Archives for art

My Top 5… novels about paintings

In the course of my research for Connectedness, I have found some wonderful novels and non-fiction about art, artists, paintings, sculpture and creativity. Here are some of my favourites. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Buy nowNot a novel about artists, but about the power of art over one 13-year old boy. Theo Decker is caught in a bombing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art during which his mother is killed, he sees a red-haired girl and becomes obsessed by her, and he steals a painting. The Goldfinch is the story of what happens to Theo and how his triple obsessions dominate his life. Won the Pulitzer in 2014. One of my all-time favourites. Currently in development as a film. Read my review here. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier  Buy nowMore than two million copies sold worldwide, a film starring Colin Firth and a translucent Scarlett Johansson, do not detract from the brilliance of this novel. Tracy Chevalier says she now feels like a totally different writer from the one who wrote this novel. A story of a painter, his household, a maid and 17th century Holland. I was most captivated by the details of Vermeer’s painting
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Toby’s Room

As the second book of a trilogy by Pat Barker, this can be read also as a standalone novel. The Toby of the title is the brother art student Elinor Brooke, whose story is told in Life Class. This story starts further back in time with a secret shared by the siblings, something not hinted at in the first book. In fact this whole book is about secrets, things hidden for shame, war too horrible to talk about, fear and emotions to be ashamed of, and things simply not spoken. Society was very different then, pragmatism coloured everyday lives, people did what they had to and tried to forget the bad things. Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, a parcel of his belongings is returned. Elinor believes the true story is being hidden and enlists fellow art student Paul Tarrant – who returned from Ypres injured and is now an official war artist – to help. She believes another war artist, Kit Neville, who served with Toby, must know the truth but refuses to say. Kit suffered a horrific face injury and is being treated at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup. Visiting Kit there they find not only Kit but
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Life Class

Pat Barker is one of my top five novelists. She writes sparingly with not a word wasted, but creates a world so real with detail and characterization. Life Class is the first of her #LifeClass trilogy of novels which tell the story of brother and sister Elinor and Toby, and Elinor’s fellow art students Paul and Kit, through the Great War. I first read this book when it was published in 2007 and devoured it. I have re-read it now to refresh my memory of the story and characters, before I read the newly published third volume of the trilogy, Noonday. The story starts in 1914 in a life-drawing class at the Slade School of Art in London. The class is taken by Professor Henry Tonks, a real-life character, artist and surgeon. Barker weaves her fictional story around the true story of Tonks, the Slade, and the outbreak of the Great War. For student Paul Tarrant, the presence of Tonks is intimidating, as he struggles to find his identity as an artist. This is a novel about young people and their journey from youth to maturity via art and love, brutally influenced by the horrors of war. Interwoven with Paul’s
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: How to be Both

I admire Ali Smith, own quite a few of her books, so it was without hesitation that I stared to read How to be Both, knowing it was an ‘experimental’ novel, a twisting, spiralling tale which has been shortlisted, longlisted, and won awards up the ying-yang. But, I wasn’t prepared for the first 20-30 pages [it’s difficult to be accurate on a Kindle] which completely lost me. Complete non-sequiturs, verse, stream of consciousness. Rambling, with little context. If it had been an unknown author I would have run out of patience, but it’s Ali Smith so I stuck with it and fell into the story of Francescho. The writing is beautiful, atmospheric, still a little short on fact for me: a child [boy or girl?] with artistic talent, whose father is a skilled brickmaker. The story of the child Francescho twists and twirls with that of the adult Francescho, a Renaissance painter of frescoes, who in his own quiet way challenges the status quo. If you love books about artists, you will enjoy this one. In a brothel, Franchescho paints the women rather than laying with them, and becomes known for this. As he paints, he remembers the words of
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Categories: Book Love.

Old and treasured friends

I think we all have our favourite book covers, some for the illustration, perhaps even the typography. One artist has taken this love a step further, and paints pictures of old books. Mark S Payne sources secondhand books and paints them as they are now, including the tears, the creases and spillages. They are living things, they have been read and loved. Mark treasures his old books: “I love books. Real books, as tactile objects that you can feel the weight of in your hands, leaf through, and into which you can simply disappear. Of course, like most booklovers, the excitement of a new novel, especially of a favourite author, is always an occasion to be savoured. But I find the books I treasure most become old friends. I love to revisit them, and celebrate down the years their graceful journey as they age – so often to marvel at their maturity, and sometimes to stand back with wonder as my youthful friend has become a classic! I love the feel of these my inanimate friends, who live with me and in me so vividly. Their stories, their feel, their warmth and their comfortable familiarity, – it is all these qualities that
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Categories: Book Love.

My epiphany: Tess Jaray

“… we were taken out into the streets with our drawing tutor and I drew a row of trees into my sketch-book, the tutor was scathing: you are only looking at the trees. What about the spaces in between? You wouldn’t even see the trees if they weren’t framed with space. And look, he said, the spaces in between also have shapes – imagine the trees as the edges of the picture, and framing only the space. You still have a shape. Perhaps even more interesting than the trees themselves. Well, I’ve forgotten his name… but I owe him much.” Tess Jaray, in an interview with ‘RA Magazine’ [Spring 2014] Jaray is talking about an epiphany, a revelation, that lead her to consider the role of space in art. I first read this article as research for Justine Tree, the artist character in Connectedness. Jaray is an artist, but it got me thinking about my epiphanies about writing. I think the novel which has had the most influence for me in terms of structure and how to tell a time-slip narrative, is AS Byatt’s Possession [this is my much read copy below]. Booker Prize winner in 1990, Possession tells the story of
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.

Book review: Girl in Hyacinth Blue

The front cover of this book by Susan Vreeland features a painting by Dutch master Jan Vermeer called ‘The Painter in his Studio’. In it we see the back of a painter, brush in hand, studying a young girl in blue, holding a book, who stands by a window.  This real painting was the inspiration for the story. Scene-by-scene  the story takes you back in time, following through the centuries the owners of the painting which author Susan Vreeland imagines Vermeer was painting . First, we meet a maths master who has a secret. A painting, inherited from his father, which came to him in the Second World War. The painting is passed from owner to owner, sometimes as an inheritance or gift, sometimes as payment of a debt, sometimes stolen. Vreeland tells us the story of each owner, what the painting meant to them and how it affected their lives: for some it means quick money, or guilt, or beauty, or a hidden secret. Effectively this is a series of short stories, linked by the painting. It is a charming tale, set mostly in the Holland of dykes, poverty and farms. The painting illuminates the lives of everyone who
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Categories: Book Love.

A writer who inspires me: Judith Kerr

Where do I start? Judith Kerr. You perhaps don’t know her name but you will know her books. Mog the Cat and The Tiger Who Came to Tea are ageless books for children. I don’t write children’s books, so why am I inspired by Judith Kerr? It’s difficult not to be. Here are some inspiring facts:- Mog. The Tiger. In 1933 when she was nine, she escaped from Berlin with her parents and brother. After moving around Europe, they settled in London in 1936. Her father was a writer and drama critic whose books were burned by the Nazis. Judith continued drawing throughout the whole experience. She’s 91 and still drawing and writing. She has written countless books for children, which never go out of fashion. She has no time for trendy education methods, and thinks children need to be sat down and taught spelling, grammar and times tables. Her trilogy Out of the Hitler Time – comprising When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Other Way Round and A Small Person Far Away – is the story of Anna and her family from 1933 and the rise of Hitler, through the war to Anna’s return to Berlin many years later.
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.

Applying the rules of art to writing: art is a form of experimentation

“But most experiments fail. Do not be afraid of those failures. Embrace them. Without courting the possibility of something miscarrying, you may not take the risks necessary to expand beyond habitual ways of thinking and working. Most great advances are the product of discovery, not premeditation. Failed experiments lead to unexpected revelations.” Excerpt from ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White Nowhere is this more true than in writing: predictable, safe, boring, unpublished. Words set in concrete. Do not be constricted, particularly if you are writing for a genre which can be a straitjacket. Take a deep breath and write something unfamiliar, you don’t know where it will take you. My attempt [below] at being Picasso at www.picassohead.com was, understandably, deleted. But I did experiment.I take most risks in my short stories, it’s an opportunity to try a different genre or voice, even a dystopian world. I get more from experimenting with short fiction if I give it space to breathe, before reviewing, before making a judgement. Sometimes I press the ‘delete’ button. Sometimes an idea takes root that may one day become something bigger. ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White [MIT Press] Buy
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Categories: On Writing.

Applying the rules of art to writing: not every graduate becomes an artist

“Not every art school graduate becomes a successful artist. But the training one receives in art school opens avenues to the whole world. Art school teaches one to observe carefully, describe precisely, find solutions to problems through experimentation, keep an open mind to all possibilities, and to accept withering critique in the pursuit of the not yet realized. These are the skills of adventurers, visionaries and builders of a future we cannot yet fathom.” Excerpt from ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White That sounds like a writing class! Can creative writing be taught? Yes, the tools can be taught. Plot, structure, characterization, point of view, imagery. A teacher can encourage experimentation so a student explores the different forms, a teacher can emphasize that the best way for a student to learn to write is to read good writers. Amazingly, many don’t read and a large percentage don’t finish the novel they started. It seems that what can’t be taught is the persistence, the perseverance, the sheer doggedness you need to get to the end of a draft, and the second and the third. My creative writing teacher, Shelley Weiner [above] has just published Writing your First
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Categories: On Writing.

Book review: The Goldfinch

I knew it from the first page, this was the rare sort of book that you want to go on forever and when you finish it you want to start reading all over again for the first time. My only problem? It’s size: difficult balancing the hardback on my chest as I tried to read in bed while gently falling asleep. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a book I will keep and re-read and re-read. Buy the book, not the e-book. Three main reasons why I loved it. I liked Theo, it is his story and Tartt lets him tell it all the way through. No other viewpoint. It is about art and antiques, or specifically one painting and the effect it has on Theo’s life. The possession of it, the responsibility, the guilt, the value. The meaning of the painting itself, the tiny bird shackled by a chain at its ankle. And the painter, Carel Fabritius, student of Rembrandt, died too young in the Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 when he was 32. And lastly, it’s one of those wide-ranging American novels – New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam – that the Americans seem to do so
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Categories: Book Love.

Applying the rules of art to writing: making art is an act of discovery

“If you are dealing only with what you know, you may not be doing your job. When you discover something new, or surprise yourself, you are engaging in the process of discovery.” Excerpt from ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White So this is clear: push the boundaries. I agree with this to a certain degree. Familiar can be safe, predictable and boring on the page.  If you discover something new, something that excites you, and you can transfer this to the page, then you stand a better chance of exciting your readers too. I’ve been learning about art, as research for my character Justine Tree in Connectedness. I know a bit about art but definitely have my comfort zone. So I’ve been making a conscious effort to visit exhibitions of artists I know nothing about, styles I am unfamiliar with. Shows I’ve been to include Damien Hirst, Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Constable Gainsborough Turner and Kurt Schwitters [top]. I have my member’s card for the Tate, the Royal Academy and the V&A. I eat cake in their members’ rooms, I know the location of the ladies loos. What have I learned? I’ve certainly
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Categories: My Novel: 'Connectedness' and On Writing.

A gradual coming together

I think it was Stephen King who said his ideas come in bits and pieces over years, all nonsense, until one day something clicks and he adds together a bit of this and a bit of that, and he has the outline of a novel. It’s a bit like that for me, a gradual coming together. Thanks to Cay at Life of Chi, for nominating me for this blog tour about how we writers, write. She is 150,000 words into the first draft of her novel, and still writing! How do you start your writing projects? My current project Connectedness is the second novel in the series about Rose Haldane, identity detective. Having solved the mystery of her own adoption, she is asked by a famous artist to find the baby she gave away for adoption. I knew before I finished the first book about Rose, Ignoring Gravity, that I would write more about adoption. Connectedness is not a sequel, although there are some continuing characters. So oddly there was no actual ‘start point’, I just started jotting down thoughts in an ‘Ideas’ document. At that point, the book was called ‘Rose2’. Then when I found myself at a natural break in
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.

Applying the rules of art to writing: admire your forebears…

“… but don’t try to build a career by repeating their discoveries. Most students come to art training after a passionate engagement with established or historical art. Nothing is more thrilling than to delve deeply into the beauties of Titian, Turner, Rodin, or Cézanne or into the edgy excitement of contemporary work. But every student must remember that art is a constantly tilled field, and its job is to overcome what we know in order to examine and celebrate what we don’t yet know. What makes work of the past endlessly satisfying is the vistas it provides into a moment in history. Every artist must do the same for his or her moment.” Excerpt from ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White Every writer must read. If you want to write crime fiction, read Sayers, Christie, James, Larsson, Rankin. If you write thrillers, read Harris, Boyd, Grisham, King, Le Carre, Fleming. But don’t stop there. Read outside your genre too. Read the classics, read genres you know nothing about. And read as a writer. Learn from the masters. Then leave behind all that you have read, and write your own thing. Yes learn from the masters, but
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Categories: On Writing.

Applying the rules of art to writing: eliminate the non-essential

“Every work of art should contain whatever it needs to fulfil its descriptive objective but nothing more. Look at the ‘leftover’ parts of every composition. Successful images have no dead spaces or inactive parts. Look at your compositions holistically and make sure that every element advances the purposes of the whole.” Excerpt from ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White  Every writer has over-written, been carried away with a sub-plot that leads nowhere, given a character its head and let it run away from the plot. When I was writing my first novel Ignoring Gravity, I read an interview with a novelist who recommended asking yourself of a chapter or passage you’ve just written: ‘But what does it do? How does it progress the story?’ If you don’t know, stop and consider. If you do know and it is taking the story in a different direction, you don’t necessarily have to stop, just be aware of what you are doing. There is an argument that says continue writing, that the diversion may be better than the original idea, that the diversion may turn into book two, or a completely different novel unrelated to the first. It is
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Categories: On Writing.

Applying the rules of art to writing: learn to speak about your work

“This not only helps those who are looking at your work to understand what you are trying to achieve but also is critical to your own understanding of what you are doing. Avoid trying to interpret your own motivations or what may lie behind your work. This is an invitation to mislead yourself or read into the work something that is not there. The work is the starting point, and ending point, of its content.” Excerpt from ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White We writers are good at being on our own, developing our ideas in isolation, so it does not come naturally to talk freely about our work. But we must, in order to get it published and to promote it. “What’s it about,” is the first question an interviewer will ask. “What inspired you?” is the next question. If we don’t know the answers, we will feel stupid and look stupid and the overall impression will be that we and our work is stupid. Kit White’s advice to artists holds true too for writers. Thankfully as an editor I had to do a fair bit of public speaking, at conferences, at training groups, radio
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Categories: On Writing.

Applying the rules of art to writing: learn to accept criticism

“Critique is the foundation of art school education, and learning to make constructive use of it is one of the most difficult and important lessons to absorb. Look at your own work, and the work of others, as dispassionately as you can. Being defensive or hurt, while a natural reaction, will not help you improve your work. Learn the biases of your instructors so that you make the most use of their comments. Disagreeing with criticism is not wrong, but unless your work succeeds on its own merits in the eyes of your instructors and peers, resistance may not be constructive or helpful. Be brave under fire.” Excerpt from ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White This applies exactly to creative writing, which by its very nature means being published. Today, as well as being published in books, newspapers or magazines, that may mean self-publishing and blogging online. Wherever you publish, assuming you are writing to be published, other people are going to read what you write. They will have their own opinions about it – about the content, the style, the imagery, the characters – often strong opinions which may take you by surprise. And it’s
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Categories: On Writing.

IGNORING GRAVITY #52

She walked the few hundred yards to Mrs Gladstone’s house, trying to forget Tommy, breathing  deeply of the scented plants which spilled out of garden after garden. Jasmine. Buddleia. Lilies. But no roses, Tommy was right.’  The sky was like a Rothko canvas she’d seen in the Tate, the colours layered above one another like Eton Mess topped with mandarin segments and custard. She always found Rothko’s paintings calming, the colours melting and merging together. She took a book from her handbag, the latest Frank Bale detective novel, ideal for the mode of stop-start reading demanded by commuting on public transport. She opened it at the current page and there was her bookmark: a postcard of Rothko’s ‘Light Red Over Black.’ She breathed in the sweetness of the flowers, the glowing sky and the layers of Rothko’s paint, and let them soothe her. Careful not to stand on the whitewashed doorstep that sparkled with daily scrubbing, Rose rung the doorbell of 17 Child Street. It was a tiny terraced house, immaculate, its postage stamp garden packed with candy-coloured bedding plants. Not a single rose. The door was opened by an elderly lady who was wiping her hands on the sort of
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Categories: Book Love and My Novel: 'Ignoring Gravity'.

IGNORING GRAVITY #48

By the time she knocked at Maureen’s door at 7pm, Rose felt calmer. There was a knot in her stomach which she wasn’t sure was anticipation at solving Susan’s identity, Maureen had promised to talk about Kate and Susan, or hunger. She’d wanted to ask about Susan as soon as her foot was in the door, but hearing Diana’s voice in her head – “be polite!” – Rose devoured the dish of pasta spirals in tomato and sardine sauce which Maureen set in front of her. “I didn’t realise how hungry I was.” Rose wiped her dish clean with a chunk of crusty bread. “I love tomatoes. Any sort of tomatoes, those little plum ones are great in a salad or the big fat ones you have with mozzarella, and tomato sandwiches in the summer with a sprinkle of salt. Mmm, lovely.” “Your… “ Maureen cleared her throat before continuing, “… your mum loved tomatoes too.” She stood to clear the saucepans from the hob. “No she didn’t, they upset her stomach. Too acid.” “Not Diana. Kate.” “Oh.” To hide her confusion, Rose laid her knife and fork neatly side-by-side on the plate, imagining Kate eating pasta spirals in tomato
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Categories: Book Love and My Novel: 'Ignoring Gravity'.

Applying the rules of art to writing: cultivate your idiosyncrasies

“Every hand, every eye, every brain comes with its own built-in distortions. These distortions represent your signature, your personal slant on the world. When they manifest themselves in your work, do not be afraid to embrace them as long as they do not represent an impediment to some larger objective or overshadow everything else the image contains.” Excerpt from ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White Be yourself, write with your own voice. Read other authors, but don’t try to copy, go with your own ideas. Don’t be swayed by well-meaning friends who are quick to offer advice on what is or isn’t realistic/attractive/marketable etc. No-one told Hemingway [above, in 1939) that he should write more wordy prose. Of if they did, he didn’t listen. ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White [MIT Press] Buy now And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet: Cultivate your idiosyncrasies: applying the rules of #art to #writing http://wp.me/p5gEM4-KJ via @SandraDanby
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Categories: On Writing.