Painting-Writing Crossover

I want to be a better writer. I dusted of some of the writing books I bought years ago and reacquainted myself with the basics. The first one I looked at was Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. Even though the book is 30 years old, the advice is still fresh. She recommends that the writer use an implement that allows him or her to write quickly. A pencil is not ideal since it is too slow. She also recommends that the writer use a standard spiral notebook, instead of a pocket notebook. Her premise is, if one uses a small format, small ideas will result. She uses the example of William Carlos Williams, the poet and pediatrician who wrote ‘prescription-sized’  poems on his prescription pads.


I found it odd that the notion of format influencing content should be put forth in a book about writing, when it is more directly applicable to the visual arts.  Writing is digital, in a way. It consists of series of words that mean the same thing whether writ small or large therefore, the influence of journal format on the writer must be psychological. There are many similarities between painting and writing. Psychology is surely at work in painting as well.

A painter is faced with decisions based on the size of the canvas. Lately, I have been using the same formula to begin my paintings: A streak of paint with a large brush relative to the size of the paper.

The starting point of a painting influences the process of painting and ultimately the end result.  For instance, if I use a large brush on a small canvas, I would have a different painting than if the brush was small relative to the canvas.

Today’s watercolor experiment:

I started today with a very small brush on my usual 9″x12″ paper. I drew lines with the different blues on my palette (turquoise, cerulean, French ultramarine, Peacock (Holbein), and Prussian). My wavy lines have a same-ness about them, so I included some straight, broken lines.

Watercolor Step 1: blue lines with small brush on large paper

Abstract 92214 Stage 1

I washed the paper with Indian yellow and used Winsor red to accentuate the borders of some of the lines, and to define the bottom edge of the picture plane.

Watercolor Step 1: blue lines with small brush; indian yellow wash, red highlights

Abstract 92214 Stage 2

At this point several ideas presented themselves. The only closed form is the blue circle that has a vertical line within. This line is a continuation of a line that is outside the circular form.

Watercolor Step 1: blue lines with small brush; indian yellow wash, red highlights, more details

Abstract 92214 Stage 3

The circle with the vertical slash suggested a cat’s eye. I added more ‘cat’ details including a nose and whiskers.

Watercolor Step 1: blue lines with small brush; indian yellow wash, red highlights, purple details

Abstract 92214
9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

I added a few more details before I considered this work complete. The Indian yellow overall wash was too pale, so I used Winsor yellow and lemon yellow to add more yellow-ness to the composition.

I applied a cadmium red dot in the lower center of the paper. It seemed to me that this was the de facto concentration point of the painting, so I painted it in.


The process of painting this composition was not comfortable. I used a paintbrush as a pencil without the familiarity or facility of a real pencil. I am almost used to ‘taking a point for a walk’, using the parlance of Paul Klee. Taking the tip of a paint brush for a walk is a different story.

I started a regular writing session this morning. Before I get my paper notebooks to write in, I will be using my computer notebook (which wasn’t an option at the time Natalie Goldberg wrote Writing Down the Bones). I plan to write with my fountain pen.  I think it will be better than a pencil and certainly better than a paintbrush.

3 thoughts on “Painting-Writing Crossover

  1. I remember how fresh that Goldberg felt to me when it was published – hard to believe that was 30 years ago! Several years ago I met a fellow writer en route to an event. He asked me ‘how long’ my poems were. No one had ever asked me this question before. I must have paused too long because he prompted me: 20 lines? 30? So he really was talking size. I was speechless. Now, I find it amusing that a painter friend of mine commands prices for his canvases between £250 and £2500 entirely dependent on canvas size. Why don’t you just paint bigger ones? I asked him 😉

    • Maybe his smaller work was what he really liked to do, and the big ones were for making money? One must support one’s small habits somehow. Did he have an answer for not painting just the big ones?

      • It was a jokey comment; he always paints just what he wants to, no thought for the market. His smaller pieces are exquisite (I’m lucky to have some) 🙂

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