Monday, February 10, 2014

The Elmore Leonard approach to painting

Late Afternoon Light, Mid-December

Last year I got a truly essential book for any fiction writer: Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. Today while I was trying to finish this painting, this book came into my head and stayed there for quite a while. The wording of the rules doesn't really fit painting, but the point of them certainly does: Get rid of anything and everything that comes between the painting and the viewer.

In other words, anything the viewer notices, instead of seeing the whole painting, detracts from the viewer's experience of the painting.

One of Leonard's statements in the book, although it's not one of the rules, sums up his approach: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." I kept thinking about how much I'm trying to get better with my brush, to learn to make beautiful brushstrokes. I reworded the rule to fit: If it looks like painting, repaint it. It should look like the subject, or the reason you chose to paint this subject—not like painting.

Another one of his rules kept recurring to me: "Keep your exclamation marks under control." I figure a detail is just like an exclamation point; it begs for the viewer's attention. I want just enough detail to suck the viewer into the scene as if it were his own memory, his own imagination creating the colors and shapes of the image. You need something sharp and clear for the viewer's eye to lock onto, but it doesn't need to be much.

I was very tempted to paint more detail in the tall firs behind the deciduous trees in the front, but then I remembered, they're not the subject; the subject is the brilliant sunset light of early winter reflecting off the branches of the trees in front. I was out with a friend visiting local wineries the week before Christmas, and we were driving home just as the sun was ready to set. The light came through a gap in the clouds and lit up a bank of deciduous trees and their thousands of tiny branches, all bare now. I yelled "Kodak! Kodak!" and she quickly pulled to the side of the road and I jumped out with my camera. The light lasted for a few more minutes and I couldn't believe our luck.

Of course if you are a master of brushstrokes, like Joan Mitchell or Emily Carr, or a master of detail like Salvador Dali or Norman Rockwell, these rules don't apply. Sadly, I'm not a master of anything, but happily, I know that already.


  1. Great analogy between writing and painting, and Nice new work!

  2. Hi Ruth! Thanks for dropping by, and for your comment--always nice to hear from you!