How to Become a Better Writer: Write Like a Painter

On a recent tour of the Matisse, Life in Color: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I spent most of my time ruminating about how much I could gain by applying Henri Matisse’s visual artistic process to my life as a writer.

To point, consider with me four of Matisse’s works and what they might say about about how to become a better writer:

1. Large Seated Nude

Over the period of five months, Matisse took photos of this masterpiece as he rearranged the composition, played with form, color, and pattern, and modified the perspective. As part of the exhibit of Large Seated Nude, I was able to see about a dozen other versions, the early ones drastically different than the final painting.

As a writer, I don’t know when exactly a piece will be finished, but until it is, anything is possible, and everything is negotiable.

2. The Yellow Dress

Similar to Large Seated Nude, The Yellow Dress evolved over time. As much as three years, to be exact. Matisse wanted us to know that this work was part of a larger process by signing the painting “1929-1932” instead of just 1932 when it was completed.

Although Matisse didn’t photograph the evolution of this work, he did experiment with composition and perspective by working in other media to solve the problems he encountered with “The Yellow Dress.” In several pencil sketches on display, we see Matisse playing with  the scope of his painting, which at one point included a much broader view of the room. In his sculpture Venus in a Shell, which was completed in 1930, he appears to have solved a question about the posture of the women in the yellow dress in the painting.

I think of myself chiefly as an essayist. But when I am stuck or when I am simply looking for inspiration, could I turn to fiction or poetry or journalism to find my way?

3. Ballet Dancer Seated on a Stool

Another favorite from the exhibit was an oil painting called Ballet Dancer Seated on a Stool.  Unlike Degas’ airy wisps floating across the canvas, Matisse’s dancer looks like she is struggling. Her limbs look heavy, her face looks dejected. The painting evokes more “ugly duckling” than “swan lake.”

Matisse didn’t work in cliches or stereotypes. He didn’t make “pretty paintings” all the time, or live up to the expectations of all the artists around him. Matisse painted what he felt in a style of his own. And he told true stories with his paintings, not the ones everyone expected him to tell.

Those are the stories I want to tell as a writer, too. Even if the star of my story is a little heavier and grumpier than all the other main characters.

4. The Back Sketches

When I saw what I call the “back sketches,” at first I almost laughed. How could such simple line drawings be part of an esteemed art collection? Then, I realized the sketches were sequential. Matisse wanted to capture the essence of a woman in as simple a composition as possible.

In the end, a simple composition of no more than 10 lines evokes the powerful emotion of a woman, arm extended behind her, stretching, revealing, concealing.

Sometimes, in the process of getting it right, in order to tell the truest story, the writer, like the artist, needs to simplify. To use as few lines—or words—as possible.

Image, Dishes and Fruit, by Henri Matisse. Sourced via Wikipedia, in the public domain. Post by Charity Singleton Craig.

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  1. says

    Charity, I think you would enjoy very much the “Van Gogh Repetitions” exhibit at one of my favorite museums downtown, The Phillips Collection. The show includes with roughly three dozen paintings drawings and technical photographs to help viewers understand how Van Gogh worked. Drafts and edited copy would be parallels in writing (although I’m not sure how many contemporary writers save drafts if they work on a computer, as I do. . . we may be losing documents offering insights into how writers work). It’s fascinating, I think, to see how details are worked out and technical issues are resolved in any artistic work, and also to know what’s under the surface of the canvas, which can be quite telling.

    My answer to your question in #2 is an unqualified yes.

    • says

      Maureen – Yes, I would very much love that exhibit. Hopefully I can see it someday. Thank you for mentioning it.

      Also, interesting, I have started using Google Docs for a lot of my writing, and in the “revision history,” I can actually see each draft of my work. Sometimes, the differences between two drafts are almost undetectable. Sometimes, they are immense. But I am learning about my own writing and editing process that way.

      Now that I have seen Matisse working away between media, it makes me want to explore more how I can cross-create. The thing I didn’t mention in regards to Matisse is that each piece is a work in itself. Just because it was solving a problem for another work doesn’t make it less valuable. I think I need to remember that as I work.

      Thanks, as always, Maureen, for your wonderful insights.

  2. says

    What I love about this:

    1. What you notice by looking, especially the seated ballet dancer.

    2. Translating painterly process into writerly tools.

    3. Your economy in both the description and the translation. The writerly tools part — simply 7 sentences, under 125 words. Wow.

    4. The impulse to go and do likewise. The main thing I like about reviewing concerts for the newspaper (aside from getting to attend something I otherwise might not have gone to or known about) is the exercise of quickly, on deadline, translating impressions of an aural art form into words. This makes me want to visit the Rothko exhibit currently at the Arkansas Arts Center with an eye to what it might teach me. And you make me hungry to see every single one of the back sketches, and to consider what others might say in words from seeing my back-of-people’s-heads drawings and photos.


    • says

      Laura – Thank you. I wasn’t exactly sure if this line of thinking would resonate with other writers. It was almost weird how strong the connections were as I toured the gallery that day. The docent (as in the lonely docent from the earlier piece) had no idea what he was inspiring.

      Yes, go, do likewise. I am eager to study more art of all kinds to help me with my writing.

      • says


        Just one example of how visual art feeds the written: ekphrastic poetry. There are entire collections of poems inspired by art. I’ve been to exhibits where the art is inspired by the poetry.

        • says

          Maureen – I’m very interested in this. You know, I’ve heard of this as a writing prompt technique for kids. But I think it’s a legitimate type of art all on it’s own.

          In fact, now that I am thinking of it, at the Matisse exhibit, they had several drawings and paintings that children had done based on his work, but they also had some writing that children did from looking at some specific pieces. I love that. I may need to go back to the exhibit and focus just on that.

  3. says

    One of the art-related books I’ve recommended this year is “Jane Frelicher: Painter Among Poets”. It’s a wonderful book. Frelicher was a muse for Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, and Schuyler (New York School poets). It’s a great example of cross-over of disciplines.

  4. says

    Loved how you took Matisse and gave us practical tips…as to your question in #2 “Yes” as it makes me think of athletes, who cross-train…I think writing true just as Matisse painted true to his vision resonates with me. Thanks :)

    • says

      Thanks, Dolly. Yes, we are cross-training artists!

      Interesting thing about writing true to one’s vision is that one must first have a vision. I think that’s where I sometimes fail. I can really be all over the place sometimes. But, inside a vision of art as a whole, Matisse was true to himself. Even though he experimented with a lot of subjects in a lot of media.

  5. says

    I love everything about this – my mother is a painter and so maybe that’s why it feels so personal. Maybe I am like her in an artistic way? Maybe we just work in different medium. Your insight helps me think about my writing and rewriting in a new way – it’s not just about taking out words/lines/pages, but it’s about seeing all of them as part of a bigger piece. Sometimes moving something to a new place is more effective than cutting it out.

    Writing like a Painter… I really love that.

    • says

      Donna – I’m so glad this resonated with you. I think being an artist’s daughter would be a wonderful gift. And yes, having a sense of what the whole will be does make each piece less important on it’s own, but incredibly significant in how it works with the other pieces.

      Thanks so much for your comment. I look forward to hearing more about what you are learning in the writing/rewriting process.

  6. says

    THRILLED to find this piece, Charity, hanging out on the page with LL’s piece on the wonderful Indianapolis Museum of Art.

    Apparently this is not my first time reading this wonderful piece, although to me it was (and so, you now can relate to my sweet husband who, at the beginning of every football season, must explain many of the rules to me… and so one).

    I love this still, in a brand new way… as someone who is now painting …. a lot, as you know. :) I have been wondering lately if painting has changed the way I write… I mean my process. I’ll tell you why. Yesterday I wrote a poem and the whole process was quite a shift from what I expected. I think it’s because of my painting…. because when I paint something I think it’s done – I come back 15 minutes later and I think “maybe it needs a little bit here….” and so on and so on all day long, and maybe for a few days. The paint feels so changeable to me.

    When I have written poetry before I was reluctant to hang out with a piece for long. If it wasn’t really jiving in the direction I thought it should I would just stop… get rid of it poof – delete. But yesterday was different. I was writing about the Circus via Heather’s wonderful prompt… and I found myself really seeing this character emerge… I made notes that looked a little bit like a poem, but not really – there were pieces that rhymed, but not much. There was a meter, but not really. It was a real mash-up. And I didn’t care. I left it in my tablet for a good part of the day, but the character rolled around inside my head for hours. When I got back to it I worked the lines until I had a picture of the woman in my mind…. and the way she feels… and her reason for doing what she does. I don’t know… it all felt very different. It wasn’t finished yet, either. Today I found typos and, believe it or not, a math error.

    So, is it my playing with paint that has shifted my approach to poetry or was this a one time thing? I guess that remains to be seen, but I couldn’t help but wonder….

    Thanks Charity. Again! Really great piece! Perhaps I’ll discover this again in a few years and leave yet another comment, and be surprised by the previous two. :)

  7. says

    Donna – I have done the same thing, “stumbled” on a post I felt I had missed only to discover that I had not only read it, but left a comment!

    It’s not surprise to me that you engaged with these ideas differently now that your artistic endeavors are different, your processes are different. That’s something else I learned from Matisse. His style and technique changed dramatically over his lifetime. He felt he was becoming more himself, but he also didn’t discount the earlier work. In fact, it was right there in the museum, too.

    Thanks so much for your careful reading and comments. See you again in a couple of years when you stumble on this piece anew! We’ll all be in different places then, so it will feel like a whole new experience! :)

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