Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's Your Medium?

What's your medium?  Two winters back I took a ten-week watercolor class because I thought it would be fun to explore a technique that left plenty of room for error and "happy accidents"--perfect for my experimental approach to any artwork.

And I did have fun--I loved dripping brushloads of transparent color over my paper and watching mysterious, unexpected shapes emerge as if by magic.  I loved the light-filled delicacy of the final results, and I especially liked the contrast of brilliant color against the white areas I left unfinished.  Watercolor seemed like a good medium for me, and I was glad I took the class.

At the same time, though, I noticed many of my fellow classmates were not so happy.  Rather than allowing the watercolor pigment to "do its thing" by meandering and flowing across the damp paper, they seemed intent upon forcing the paint to do what it wasn't designed to do, at least not in the hands of beginners:  dark, stormy scenes set against solid (black) rock face; blood red landscapes dominated by impenetrable forests; mountainous night scenes illuminated by moonlight--very little moonlight. 

At first I thought all this angst-y artwork was a product of our having to get up too early on a snowy Saturday morning to then go plunge our hands and brushes into ice-cold water every week.  But as the class progressed and I watched people grow more and more frustrated, I realized these depressive scenes were based on a yearning to express emotion--deep emotion.  And watercolor wasn't the way to go here.  Drama at this level required oils, acrylics, charcoal, gritty things that expressed mood in a way Sap Green and Gamboge Yellow could not.

This got me thinking:  How often do we use the wrong "medium" in our writing?  And why?  This morning I tried a little brainstorming on the subject.  Here's what I came up with:
  • The best medium is the one you love; not the one you're "told to use" or the one you think "will make money."  E.g., "Poetry doesn't sell; think I better write a zombie novel, and fast."
  • One size does not fit all.  Sometimes you need color in your manuscript (poetic description, "show, don't tell"); sometimes you need just black and white (short sentences, factual information, minimal description).
  • Any single medium is not a "catch-all."  You just can't get the same effect from oil pastel that you might from graphite.  A screenplay is not a sonnet; a short story is not an epic.
  • Experimenting with "mixed media" can certainly liven up your work, but you do need to know the properties of each medium before you can use it with confidence and genuine effect.  It's the same with writing:  mixing genres can be the beginner's worst mistake.  But make the effort to learn those genres thoroughly, and surprise, surprise:  they can fit together into a harmonious--and original--whole.  It's just a matter of study and practice.
  • Finding the "right medium" for your story can be as simple as asking yourself:  "What is my core story?  Is it sad, happy, funny, uplifting?  What do I really want to say?"  If your eventual theme is basically a tragedy, you won't want to add a lot of jokes to the story line.  And if you're aiming to be inspirational, painting all your characters as "flawed and evil" might not work so well, either.
Tip of the Day:  When it comes to finding your true creative medium, there's no such thing as "waste."  The process of discovery is all about doing--if one medium isn't working, try another, and another after that.  Even if you have to go through a dozen or more attempts, guess what?  You're one step closer to finding the medium that's just right for you.


Jas said...

Wow, I came onto this blog to have a nose around and got stuck into reading this! Love it. So true, and is exactly what I have been struggling with int photography!!

Nik Perring said...

Great post. You gotta do what you love, haven't you!

Kath said...

... as long as you don't flit too much from one medium to another, before you've given a medium a proper try or you'll never discover which medium is best for you or suits that particular work you're doing. Or it'll take longer as you have to come back to mediums you've already tried. A problem for me and my butterfly mind. ;-)