great it was that I was taking all these risks! Was “risk” some sort of French euphemism that I didn’t understand yet?
Thankfully, the teacher stopped the group to explain. She was showing off some really beautiful work by one of the other students, but what she said was that she felt that the student was in their comfort zone. When you’re producing work that you are comfortable and happy with then you are not taking risks and you are not developing. Want to get better? Work hard at stuff you find hard and makes you feel that you’re rubbish. Stick where you’re comfortable and not only will you fail to develop, but the work you do will be staid, flaccid and dull.
The astute comment my wife made was that all this “doing things you find hard” at must not lead to a very happy life! She also wondered whether this approach applied in other lines of work. I think it might. When all those pseudo-managery type people I imagine turn up on The Apprentice talk about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, maybe what they’re talking about is having a go at making some shit paintings when you know full well that if you just whipped out your soluble crayons or did a nice ink wash everyone would tell you it was brilliant..
The teacher went on to say that you can’t really start taking those sorts of risks until you’ve developed a modicum of technique, which is to say you have to have something you can do comfortably before you can push on to discomfort. Oh shit, thought I, and began considering throwing away my work again. Instead, I grabbed my sketchbook and tried something more comfortable.
Ok, that was nice to draw. I looked back at the other stuff I had done that day, and with fifteen minutes left tried to pull it together into a new image.
This one was fun. You can see in this picture bits and pieces from the other images I produced over the two days. Mixing the scraped off paint with the lines, and the zig-zagging approach from one of the loosening exercises, I got a combination colours and textures that I really liked. The teacher came by and looked over my shoulder.
“I guess you got tired of taking risks,” she said.
She wasn’t wrong. I was exhausted. And the thought of having to look at another picture I’d slaved over and now hated was too much to deal with. But I still think there’s a lot to like about this last painting. It may not be great art (and I doubt I will ever produce great art), but I think you can see how even over three classes that process of taking risks and making horrible messes resulted in me producing something better and more interesting than I was able to do on day one. I think the results will be even clearer by the end of the year.
Ok, that’s kind of where I want to finish the article; I’m a touch worried that if I go ahead and spell out what I learned it will drown out some of the broader ideas. Still, just in case you’ve got to the end and you’re thinking “what the hell was he talking about and what has this to do with writing”, here (in no particular order) are some tips I’ve picked up from these classes that I am now using when I write.
- Try out mediums, styles and genres you aren’t comfortable with and don’t like. I wrote a Western earlier this year and it turned into one of my best stories. Pushing yourself into places you don’t know builds your confidence, develops your techniques and expands your horizons. It will make you better when you come back to writing Harry Potter fan fiction.
- Great risk implies greater rate of failure. If never write anything that you look at and think “well, that’s shit”, then you aren’t trying hard enough. I’m not saying try to write stuff that is rubbish. I’m saying try to write stuff that you have no idea how to write, using techniques you don’t know how to use (like me with Gouache). At some point, I’m going to have to have a go at writing comedy. I don’t like comedy, I laugh, but I feel horribly embarrassed for the characters and I often have to stop watching or reading. I’m pretty sure what I write won’t be funny. But I know that after I’ve tried it I’ll be better for it.
- Much of the best, most passionate, most interesting work, is intimately tied to the fear involved in the production of that work. If you enjoy and feel comfortable with the stuff you write, what you write probably isn’t very good any more. Sorry!
- It is very common to do warm up drawings when you draw, but I don’t know a lot of writers that do this. Grabbing your notebook and slinging down something about what is in front of you will probably make the next thing you write better. That idea deserves a little more thought.
- Don’t worry if you are really struggling with something you are writing. Instead, attack with renewed gusto, try out techniques, styles and approaches you haven’t gone with before, and let that energy carry you through the problem. You may be capable of more than you imagined.
[i] This probably deserves some explanation. I’m think my Dad would have been thrilled if I’d studied art, but I think I would have been so terrified of letting him down that my hair would have fallen out. I’m old enough now that I’m less worried about this sort of thing (plus hair falling out pretty much comes with the territory).
[ii] I think I threw away every piece of fiction I wrote between the ages of 25 and 35. If you destroy the evidence then nobody will know you are as rubbish as you say you are!
[iii] Comments about the glue factory would be apropos, I guess…
[iv] Easier to do when you don’t have a lot of technique to begin with!