Watercolor.

FB_IMG_1457638311948
Doesn’t look like much yet, does it?

I told myself that after my novel, A Guide to a Happier Life, was published, I would never paint my own book cover again.

The unfortunate fact is that when you release two books that are related, like they have the same characters or whatever, you want the branding to feel consistent. And the cover is perhaps the most important part of your branding for a book. So since I painted the last cover, I’m going to have to paint this one too.

Since it’s a project that is going to require a total of nine covers, I have my work cut out for me.

The first cover was done in watercolor, and watercolor has a pretty specific look, so it’s watercolor again.

I’m not a big fan of watercolor.  Well, I’m not a big fan of using watercolor. It’s unpredictable, you see. It blobs out and runs and bleeds, and that’s actually part of its charm. It’s supposed to do that, to be out of control. And that’s part of what I like about looking at watercolor paintings, but it’s hard for me to not see those blobs and runs as horrible mistakes that I made when I’m painting in watercolor. And since watercolor is transparent, you can’t really cover them up. You just have to go with it, and as I’ve discussed previously, I’m not great at that.

You don’t really control watercolor. You nudge it. You guide it. You provide it with a path. But mostly you sit back and let the watercolor paint for you. You relinquish control, and just… participate. Play. See what happens.

Not my specialty.

And the thing is, not only are those inconsistencies, those idiosyncrasies, what makes watercolor beautiful,  it’s where I live in the painting. It’s the visual record of how my eyes, brain, and hand differ from everyone else’s in some number of tiny ways. And that has value, right? If we wanted everything to look perfect we’d just take photos and painting would have been abandoned by now.

Choosing something as rigid and architectural as a cityscape probably wasn’t the best idea either, but I think I’ll have a little wiggle room based on how this is all going to be used in the final product, that maybe I can curve those buildings around the vanishing point just a little, and maybe I can have the chance to play with some unusual textures here and there. It’s to my advantage that the image is intended to not be immediately recognizable. Maybe I can do something interesting in some of the sections where it’s mostly repetitive lines and rectangles.

I’m not feeling anywhere near as confident about this as I was about the last one. I do have more watercolor paper in case I change my mind, though.

So I’ll take that sketch with the big important lines and shapes, and I’ll probably do a couple more drawings; one with more detail, and one that kind of shows where the light and shadow is supposed to go. That’s going to be kinda fun, since that’s where I’m making the most dramatic changes to the source material.

Then I’ll start transferring the big shapes and some guides to the watercolor paper, and I’ll mark spots to leave white for highlights. Then I’ll lay down some big washes… pale yellow for the sky and brown for the buildings, lavender for the street.

And then come layers for shadow and detail.

Because more than anything else, painting in watercolor is the practice of painting light. I just have to remember that. This is a medium that works best for me when I think about it like that; about light and shadow covering everything like a thin veneer, rendering what’s beneath invisible.

Whatever. I need to stop worrying about it and just do it.

 

Advertisements

Failing Up.

I’m going to let you in on one of the things I really love about writing.

It’s almost impossible to fail at it.

When you write, especially with modern tools, you’re just a backspace press (of varying lengths, of course) from being back on the right track.  It can hurt sometimes to set yourself back like that, but everything can be fixed.  It’s very very rare that something that I’ve started has gotten to the point at which it just had to be scrapped entirely, and in those cases, the failure happened very early in the process, during conception.

Not all activities are like this.  Drawing and painting aren’t like this… once you lay down the wrong line in ink, it’s there for good.  Oh, sure… they sell correcting fluids and opaque white inks, and there are methods by which you can simply cut out the offending piece of paper and replace it.  These techniques only minimize the original mistake… the opaque ink isn’t entirely opaque, or you can see the cut lines in the paper, or the correction fluid is a very slightly different shade of white than the paper you’re using.  In painting, some media are more forgiving than others… watercolor scares the hell out of me.  Once that pigment is dry, you cannot pick it up, and attempts to cover it will always show a shadow of the original stroke.  With acrylic, you can generally paint over any mistakes pretty quickly, but if you’re a textural painter, the original brush strokes will never go away unless you sand them down.

Painting over a mistake is less practical with oil paints, since they can take months to dry fully, but that intractable wetness allows you the opportunity to simply scrape your mistake up with a palette knife, or to just repaint it.  Some of these mistakes, resolved through simply lightening or darkening the offending paint, or adding a different pigment, have given me some of the richest colors I’ve ever seen… paints featuring one pigment provide a bright but shallow color… a kind of monochromatic look that you don’t see in nature.  Color in nature, as with sounds and smells, is a thing of incredible variation, depending on the intensity and directionality of the light and in fact the composition of the surface itself, the roughness or smoothness of the surface, and depending on the sensitivity of the viewer’s eye.  This is why I love painting with oil paints… sometimes you just don’t know if a color is right until its on the canvas, and it may need to be adjusted.  Oil paints are so forgiving of this, and it lets you get the color, the shadow, and even the shape (yes, I have scraped entire lines and edges off of canvases) just right.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that oil painting thrives in the presence of human error.  Not error… let’s call it “human variability.”

We live in a world that demands compliance and consistency and homogeneity.  We perform jobs that expect the same performance again and again and again, regardless of whether you’re performing surgery or stuffing envelopes.  The unfortunate thing about this is that human beings are intensely variable little creatures.  It takes a lot of effort enforcing structure on us to get us to operate in this way, and that enforcement of structure, that training, starts in school.  This is why I tell my friends’ children that if they learn nothing else from finishing school, they’ll learn to work.

The effort that goes into writing, like oil painting, is much more forgiving of that human variability… in fact, as a writer, it pays to avoid doing your work the exact same way every time.  Our work benefits from innovation in ways that most work really doesn’t.  And thus, error in writing, even if it is deleted in the end (and believe me, a whole lot of it is) contributes to the finished product in ways that are incalculable.  In fact in most cases, the author probably doesn’t know what changes or decisions might be related in some way to a mistake made earlier in that piece, or even in a prior piece.  And I’m not just talking about learning from one’s mistakes, although that’s part of it, but a word that you consistently misspelled previously may influence word choice later on, or a word mistyped might alter the structure of an entire sentence.

This kind of variability, this brand of failure, can be practiced in everyday life, but it either has to be done on the back end, or has to be a part of a process that precipitates a policy change.  This is what makes working life so strange… employers will say that they value creativity, but they don’t… they want the benefit of creative employees, but reject the increase in variability that comes from divergent thinking.  Creativity inherently involves risk.  There is no way to get around that risk.  The ability to take risks and roll with the punches when the results come in is the very heart and soul of creative work.

And when you take a risk and fail in a creative setting, you have to start again from where the mistake was made.

This is costly for large companies or even government offices.  The efficiency that they treasure is a big part of meeting revenue goals.  If one person is less efficient, that’s not a huge effect, but if fifty thousand people are less efficient, that ends up being a much bigger deal.  So in our work, as people, we are not encouraged to engage in divergent thinking.

But when you’re writing, I would encourage everyone to embrace your mistakes and your failures.  They are going to make you a better writer.  It’s not a big deal to take a little longer than expected to pick up a new skill… in fact, I think that it may allow someone to gain a more complete understanding of the process.  In most cases, the risks are going to be low… nobody’s going to die, you’re not going to destabilize eastern europe, and you’re not going to cause a global recession.

In most cases, the cost is going to be just a little more time spent on whatever you’re working on, and your own pride.  This process is definitely worth the time, and we could all do with a little less pride.

And I think this carries over to other aspects of our lives as well.