The new header image on my site, in case you’re wondering, is part of a photo (of an oil painting) I took in the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg in 2013. The painting is Knight at the Crossroads by Victor Vasnetsov, completed in 1878. Here is the full painting, pulled from Wikimedia:
Crossroads are a big thing in many folk tales, including Russian folk tales, but in Russia, crossroads are frequently used as a metaphor for the pull between East and West, Asia and Europe, tradition and modernization. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Vasnetsov’s imagery would’ve been even more striking than it is for me to look at, today, as a non-Russian – and it is striking, even out of its context.
Once upon a time, around 1999-2003 or so, I used to be able to draw. I’m out of the habit now, although I still occasionally do an art project. But I’m scanning in some of my old drawings so I’ll have digital copies of them, which is a bit of a trip down memory lane. The two drawings included in this post were done toward the beginning (the tree frog) and end (the hawk) of my first semester of art class at Corydon High School, back in 1999. I have many good memories of learning to shade without scribbling in that class, most of them with a soundtrack of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with many good conversations with my friends and with our awesome art teacher.
Something I learned in that class about drawing, I’ve also learned to apply to my writing: if you try to put a drawing together by drawing and shading each part perfectly, you’ll end up with a distorted (if well-shaded) image, essentially impossible to fix (short of erasing the whole thing and starting over). The same applies to writing a book – at least, in my experience. If you painstakingly perfect every scene as you go, you might end up with beautiful sentences or passages, but the pacing is terrible and the plot is too thin in places and too overdone in others. And you can’t just pull it apart and stick it back together so easily, because moving those lovely sentences into a different context usually takes all the power out of them. Having learned this the hard way, I compare my writing strategy these days to the process of drawing:
First, you sketch the outline. The outline is rough, vague, and leaves out the details and the shapes the shading is going to fill in. Then you write your rough draft, which is like the first pass at shading a drawing – get your contrast set up where you need it by filling in your darkest darks and marking off where your lightest lights will be, making sure all your proportions (pacing) are right. The second draft is blending – smooth it out, shade in your grey areas, and get rid of the pencil marks left over from your sketch. And in your third draft, you perfect your details, clean up, and bring out anything that needs sharper focus or more definition.
So that is how my art teacher from 16 years ago taught me both how to draw and how to write novels. Further proof, as if we needed it, that one kind of creativity informs another.