• Shan

ART AS CHARACTERIZATION

(Using Fine Art Mediums to Drive Your Story)



There are two primary forms of charcoal: vine and compressed. Vine charcoal comes in willowy sticks, much like the branches of a tree. It’s soft, coating the artist’s hands as she works. It smudges across the paper, skimming over the imperceptible texture, creating areas of dark and light due to paper texture alone. If you blow on a drawn line, little specks of charcoal will dust across the page, sullying the empty spaces. It’s messy. At times, infuriating. But some artists love the mess. It’s a bit like diving into the unknown. The medium is free to be what it is, sometimes with minimal suggestions from the artist herself, flowing like a tide. But sometimes it becomes mud, impossible to clean, and destined for the trash can. If your character is prone to whimsy, enjoys the uncontrollable elements in life, and draws more from her gut than her head, she is likely to choose vine charcoal.


If, however, your character draws from the head, determined to replicate onto the page that what is in her imagination, she may choose compressed charcoal instead. Compressed charcoal most frequently comes encased in wood. To the untrained eye, it’s merely another pencil. The charcoal “lead” is more compressed than that of vine charcoal. It’s harder, denser, and less likely to dust across the page were the artist to sneeze. The lines are solid and dark, and less affected by the texture of the paper. It is, by interpretive definition, a much easier form of charcoal drawing. Less whimsical. More determined. Controlled. The artist drives the artwork, rather than the medium.

This small example shows how the chosen tools for your story can drive character. Or challenge it. Imagine, perhaps, that your character is rigid. She doesn’t stray from her vision. Ever. She is controlled, precise, and when not working toward her biology degree, she earns a small living making charcoal portraits. Naturally, she uses compressed charcoal in pencil form. It’s predictable, and she’s a gal who appreciates predictability. She’s just been hired by the dean of her prestigious college to do a portrait of the man’s daughter for her 18th birthday. The deadline is tight—only 2 days away. The artist returns to her dorm to find she’s left the window open, and an afternoon rain has destroyed her charcoal pencils (yes, this can happen). She rushes to the art department to find the classroom locked, emptied for the day. She rushes to her local art store to find they are out of stock. No time to order online. She must start tonight. The clerk offers her an alternative—their finest and softest vine charcoal.

This might not sound like a life crisis, but to an artist who relies on her steady hand, predictable results, this could trigger a breakdown of the highest order. Your character is now forced to throw herself into chaos in order to make her deadline. Her mind is panicked, her heart is racing. She grips the vine charcoal as firmly as she would grip the pencil, and it breaks in her hand, crumbling into a thousand pieces. In her palm is a visual representation of the chaos raging through her mind. She can’t form a strong, bold line. Her palm leaves black smudges across the page. Black dust wafts through the air like a snowstorm. Everything is going wrong. This portrait will be a disaster. And then she sneezes.

Raised by a painter and potter, I was taught proper wheel throwing techniques before mastering my shoelaces. Some of my earliest memories are those of my mother sitting at the wheel. Or bleeding yellow watercolor into a puddle of blue. Weeping at her desk when the giant glass pane didn’t snap along the cut line. Or cursing when our dog stepped on the pedal of the potters wheel, splattering the walls of our patio with globs of her newest masterpiece. I helped her set up for art festivals. A mural of a beatnik wearing a straw hat was painted on the door of our kitchen pantry.

I can’t imagine a life without art. I’ve worked in more mediums than you could count on both hands twice over. My work has been published in leading art and photography magazines. I’ve sold through art festivals and galleries, and my fine art has even been honored with a grant. Though my primary focus has now turned to writing, I’m still a voracious fine artist, creating work daily. Though an author, I currently maintain a working ceramics studio, and, for many years, have made my living as a photographer, both commercially, and artistically. Three times in my life, I’ve had a fully functioning darkroom. Digital revolution be damned, I still photograph my vacations exclusively on film. At one point in my life, I even made my living as a jewelry designer.

As a writer, creating artistic characters, you need to know how clay feels squishing through your fingers, or whether your character would choose acrylic or oil, based on her personality. You need to learn the details of the chosen craft. The sensory markers. The irritation that occurs in the eyes when there’s too much clay dust in the air.

Did you know, for example, that there’s a distinct scent to oil paints? And that many oil painters can be brought to the state of ecstasy just by opening a fresh tube? I speak from experience. Or that there are some types of clay that are translucent when fired, and some that are so textured (grog) that they can take a few layers of skin off your hand if used on the wheel? Or that some photographic processes can be deadly if used without care, thanks to the ingredients of ether and cyanide? These are only small glimpses into the insider knowledge of creatives, and they can bring your character to life for your readers (or even influence a whole new storyline. Death by cyanide at a photography retreat, perhaps?)

The next time you’re trying to characterize your artistic protagonist, consider doing it by way of her chosen art form. Don’t make her a potter arbitrarily. Do it because she is a sensual, meditative character. Someone who connects with the earth and doesn’t spend her life with a head in the clouds. If she is working in earth, then she should be of the earth as well. Is she part of the “in” crowd? Then maybe she should be a muralist instead. Is she iconoclastic? Then perhaps she paints with blood (yes, that’s a thing. So is painting with smoke, or wax. Or stitching with human hair).

Let their art define their personalities, their struggles, their tendencies. Let it even inspire the plot. And may your creative characters bloom and flow across the page, like the morphing hues of wet watercolor.



-Shan