painting the air

Yesterday, the fourth graders and I listened to a soft spoken old docent talk about Impressionism.

First of all, if you've never seen an actual Monet, Renior, Sargent, or Pissarro then your life experience is deeply flawed. Get thee to a museum and see some!

Of all painting, and maybe all art forms, this is the genre, if you will, I most admire. I don't know, punk rock pulls a close second. But some obvious observations in how painting relates to writing, and one not so obvious:

The farther you get away from the work, the more it takes shape.
Impressionism is the epitomy of show, don't tell. The artists painted suggestions. These masters knew if they made the suggestion with color, the eye would fill in lines and details. This is what makes Impressionism special. It allows for each viewer to fill in the details in his or her own way. Similarly, words, phrases, sentences, scenes, dialogue, even description should all serve to suggest ideas, never nail them down past debate or addition by the reader.

Renoir said to paint the shape of someone is to capture them.
What is the shape of your character? Physically, mentally, emotionally? And most importantly for a story, what will distort that shape?

Monet did not use the color black.
By painting in the open air, Impressionists learned the color of shadows is not black but the reflection of the colors casting the shadow. Think of a plot as a shadow cast from your character. How do the shades of your character color your plot?

Impressionists were not big on blending color.
They blended colors only to match the colors they saw, but they did not blend color on the canvas. If you study an Impressionism painting up close, the brush strokes have a brutal simplicity. But several of those seemingly casual strokes side by side in the painting of a master becomes a beautiful composition. This is like picking the simplest, best word to do its job and putting it next to another simplest, best word, and next to another, and another. Words are the writer's strokes. But note, the Impressionists made it look easy because they thought through each brush stroke, no matter how quickly they worked.

Monet said other painters paint a boat, a house, the sky; he painted the air that surrounds the boat, the house, the sky.
Envision a character living, working, talking, breathing a certain way because of the atmosphere surrounding them. By atmosphere, I mean setting, other characters, the conflict and its importance to the character. You can show that atmosphere through the character's attitude toward it, through pacing and structure, through dialogue and mannerisms and decisions. Showing is painting the air while writing.

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