Literary Hub

How Learning to Draw Can Help a Writer to See

From the time I was capable of holding a crayon, I loved to draw. I covered reams of paper with illustrations of the stories I narrated in my head. I drew on receipts, takeout menus, and my mother’s yellow legal pads. I spent hours dreaming up plots about animals and sorcerers and pioneer girls, and the pages I left in piles around my parents’ house recorded the heroes and kingdoms of these fables.

As I got older, I began to take art classes, which meant learning to draw from life and not only from my imagination. The first lesson my teachers imparted was often the same. To render a convincing portrait or still life, I needed to set aside the idealized notions of “body” or “apple” that existed in my mind. Learning to draw from life is about erasing the assumptions your brain maps onto the things you see. This is especially true in figure drawing, the sustained study of a model. You “know” that a jaw curves at a certain angle, but every person’s face is slightly different in a thousand minute ways. How the light falls across a cheek changes its shape and weight, and there’s something unique to be found in the tilt of the hips, the slope of the shoulders, a glint that gives the gaze an air of knowing, defiance, or warmth. Capturing those details—those rude and beautiful imperfections—makes a drawing feel vivid and real.

There’s a reason I’ve always loved writing imagery and description, why I enjoy the challenge of a character sketch, why I can’t wait to construct paragraphs that evoke a sense of place, and I think it’s because I was taught from a young age how to focus intensely on detail. Perhaps more importantly, in my years of training in visual art since that first class, I learned to sort essential details from excess ones, to find the particulars indelible to that scene, that landscape, that face.

The quest to replicate this “whatness” is something that writing shares with drawing.

In his memoir The Nearest Thing to Life, James Wood discusses the importance of detail in creating an immersive story. “It is details that make a story personal,” he writes. “Stories are made of details; we snag on them. Details are the what, or maybe we should say the whatness of stories.” The quest to replicate this “whatness” is something that writing shares with drawing. Wood writes that “in ordinary life, we don’t spend very long looking at things or at the natural world or at people, but writers do,” and so do artists.

Plenty of writers have remarked on the congruences and parallels between writing and visual art, from Goethe and e.e. cummings to Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor, who wrote that “particularly drawing” was useful for writers to study, because it “helps you to see… makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.” Ekphrasis represents another union of the two disciplines, an exercise of the writer’s ability to notice the details of a piece of art, as in Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s descriptions of the portrait bring it fully to life, with “its beautiful marred face and its cruel smile.”

Once, as a teenager, I was trying to paint a scene of a meadow in summer. Despite numerous attempts, I couldn’t seem to mix the bright shade of green that appeared on a distant rise between two arching tree trunks in my line of sight. I added daubs of white, yellow, and blue, searching for the exact combination that would produce this color, the color new grass turns when it’s soaked in the strident sunlight of an August afternoon. I knew that without the right tone, the painting would fail in its purpose: to freeze this moment in time, as it looked from my perspective. It didn’t matter that this patch of green only covered two inches of my canvas; it was a specific detail necessary to the effect of the picture. The solution to my struggles came in the unexpected form of a red smear of Alizarin Crimson, suggested by my teacher as a way to jolt my muddles of jade and apple and lime into something closer to the truth of what lay in front of me.

Crafting writing that seems alive is much like mixing paints, or drawing and re-drawing until you land on that one crucial line. The drafting process is all about fitting words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs like puzzle pieces until you find the ones that fit, the ones that can summon something lucid and precise in a total stranger’s mind. Writers, like artists, work to distill something tangible into the fewest necessary strokes. They must be careful not to bog readers down with the superfluous, and yet give them enough that is concrete and surprising to keep them engaged, to lure them into sinking completely and credulously into the text. A talented painter suggests movement and feeling with a slicing flick of the brush. So too can a skilled writer conjure a singular image, voice, or setting in one ringing sentence.

But the ghosts of these adjustments are part of the painting; they contain the story of its creation, and they are the scaffolding on which it is built.

While I was working on an essay about my grandmother and her brother, an American soldier killed during World War II, a researcher at the National Archives was able to send me a copy of a 75-page military record about my great-uncle’s death at the age of 23, wounded by artillery fire in North Africa. The documents covered years of administrative archives, and at first glance many of them seemed inconsequential. But hidden in these pages there were tiny gems of insight about my great uncle’s character, clues to the way he had lived and died. I learned that when he was buried in the Algerian desert, his hasty grave was designated only by two wooden slats, nailed together to make a cross. One set of his dog tags was looped around this temporary marker, and the other around his neck. Something about this detail, dutifully noted in a typewritten military form, absolutely broke my heart. It was one memorial amid a sea of crosses struck in the sand, each an inadequate and lonely reminder of a life lost in a foreign land, far from family or anything familiar at all.

Like any other skill, careful noticing depends on muscles you can stretch and strengthen with practice. Drawing is one way to practice, but it’s not the only one; to learn to observe you need merely to slow down in the course of an ordinary day, to spend time concentrating on and cataloguing the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the world as you move through it. The details that leap out to you won’t be the same as the ones that stand out to others, because when you observe, you do so through the lens of your memories and knowledge, preferences and emotions.

In painting, a pentimento is a place in a composition where an artist has changed course, closing an open hand into a fist or tipping the forward-facing chin of a subject away from the viewer. In the finished work, these alterations are usually not visible. But the ghosts of these adjustments are part of the painting; they contain the story of its creation, and they are the scaffolding on which it is built. A writer’s drafts, all those false starts and doomed darlings, are much like the pentimenti that a painting’s glossy surface conceals. The reader may not be able to discern what was carried through from the first draft to the last, and yet every choice is individual, and their accumulation yields a manuscript that is unique to its author.

In an essay for an anthology that contains the artwork of famous writers, The Writer’s Brush, John Updike seeks to divine where the crafts of the artist and the writer intersect, tracing writing’s origins to gilded manuscripts and pictograms, and pointing to art’s “striving for vivacity, accuracy, and economy” as proof of its synergy with literature. “Small wonder that writers, so many of them, have drawn and painted,” he concludes. “The tools are allied, the impulse is one.”

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