A World of Colors
The Fun and Fancy Free Art of Pixels
Lessons from Grandmothers
Poking the Gravid Chicken
Poking the Gravid ChickenWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
Ursula has promised, on her very spleen, to have new columns again next month. In the meantime, a reprint of her first column, one of seven of her columns included in the 2006 Anthology!
For the first instance of my column in the first issue of the EMG-zine, it seems appropriate to talk about beginnings. Specifically, beginning a painting.
Occasionally people ask me, "How do you start a painting?" and I find myself making vague hand gestures and going, "Ah...I...uh..." until I've run through most of the basic vowels and they're looking at me like I'm an idiot.
The problem is that I don't really know where a painting begins. Does it start with a sketch? The idea for a sketch? The bit where I say, "I should do a painting of a chicken!" or the bit where I transfer the sketch of the chicken to the surface? When I break out the paint? If it's a digital painting, and the sketch becomes the underpainting, the distinctions get really murky. And I'm hampered because I don't know what question they actually want answered: how do you start? covers a vast amount of ground, from "How do you get an idea?" to "How do you refine a sketch?" to "How do you prep a piece of masonite with gesso?" or "How do you transfer a sketch?" People struggling with a recalcitrant muse are generally uninterested in gesso, people wanting some kind of absolution that using an opaque projector to transfer a sketch isn't somehow cheating don't give a rat's ass about how I get my ideas, and people wanting advice on the fine art of careful underpainting probably need to go talk to someone who doesn't subscribe to the "Just slap paint on it, it'll be fine," school of painting.
Madonna and Egg, Ursula Vernon
The truth, alas, is boring. As Neil Gaiman said, "I make stuff up. Out of my head." Nobody wants to hear that, but there you are.
I think ideas - or more properly, imagination - is like a skill. The more you use it, the easier it gets, and more automatic it becomes. Unfortunately, because I'm an artist first and a writer barely, it's hard to tell you how I get an idea. I think the best explanation is that I put stuff together in my head. Stuff that doesn't go together. Like antelope, and lemons. Or tubers and watchtowers, or walruses and pretty hats, or slugs and warhorses, or beautiful women and warthogs. (Yes, there is a painting, long lost to the sight of man, entitled "Bride of the Warthog." No, I don't know where it is, and I wouldn't admit if I did.) One idea can spawn others: if a tuber makes a good watchtower, maybe it makes a good mansion, or a city, or an outhouse.
I'm a weirdo, a surrealist of sorts, so this method mostly works for me. People not so inclined to weird may wish to use slightly more conventional things. Beautiful women and dragons, beautiful women and tiger skin rugs, beautiful women and... tiger-striped chickens�(Well, you get the idea.) Whatever works. Some people start with a character, a conflict, a narrative of sorts. Some people start with a visual shape, a composition, and slot stuff in until they get something that fits the shapes. Anything goes. There's not a wrong way to get ideas. Me, I squish stuff together in my head and see what happens.
When I find something inspiring, it's usually because I now have something else in my head that I can mix and match with. If I see a fabulous sunset, or a mango, or a pile of old barbed wire, then I may not know quite what I'm going to put with it, but I've got it in the mental junk pile. Some day I may rifle through and find that that sunset goes with a naked mole rat. Sometimes it's not even an object, but a technique, or a color combination, or type of lighting. It's all thrown together in a jumble in the back of the brain, and occasionally you fish around, grab something, and pull, and see what gets stuck to it on the way up.
Sometimes it's pretty strange.
The thing, at least with the really weird stuff, is that you think of something really out there, and this censor stands up in your brain and says, "That's dumb. Antelope and lemons can't cross, they're different kingdoms. How would they walk? People will think you're an idiot." Usually, at least at first, he wins. Artists are often a dreadfully insecure lot. We cower away, because yeah, well, we don't want people to think that we don't know basic biology and would believe you could cross a lemon and an antelope, or that we're weird or something.
The first time you tell him to get bent, and paint the weird thing in your head anyway, you're on pins and needles waiting to get slapped down for it. And the world is hard and cruel and unkind, so yeah, a lot of times you are.
But part of the world being unfair is that sometimes you get lucky even if you don't deserve it, and somebody says, "Dude, lemonlopes, that's awesome." And the next time you get a weird idea, and the censor starts in, you think, "Hey, wait a minute, you said that about the last thing, and at least one person said it was an awesome idea!" and the censor loses a little bit of ground, and a little bit more ground, and a little bit more.
It takes awhile. But it IS like a muscle: the more you use it, the wilder and weirder it'll be, the easier it throws things together. In some people, alas, it's atrophied badly, but I don't think it's ever gone. You can always get it back if you're willing to work at it.
And that, pretty much, is how I start a painting. But as these things go, the egg has not even made its way out of the chicken's nether regions preparatory to becoming an omelet. So maybe next time, we'll see if we can't at least vacate the chicken.
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