Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Importance of Background

When I first started taking art classes and learning how to draw and paint, I made a mistake common to most new artists: I painted everything in the middle of my paper and without any kind of background. Everything I drew just kind of hung in mid-air without a context to keep it anchored within the (nonexistent) setting. Over and over I'd have to go back into my pictures and add my backgrounds, if I could be bothered to do so at all, and that wasn't always an easy thing to do.

It was the same with my writing: I'd freewrite an exciting conflict scene out of the blue, add some troubled characters, and then have to figure out where they all came from. I'd have to travel back in fictional time and ask my characters questions straight out of a Henry James or Edith Wharton novel: "You want to marry whom? Where's he from? What's his background? Not one of those dreadful Van der Leeden Hoopsie-Kopecky boys is he??"

A quick and easy fix to both these problems has been to tackle my backgrounds first. The benefits of this have been practically endless, not the least being "No More Blank Paper Staring Me in the Face," and "No More Wondering What to Write or Paint."

This is especially helpful when I find myself with a limited amount of time to work on a project, for instance a spare half hour or two when I know I could do something creative, but I'm not sure where to start. Working on the background for a future painting or story is the perfect solution. For some well-spent art time, I try:
  • Gessoing art journal pages or full-size paper or canvases. (Admittedly not the most exciting item on my list, but getting it done ahead of time is a huge step forward.)
  • Adding some color to the gesso--or simply using color on its own, perhaps mixed with a clear acrylic medium for texture and durability--is a great way to step up the excitement factor.
  • As is experimenting with brushstrokes: swirls, linear patterned grids, stippled dots.
  • Or doodling into wet gesso with a stick or the end of a paintbrush. A dry sponge or any other kind of imprint-making object is effective too.
  • Abstract collage: old newspapers, junk mail, decorative art papers--tear them up, paste them down, paint over with either a thin coat of gesso or a clear acrylic medium.
  • Sprinkle sand or seeds, confetti or even dirt into the damp medium for a super textural effect.
  • If you want to go beyond an abstract design, try drawing or painting a background of a more structured surface such as stone, brick, or wood. Or practice painting or drawing drapery of different kinds of fabric: seersucker, silk, cotton, terry cloth.
While I'm working on these visual backgrounds, I find it's helpful to not think about what I might place in the foreground. My job at this stage is to build up a good collection of styles, colors, and textures that I can easily turn to when I've got the time and inspiration for a longer painting session.

The same is true for writing. Having a collection of pre-written back stories on hand guarantees that I'll always have something and someone to write about in the future. You can do this too:
  • Without referring to any physical references such as a photograph or actual person, start by choosing a name at random, any name: Bunny McPherson; Lucky Holmes; Wendell Marlow. This is your new character. Now write about his or her early life: where have they come from?
  • The ancestors--who are they? What's their story?
  • Write about your character's childhood through the POV of a best friend--or a worst enemy.
  • Write about the various settings in which you could place this person: e.g., home, work, vacation/travel spot.
  • Write about a severe emotional trauma this person experienced as a child.
  • What's this person's biggest secret?
  • Place this character in a setting: restaurant, bus, city sidewalk, farmyard. Now envision the other people in the background: what are they doing? Who are they? How does your character interact with this background? Could any of them become secondary characters in a longer work?
I promise if you do this often enough and on a regular basis, a short story or novel will emerge without you even trying. Goal, conflict, and motivation--the big three essentials to plot and page-turning--are all in that background somewhere, just waiting to be uncovered.

The best part of having all my backgrounds--written and visual--in place before I start any new work is that often the finished background will determine what my next piece will be. Two weekends ago I took out a large piece of paper I had pre-painted in various shades of yellow and green. It turned into a scene I titled "Sunday Lunch." The green leafiness of the background brushstrokes lent itself to framing a shady outdoor terrace set for a lunch party. And because I always think art and writing are but two sides of the one story-telling coin, I was next inspired to write about the people who were going to eat their lunch there--more background grist for the writing wheel!

Tip of the Day: Shake it up: writers, try some painting! Artists--get our your pens and journals! Everybody: practice some backgrounds--ideally it would be fun to put both disciplines together into one lovely piece. How about writing a story or poem onto a painted background?

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