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?



Wednesday, March 20, 2013

21 Days to Writer's Fitness

They say it takes 21 days to make--or break--a habit, and after 21 days of inspiration from Leigh Medeiros and Silver Wings Scripts, I can happily say it's true. Leigh is (amongst other creative accomplishments) the creator of "Screenwriter Shape-up", a 21-day program designed to turn your screenwriting wishes (I wish I had more time/ I wish I could follow through with my ideas/I wish I could write every day...) into established realities.

The version of Screenwriter Shape-Up I took started on February 11 and lasted until March 3. The mission was simple: write down a series of do-able goals for the full 21 days and then...well, do them! My goals this time around were fairly straightforward: to write a 1-page treatment of my most recent screenplay idea--a supernatural thriller--followed by a 2-page treatment, and then to outline my various scenes. But after a week into the program, I found the goal-setting was just the beginning of something much deeper . For instance, there was:
  • Discipline! As much as I'm intrigued by screenwriting, far too often it ends up on the back burner, especially when I'm working on a novel or even this blog. But now I've learned to carve out a dedicated screenwriting hour for myself every day. And you know what? That one little hour is  helping all my other writing as well.
  • Discovering that 21 days goes fast--and it's the perfect time frame for any kind of deadline or project in the future. The 30 days assigned to the more well-known writing marathons such as Nanowrimo or Scriptfrenzy can seem overwhelming, especially to new writers. 21 days is short and sweet.
  • I met so many nice new people--wow, there are some great and friendly writers out there.
  • I finally grasped how to use Facebook. This might not sound that amazing to my Internet-savvy friends, but Facebook has always been difficult for me to use. Being part of the discussion groups helped me to see the value of the site and fearlessly join in.
  • Working every day toward my goals allowed me to  accomplish them, and more--I now have a complete screenplay outline. Current goal: a complete first draft.
  • I learned I could use the 21-day plan for other projects, too. For instance, how about 21 days just for art journaling, 21 days for editing, or 21 days to write 21 poems? This could be a good schedule for all those spaces between various manuscript drafts awaiting revision and rewrites.
  • Best of all, now that the 21 days are up and I find myself lodged in my new screenwriting habit, I feel I can truly call myself a screenwriter. In the past I used to consider myself more of a screen-dabbler, a person who liked to play around with screenplays but never thought anything I wrote was worthy of entering into a competition or receiving serious consideration. No more! I love my current project and hope to have it contest-ready by next year.
So as you can see, my goals led me to some pretty good places. Which doesn't mean I can rest on my laurels. A writing habit means that once again it's time to stretch those fingers, lift those pens, and start writing. After all, they don't call them "exercise books" for nothing!

Tip of the Day: Set up your own 21-day program for a project you've always wanted to work on but have delayed for some reason. Choose "start" and "finish" dates that will help, not hinder you, assign yourself an achievable goal or two, and go for it!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My Interview at FolkHeart Press


It's Writer Wednesday, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate the day than to send you over to Karen Pierce Gonzalez at FolkHeart Press. Karen was kind enough to interview me for her blog this week, so please take a few minutes to go visit and leave a comment or two!

Tip of the Day: What makes your heart happy? No matter how busy you are today, be sure to honor yourself with the gift of creativity. It doesn't have to be something grand--even a few minutes doodling in your journal can make all the difference between a "good" or a "bad" day. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Art Journal Tip: Meditate with a Mandala


Today's art journal theme continues my series of posts based on Art Journal Class, My Favorite Tips, and today we have Mandalas.

The word "mandala" is from the Sanskrit for "circle." Think of it as a labyrinth on paper, a vehicle for meditation and discovery, and an entrance into a world beyond the ordinary and mundane. In other words, it's the perfect tool for enhancing and getting the most out of your art journal.

Although mandalas originated in Eastern religion and culture and have been used for thousands of years, it was Carl Jung who introduced them to the West. For me, creating a mandala in my art journal is about taking a break from a hectic day, calming down, becoming centered, and making some beautiful art that provides me with meaning and authenticity.

To learn more about the history and use of mandalas, there are many good books, far too many to list here, but there is one in particular that I feel fits in well with the concept of art journaling: The Zen of Creative Painting by Jeanne Carbonetti. One of my favorite quotes from the book is: "In the creative realm, mandalas present images of wholeness, for they bring forth our other side, the side usually hidden from view."

In the same way love makes the world go round, working within the circular boundaries of a mandala seems to make us feel more open and contained at the same time; it's a safe place to be. But don't let that stop you from exploring other shapes: square, triangular, or totally unique images from your heart are as valid as any other mandala form.

As for "what to draw with," if I had to choose a single medium for mandala-making it would be colored pencil (the Tibetans use colored sand, but I'm sure that takes centuries of practice). A simple Prismacolor set of 12 or 24 pencils works beautifully and won't break the bank. My reason for recommending pencil is I once tried watercolor and it was so difficult it seemed to defeat the entire purpose behind the mandala. Instead of inner peace and relaxation, I quickly fell into stress, confusion, and disappointment. On the other hand--perhaps this was a good lesson in letting go and I should use watercolor more often--or at least watercolor pencil!

Another concern you might have is your paper, especially if you want to work with a dark or black background. Don't worry if your journal pages are white because you can always a) paint them with black gesso and/or color before you begin, or b) tape or paste various colors and textures of paper onto the pages, either before or after you've written or drawn on them. (Note: the mandala I've shared at the top of this post is HUGE. I used a full sheet of Canson Mi Tientes black paper, but thanks to the computer, I've been able to shrink it down to art journal size. So don't feel restricted by having to always work directly into your journal.)

Some other helpful tips include:
  • Before you start working, slow down for a few minutes. You might like to try a meditation practice, offer a prayer, or just concentrate on slowing your breathing.
  • Listen to music, both before you begin drawing, and while you're creating your mandala.
  • Experiment with using just one or two colors in all their various hues and shades. Are you in a blue, purple, or terracotta mood?
  • Collage elements can be added to your mandala, or used exclusively as a creative approach.
  • Mandalas don't always have to be abstract or ethereal. You might want to express an important event you witnessed during your day, or put a particular feeling or emotion into a series of concrete objects and symbols.
  • If you find you really love making mandalas, you might want to devote an entire journal to them, perhaps by choosing a theme such as "nature" or "favorite music."
  • Old photographs can sometimes be a way to start working with a mandala theme. Either place the picture in the center and work your way outwards, or use nothing but photos to assemble the entire mandala.
  • You can do the same with individual words or phrases that are meaningful to you.
  • Drawing the realistic outline of a particular flower can be a good starting point too: roses, daisies, sunflowers, anything that appeals to you.
  • Don't forget your fruits and veggies! The cross section of an apple or an orange can create a beautiful pattern.
  • As can jewelry and pendants . . .
  • Or plates and pottery . . . In fact, why not make a mandala out of clay?  It may not fit into your journal, but you can always take a photo. (Now I totally want to do this.)
Tip of the Day:  Please take a few minutes to watch this video--a picture is definitely worth a thousand words in this lovely instance.