On Writing vs. Painting

May 6, 2016 § 11 Comments

Peter Selgin

Peter Selgin

By Peter Selgin

I’m a lucky man. I paint, and I write. The two blessings seldom visit me simultaneously; usually I have to choose between them, like choosing between two lovers. One of those two lovers is of a sentimental and playful disposition, brimming with joy, light, and sweetness; the other is dark, brooding, at times even forbidding. Although she smiles from time to time, her smiles are laced with irony and often with bitterness and despair. She can never stop thinking.

Before I ever started writing I was a visual artist. I say “visual artist,” though that’s too highfalutin a term for drawing pictures of ships and skyscrapers. It seems to me that I could always draw, from the very beginning, that I never had to learn, not really. I was born (so it seems) with the ability to “see” perspective; although my father tried to explain it to me in technical terms, he didn’t have to explain to me what I could very well see with my own eyes, that the rails of the train tracks converged at the horizon, while the tops of the telegraph poles grew shorter. Where other people saw straight lines I saw angles and curves. Not long ago, a well-known author tried to explain to me how, prior to the invention of the camera obscura, the artist Van Dyke could never have “gotten” the perspective of a chandelier in one of his paintings, that such things could only be grasped by the photographically trained eye, which in turn could only exist with the invention of photography or its equivalent. To this I thought (but didn’t say) humbug: in Van Dyke’s or any other time I could have drawn that chandelier.

Ukranian Nightscape, by Peter Selgin

Ukrainian Nightscape, by Peter Selgin

I don’t mean to brag. My ability to draw is nothing to brag about. It’s just something I happened to be born with, the way some people are born double-jointed, or with perfect pitch. That said, I can’t deny the great joy that drawing has always given me, how often a pen or pencil and paper have rescued me from boredom and ennui (how would I survive those monthly university department meetings without doodling on my legal pad?). When traveling, I’ve considered a sketchbook and watercolors as indispensable as my toilet kit, credit cards, and passport. Don’t leave home without them. There were times when, having set out to do a watercolor in the morning, hours later in the middle of the afternoon I’d awaken as if from a trance, my face sunburned, my back sore, having lost myself completely in my painting-in-progress. I count such hours the happiest of my life. The painter in the midst of his work is impervious to suffering. He or she is a truly happy person. I can think of no place I’d rather be than in the realm of constructive oblivion that is painting a picture.

There—in that realm bounded by four points on a single plane—I exert total, dictatorial authority; I’m in charge. I get to achieve something close to perfection, or at least to aim for it. Within that circumscribed realm no one else can tell me what to do, or whether what I’m doing is wrong or right. When it comes to painting, I consider myself above and beyond criticism. When people like my paintings, I’m pleased. On the other hand I couldn’t give a damn what the “experts” think. I already can guess that most “real” painters would find my work superficial if not entirely irrelevant, that they would dismiss my paintings as products of a technically proficient amateur, one entirely unversed in the protocols (and politics) of the academy, who doesn’t “get it.” Of course these days the very notion of an “academy” in art is frowned upon, especially by those who belong to it. Once, at a communal dinner at an artist’s colony on an otherwise deserted island in Maine, at a table full of conceptual artists (one of whom, I remember, was constructing a clock from the carcasses of dead lobsters) I dared to invoke Picasso’s name, eliciting jeers and head-shakes: did I not know that Picasso was “out”? “He’s just a painter,” one of the artists remarked disparagingly. Painting was Out; Dada was in. But they didn’t belong to any academy.

Never mind. I like to paint and I paint what I like. I paint to give and receive pleasure. When I mix tint into a gesso ground, when I size a board or a canvas, when I paint shape over shape, color next to (or into or over or around) color, when I thicken the paint to a heavy paste, or thin it so it runs and bleeds, when I add sand or ink or sawdust or chalk, when I scrape one color away to reveal traces of the color underneath, when I butt up a delicate line against a heavy form, or a heavy line against a delicate form, when I key the colors so close and low it’s as if they are whispering secrets to each other, until I add a splash from beyond their range, a high-octave red or a blazing yellow that adds a piercing scream to all those mumbles and whispers . . .  all done in the spirit of play, the spirit with which children make mud pies or build sandcastles on the beach. There’s no pain in painting, not for me. None at all.

I can’t say the same for writing. Writing hurts. It distresses me. You have to think when you write. (You have to think when you paint, too, but it’s a different kind of thinking, it’s thinking without words; it’s a purely physical process void of any language other than that of colors, textures, shapes, values—closer to dancing than to what writers do).

There are days when I wonder why, given a choice between painting and writing, do I choose to write? Why would any sane person, given that choice, choose that way? What on earth compels me to forsake the joyful realm of pigments and shapes for the stilted black and white universe of words and so-called “meanings”—when deep down inside all of us know perfectly well that, assuming meaning is to be found anywhere in life, language is surely the last place to look for it.

Why, then, do I bother writing?

The only answer I can give is that I write because writing is so hard, that the challenge of drawing (I use the word advisedly) meaning from words is irresistible precisely because it’s impossible, because after all words can only express thoughts, ideas, concepts, symbols—man-made and artificial things. Whereas paint is color; shapes are shapes; lines are lines; textures are textures. They don’t stand for anything (they can stand for things, but they don’t have to). As much as we take words into our hearts and love them for themselves, for the way they look and sound, in the end they can only stand for things beyond words. They are not the ends but only a means.

But then that ‘s what makes them so achingly beautiful. Because they are so difficult, so clumsy, such an inconvenient, inefficient means toward expressing feelings and creating beauty, like trying to build the Taj Mahal out of chewing gum and toothpicks. Pigments and grounds were given to us; we dug them out of the ground. Words we had to invent from scratch. As clumsy, inefficient, and inelegant as they are, for better or worse, words are the only medium we can truly claim as our own.

That makes them irresistible.

Peter Selgin’s essays have earned a dozen Best Notable Essay citations as well as two inclusions in the Best American series (Best American Essay 2006; Best American Travel Writing 2014). He is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and two children’s books. His work has been published in Colorado Review, Missouri Review, The Sun, Glimmer Train, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and other reviews, and has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, and many Pushcart Prize nominations. An essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Manwas published by University of Iowa press and short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Selgin’s second novel, The Water Master, won the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Society Prize. Of his first memoir, The Inventors, published in April, 2016, the Library Journal said, “It is book destined to become a modern classic.” He teaches at Antioch University’s low-residency MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.

§ 11 Responses to On Writing vs. Painting

  • ninagaby says:

    He is a lucky man, as are any of us blessed/cursed with inherent creativity who know those sunburned moments of flow. What Selgin describes as irresistible I think of as chasing the dragon of those pure moments when we are lost in the toothpicks and chewing gum somewhere between our cortex and hippocampus. Great to be reminded even if the pesky cravings are gnawing at my brain stem.

    • Thank you Peter. I am also a visual artist /musician/vocalist turned writer. At times I feel that the writing is the MOST authentic, personal and most valuable rewarding of all. I have sung on various stages and sold my art worldwide but like you I love the written word. maybe its the purity of it and the real naked feeling of just a pencil and paper. No hiding behind colors or shapes as in visual art. Like you though, some days it is so damn painful to write and far easier making visual art. Thanks for this. I am writing a blog post about ‘multi creatives’ now. Would you mind if I interview you for it?

  • dpallee says:

    I too have been blessed with the ability to draw and write and it’s become such a big part of my personal therapy that I don’t pause that often to think about it. My art is more like an emotional hiccup-something I have to get out of me. My writing is more planned, more structures. I have in more recent years begun to merge the two and started creating an online webcomic. This helps me and gives a lot of my readers something interesting to discuss with me. Ride the wave, my man, and enjoy what talents you have been given…at the end of the day, they may be the only things to help you from pulling the trigger.

  • Sue says:

    And lucky you, your painting can inform your writing. Stuck hanging from a cliff of concepts? You can find a way out of that by painting it out!

  • James says:

    Painting (art) and writing are a nice combination. Yet they require different concentrations. Painting is just done – it happens and flows; your thinking mind can for the most part put aside (maybe not for everyone but i think that is a far assessment). Whereas writing is more ‘forced’ or a disapline that needs to be motivated (more times than not) and it needs full concentration. Yet the beauty of both is where one finishes the other can start. This is important as you can use one to ‘rest’ from the other, or escape from.

    Question: Do you find when you paint you get ideas on your writing only to drop the brush and run over to the computer and begin typing? Or vice versa – (one can stimulate the other)?

    • selgin says:

      That doesn’t happen very often. With me painting raises its own very particular problems—all confined to one side of the brain, the side where words have little if any say. I used to do lots of editorial illustration. One of my clients was The New Yorker. There were time when I’d be in the thick of a writing project when, sure enough, I’d get a phone call from the art director, who would want something by noon the next day. Of course I said “Yes.” You don’t turn The New Yorker down! Then I’d go into a panic. I couldn’t remember how to paint. What’s a brush? How do you mix paints? I was too in the “other” side of my brain. I’d work through the night, spoiling one attempt after another, re-teaching myself how to draw and paint. No, for me, except when doing kid’s picture books, drawing and painting have always been segregated. They never played well with each other.

  • James says:

    OK – that is interesting. To have the New Yorker on your resume – well that is pretty good to say the least!

  • Cathleen Flynn says:

    Hello Peter, I only have about ten minutes. I want to say that everything you expressed about being a natural artist, the curves and angles the colors that you know will blend together, just comes naturally to you as it does the same with me! I felt like when I read how your thought process works that this person thinks exactly like myself. My writings that I write, just hit me when I least expect. I will have to stop what I am doing right when it hits me. I have to grab a napkin if I don’t have a piece of paper and write down right then what I have to get out. I can right a song or a poem when the feeling hits in just minutes. It’s something I have done my whole life. My artwork, oh darn! My brother is here. I will get back to you as soon as I am able. I have so much I wish to share with you! I can ‘ t wait to get it all out! Cathleen Flynn! I shall return!!

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