Art, Art Galleries and Exhibits, Writing Life, Writing Tips

How to Become a Better Writer: Write Like a Painter


Matisse dishes and fruit better writer

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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Your Comments

20 Comments so far

  1. 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.

    • 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. L. L. Barkat says:

    I love the idea of looking to another discipline to inform writing. More, please :)

  3. Laura Brown 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.


    • 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.

      • Charity,

        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.

        • 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.

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      and of course if you go see Rothko, you might need to write about the experience ;-)

  4. HisFireFly says:

    This is brilliant
    The arts are so connected we must learn how to learn from each

  5. 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.

  6. Charity,
    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 :)

    • 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.

  7. Donna 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.

    • 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.

  8. 1. Find the heart.

    2. Take your time.

    3. Tell it true.

    4. Tell it simply.

    Lessons I can take to heart…

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