10 Secrets to Great Writing that Portrait Painters Know

Portrait of Savannah by David Borden. (c) David Borden
Portrait of Savannah
Years ago, I spent my days as a portrait painter. I loved my work and had a growing client base. However, with the arrival of our second child, we needed better cash flow, so I got a job at the local community college teaching a few hours each week. One class turned into two, which turned into a part-time, salaried job, which turned into a full-time job, which turned into head of a division... ahhh!!!! A decade later, I found myself wondering how I let the days go by.

Last year I took the plunge. I quit the job as a division-head to downsize my "career." I wanted to devote more time to painting and writing. You can follow this transition on this blog under the heading "Year of the Phoenix."

Anyway, it wasn't until my writing started to take off that I realized that I had learned many valuable lessons from my portrait painting days.

10 Lessons about Writing that I Learned as a Portrait Painter:

  1. Portraits are detail-oriented. If you get a nose or mouth a millimeter off, the face won't look right. In writing, this translates to finding the perfect word. Writers, such as Joseph Conrad famously agonized over each and every word. William Shakespeare massaged the rhythm and cadence. James Joyce labored over the very sounds. These writers wanted perfection. If the word was wrong, even by the slightest nuance, the story wouldn't work.
  2. Practice. The only way to draw or paint good portraits is to practice, practice, practice. There is absolutely no other way. No one can pick up a pencil and draw a good portrait without putting in the time... a lot of it.
  3. Frustration. All artists have to get used to frustration. If you aren't crumpling up paper and throwing it at the wall and feeling like you'll never get it right, then you aren't working hard enough. If the work comes too easy, perhaps you aren't pushing yourself. Complacency leads to fossilized skills and poor output.
  4. Understanding the Importance of getting the right colors. If you get the warm / cool relationships right, you can plop in a dollop of paint and, BOOM! the whole composition pops. People "ooh, and ahh." Same with writing. If you can manage the relationships, the warm and cold moments, the contrasts and the subtleties, your writing will fly off the page.
  5. Planning makes the process go faster. It is a rare portrait painter that can sit in front of a subject and bang out a high quality painting without planning the angles, the lighting, the pose, not to mention measuring and plotting out the key elements on the canvas.
  6. Sometimes you have to start over. I don't know how many times I remeasured an entire face, moved an eye, redrew a lip, or painted over the whole portrait. It's the same with writing. I'm constantly revising. And at times, I've gone back to the blank page. My award winning graphic novel, And Yet We Rise, (released April 1, 2017) started as a prose memoir. I started over many times until I landed on the graphic version, which is the right one. If I'd stuck with the prose memoir, and never had the courage to throw the whole thing out and start over from scratch, it would be a shadow of the work I currently have.
  7. Capturing the "spirit" of life is hard. Anyone can learn the technical skills required to paint or write. It takes a particularly acute sense of curiosity and empathy to learn the intangible skills of expressing humanity in its many forms. To be a great painter or writer, you have to push beyond practice and technique to find the "feel" of the art-- to express the "spirit" of life.
  8. Understand your audience. Unless you're famous already and the client is buying your name instead of the painting, you have to produce a painting that the client wants. This requires working with them to understand their desires. Listening is a crucial skill for a good portrait painter. The same is true for a good writer.
  9. Build your client base one person at a time. We all want to be J. K. Rowling and knock it out of the park. However, she's an outlier. Successful portrait painters build their reputation and success one client at a time. You paint this painting today for this client. You give them the best possible work you can. They share their experience with someone else and you get a second client, and so on. If you focus on fame, you'll get lost in what you need to do today.
  10. Get Paid. Many creative people want to get paid, but don't know how. Portrait painters typically work from commissions. I used to get 1/3 of the money for the painting up front, 1/3 at the client review session, and the last 1/3 upon delivery and final approval of the work. This method doesn't translate one-to-one with writing. However, the idea is sound. If you are attuned to your audience, you keep them involved through out the process, then you have a higher likelihood of getting paid for your work. We tend to believe the myth that the writer is a lonely soul writing in isolation or the artist freezing in her garret. The truth is: successful writers, artists, creatives, of any kind interact with their audience in person, over the internet, at events, etc... Sure, the creative life has long stretches of solitude, but if that solitude is not punctuated with a real connection to the audience, then that solitude may apply to the finished work as well.
Drawing of Writer and Artist David Borden, (c) 2015
David Borden writing
Let me know what you think of this post by commenting below, or contact me at david@scribblefire.com

You can read and see my work at www.ScribbleFire.com. I'm in a writing phase at the moment, but hope to get back into portraits soon. If you're interested in commissioning a painting, let me know...

Follow me on Twitter: @dsborden

#writing #art #business #portraitpainting #painting 


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