Monday, November 14, 2011

The Marriage of Art and Craft

I come from a traditional art formation. From ages fourteen to eighteen, I studied in the afternoons under a renowned painter in my country. We focused on watercolors and pastels, and did collective exhibits at the end of every school year. My earliest mentor was ruthless about color and proportion. Any mistake in our rosa cromática meant we had to repeat the entire project and no matter how much my girlfriend and I begged, we couldn’t advance to color pastels or watercolors (much less the human body) until our still-life charcoal drawings and color combinations were flawless. The word “repita” (repeat) became his trademark.

An early painting by Cesar Tacco. With the years, he became more impatient and would take painting “field trips,” where he would do a series of quick landscapes in watercolors (without preliminary drawings).
“Watercolors are demonic,” he used to say.

From my maestro I learned that mastering technique is fundamental for every artist. He believed that without drawing or color foundations, a painter could not excel in his craft, even if he would end up becoming an expressionist or abstract artist—the case of my late uncle, Ramiro Jácome, who studied classic art and slowly developed his style, known as “feismo.”

My uncle once told me that an artist never stops learning. (Photograph by Carsten Behler)

When I moved to the US to go to college, I entered the School of Fine Arts, but things were quite different here. The focus of most art classes was self-expression—even in the lower level courses. One of my instructors told me that the only way to produce art was if you had something to say. Otherwise, it was an illustration—a profane word that silenced the entire classroom and left the student-in-question red with shame. There was not a lot my eighteen-year-old self had to say about the world other than shyly pointing out to a couple of my peers that their drawings were disproportionate or too much water was making their acrylic paintings look muddy. 

Part of the evolution of an artist is to find his own style. In editorial illustration, the goal is to make quick and simple drawings to catch the reader’s eye (people don’t spend a lot of time looking at newspapers illustrations.) To me, this has been one of the hardest challenges as an artist. During the brief period I worked at the Illustration Department of this newspaper, my boss used to say that in order to reduce a drawing to its simplest form or “deconstruct” it, you had to be a proficient draftsman. (In Spanish the abstraction/simplification of a figurative drawing is called “desdibujo.” It is the aim of many editorial illustrators to achieve this.)

An editorial illustration by Pancho Cajas.

I believe that novel writing is not that different from painting, except that in the visual arts, an (accidental) mistake is a lot more obvious than in the written word. I didn’t always believe this. When I turned to writing fiction, I thought that because I was literate and had good ideas, I could publish a novel. With time and many bumps along the road, I came to realize that craft is just as important as ideas, enthusiasm and dare I say, talent. But like with painters, there seems to be a prejudice among writers that too much technique equals less art. They don’t realize that technique is just a tool to help them express their ideas better.

Let’s take a look at what Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa says on this issue:

“The mysterious thing we call talent, or genius, does not spring to life full-fledged—at least not in novelists, although it may sometimes in poets and musicians (the classic examples being Rimbaud and Mozart, of course). Instead it becomes apparent at the end of many long years of discipline and perseverance. There are no novel-writing prodigies. All the greatest, most revered novelists were first apprentice writers whose budding talent required early application and conviction.”
(Letters to a Young Novelist, p.13)
Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa poses in front of a "desdibujo" of him.

Part of the problem is impatience. We don’t want to waste time reading books about the seven basic plots, the hero’s journey, or a long list of rules (~shivers!~). We just want to write! After all, literature is not math, right? It’s not a matter of equations and formulas.

True, writing is not a science, but there is a method to storytelling nonetheless, a plot structure and archetypes which have worked for centuries. Wouldn’t the aspiring writer benefit by knowing why this is? (This is not to say that more experimental works of fiction won’t work, but like in painting, a strong foundation will give the writer the training and experience to be able to evolve in whichever way he chooses and find that coveted “voice.”)

If we want to be published we must come to terms with the fact that literature is not just an art form, it’s also a business (which equals appealing to a large group of people and yes, turning our thoughts and words into a commercial product). Like many art students I encountered during my college years, many writers seem to believe that novel writing should be unrestricted and inspired by an intangible source. One of my dearest friends and colleagues equates writing with having sex. She says too much explanation and instruction can “kill the mood.” I agree that spontaneity plays an important role in writing (there’s an undeniable magic to storytelling that is what makes it so enthralling—and addictive—to both writer and audience.) But I also think that, like in any other art form, we must learn how to use our tools and look at the masters (and our peers) to better understand what resonates and what doesn’t. This may mean having to put up with “how-to-manuals” and “rules” (all blasphemous words in the writer’s lexicon). Even if you think you’ve learned everything there is to know, there may still be something new, a bit of undiscovered information that may come to you in your hour of need (or insomnia) and spark an Aha moment that may just bring a solution to your story’s dilemma.

Yes, writers of the world, art and craft can work together! The left and right sides of your brain are not sworn enemies, and information (even if it’s not applicable to every case, or even if you disagree) won’t necessarily block you or take away from your creativity—but it will make your writing decisions informed ones so you can create your own desdibujo. It’s not about NOT breaking the rules, it’s about knowing them before you break them and doing so with a purpose. Like my husband says: "You can't think outside the box if you don't know where the box is."

For more about my art mentors:

Articles about Cesar Tacco (in Spanish):

On both Cesar Tacco and Ramiro Jácome:
Pequeña Antología de Quito en el Siglo XX

Articles about Ramiro Jácome (in English):
Short Biography
Ecuador Cultural Essentials The Arts

Comprehensive analysis of Ramiro's art (in Spanish):

Pancho Cajas caricatures:


  1. Lore, I think this was a wonderful blend of your wisdom and your personal history.

  2. Thank you Sister Lore, for sharing your experiences with us. I’ve known you for a decade, but only now I realize how your fine arts background has influenced your craft. It explains your self-discipline and perseverance...
    We started on the same spot and level, and over the years I have learned so much (as much as you) that I am embarrassed of all that I wrote back then. Knowledge has not made me more self confident, on the contrary. On the other hand, I have become a merciless critic.
    If you have genius, but you lack training, chances are you’ll never be published. The days of great self-taught writers are gone. However, if you have a great story and a knack to tell it, the industry might cut you some slack. My question is If you lack genius, but follow all the rules, do you still have a chance to attract agents/publishers’ attention?

  3. "The left and right sides of your brain are not sworn enemies."

    Oh, how I love this!

    Beautiful post, very timely.

  4. Wonderfully put! I have to tweet this post--such valuable thoughts. Thanks, Lorena.

  5. Your post made me try to think of any great writer who was also a great artist. Only Cellini came to mind. His autobiography is marvelous, but then, his forte was sculpture. Masters of each art must have different mindsets, either inherent or acquired. Both require great vision, but early in their lives (in the biographies I've read), most great artists select one field to pursue, and stick with it. Exceptions such as Michelangelo may disprove the rule.
    Speaking of rules, knowing when a work is finished, and stopping, is emphasized in art classes, but I haven't seen much advice about that in books about writing. It's one of my main problems. Thanks, Lorena for introducing a fascinating topic. Regis

  6. Your husband is quite insightful about that box!

    All the arts work in the way you've explained. When I studied music, it was the same thing. We had to learn the theory and the history behind the notes on the page. Only when we knew why the musician chose things like key and tempo could we then understand why the Romantic period was romantic or the Baroque was Baroque. Same goes for studying a second language. Anyone can speak a language, but learning the nuts and bolts behind it allows you to understand the language. And people say the arts are all Foo-Foo-La-La! There is so much crafting involved and it's kind of mind-boggling when you try to deconstruct it and understand what is before you.

    Great post!

  7. "Your post made me try to think of any great writer who was also a great artist."

    William Blake was pretty impressive in both departments. But yes, it seems a rare thing.

  8. Suze and Rosslyn, thank you both for your kind words (and thanks for tweeting the article, R!)

    Sister Violante, I don't know how to answer your question. Like Vargas Llosa, I'm not sure there are literary *geniuses* (seems like a strong word.) But maybe that "knack to tell stories" you mention is the talent everyone talks about.

    Regis, you bring up two interesting points: How to know when a novel is finished (my eternal dilemma as well) and what novelists are also writers. About ending novels, perhaps in painting it's more obvious because it's a visual media. Once you ran out of room on the canvas and you've finished all the details, there's not a lot more you can do before your artwork starts looking "pasty" (although one of my girlfriends would paint completely over finished work--don't ask why.) One thing I recently read about endings is that they should be as brief as possible and they shouldn't take too long after the climactic scene. (Perhaps this gives you an idea of when your novel "should" end.)

    As far as novelists who are also artists, how about Herman Hesse and Henry Miller (incidentally, the uncle that I mentioned in my article published a novel shortly before he passed away.) To me, the concept of an artist/writer is not so rare if we think about children's books and how many illustrators are also writers (some are incredibly talented in both venues!)

    Steph, I'm not familiar with William Blake's writing. Which novel(s) did he write?

    Sister Mary, I think music is even more complex and requires more training that literature or art!

  9. Stephanie, Blake is a good example of a writer-artist, but his ravings are not fiction in the strictest sense, could he be classed as a poet-artist?
    Lorena. You make a good point about the illustrators who are producing such great books, mostly for children or advanced adults. Sendak, for example with his 'Night Kitchen'. Some "artists" don't even consider such great illustrators as Rockwell as artists. Now the rage is for adult 'comic books', which seems to have originated in Japan. I think they have their place, but I hate to see literacy diminish in young people. What influence will 'tweeting have? Regis

  10. Regis, I don't know if you're familiar with Laura Esquivel, the author of "Like Water for Chocolate"? Well, she has a crazy book she wrote in the mid-nineties called "The Law of Love" (and I call it crazy because it deals with reincarnation, guardian angels, body occupation, space travel, etc.) Well, the interesting thing about this book, is that it's a multimedia book. It comes with a CD and the book tells you when to put the music on so you can hear what the characters are listening to (during their regressions) and it also has illustrations (visions the characters are seeing about their past lives.) This is the only attempt I've seen of illustration in adult fiction. (The writer, though, is not the artist.)

    What I found interesting was that the illustrations continue the narrative and are not simply showing us what the text is saying (like in children's books.)

    Here's a link to the book:

    Scroll down and you'll be able to see the illustrations.

  11. I should clarify: this is the only attempt I've seen of illustration in adult fiction that isn't purely a comic book/graphic novel.

  12. Lorena, I looked at the Esquivel site. Most interesting--it may actually become a valuable collector's item-----in 2075! There'll be plenty of copycats. If you want to see something that will make you think you're writing in the wrong genre. take a look at this: Regis

  13. Wow. I have mixed feelings about this.

    1. I like it, because it's a rags-to-riches story and it gives other writers hope that there is not only ONE way to reach an audience and get published.

    2. Like you say, it really makes me question if there will be an audience for my non-paranormal genre! When is this trend going to pass? Will it ever? (I know a lot of writers, including our own Sister Violante, are probably excited about this, but it makes us "genre-outsiders" nervous, ha ha.)

    Thanks for sharing this.


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.