In 1987, speculative fiction writer Ursula Le Guin wrote an essay entitled Where Do You Get Your Ideas From? Le Guin suggested that there are two myths about how fiction is written: the first being that there is a secret to being a writer, and that all you have to do is know the secret and you will become one. The second myth is that stories come from ideas. Her essay was an attempt to address these myths and to try to break down the mechanics of storytelling as what she saw as abstract components, and what fiction writing really is – an abstraction of the imagination in the form of patterns. To Le Guin, these patterns, when working in concert, then create an emotional experience that is beyond language.
Of the notion that stories come from ideas, “The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means,” Le Guin wrote. “I think this is a kind of shorthand use of “idea” to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down.” Le Guin felt that the writing process may not even involve intelligible thoughts or words; but rather a mood, a resonance, a mental glimpse, or voices, emotions, visions or dreams. Can those things be described as ideas? In painting, I am guilty of leaning on the place-holder word, “vibe” – an inspiration that turns into a compulsion to make material a feeling — in the form of an aesthetic experience.
In abstraction, like storytelling, both technical proficiency and understanding that you are creating a vibe – one that need not be expressed in words – is a good start to making good work. Of the myth that there is a secret to being a writer, Le Guin was adamant that the only secret worth knowing was how to work. “The “secret” is skill,” she wrote. “If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets.” And so, with work and getting good in mind, she laid out her five principle elements for good writing. Upon studying them, I made a note to myself in italics as to how they might apply to painting.
Ursula Le Guin’s five elements, which must work together “in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce good writing:
The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
(The effectiveness and understanding of individual design elements.)
The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
(The interconnectedness of the design elements into a larger design, producing rhythm, vibration, excitement, focus and eye control.)
The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
(What these design elements are able to conjure; what associations we can draw from these elements. What do abstract elements signal in our imagination?)
The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
(What meaning can we draw from the arrangement of abstract, objective or narrative elements in a picture? What is its relevance to a universal human truth?)
The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.
(What does the overall work make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words or visual language?)
PS: “All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.” (Ursula Le Guin)
Esoterica: Le Guin’s five elements introduce the notion of “idea” late in the process. Here’s an idea: Pretend you have an “idea” to paint an abstracted landscape of a farm, with a barn, and a tree, and an animal in the picture. Now reverse engineer this idea to pinpoint a “vibe.” For this scenario, the vibe could be “bucolic pleasure” or “wistfulness” or “fecundity” or “work.” This “vibe-identifying” is something most of us are already doing intuitively with subject-driven work, but it’s still fun to apply a Le Guin-style abstraction of elements to the process. Now assemble some singular design components that can be used for a pattern that can produce a rhythm (Le Guin’s “sounds”.) Are you still with me? Are you still on vibe? Working down her list in order, build a picture, knowing that you’ll arrive at its most important pattern – its emotional experience – at the end. In doing so, you inch closer to expressing what cannot be articulated. “There is a relationship, a reciprocity between the words and the images, ideas, and emotions evoked by those words: the stronger that relationship, the stronger the work,” wrote Le Guin. “To believe that you can achieve meaning or feeling without coherent, integrated patterning of the sounds, the rhythms, the sentence structures, the images, is like believing you can go for a walk without bones.”
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“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, compassion and hope.” (Ursula K. LeGuin)
October 17 – 23, 2022
San Miguel de Allende
Painting Mentor – Amit Janco: Artist, Author, Labyrinth Designer, Founder of Heartshops and Retreat on Your Feet (Creativity and Walking Retreats)
Join this 7-day journey through self-expression to unleash your bottled-up creativity, with a brush in hand – and openness in your heart. Calling non-artists too! Each day, you’ll stand up to paint; yes, you’ll be painting on your feet, and moving about – thereby activating the brain, the body and ALL senses. No need to come with a plan; watch the colors and brushstrokes come alive; and see the magic and mysteries unfold, as you greet your square of paper anew, every day. Our accommodations and studio are in an enchanting former bordello, just a stone’s throw away from San Miguel’s historic center, with its gardens, cobblestoned alleys and marvelous colonial architecture. Inspiration abounds!
My art, like my art making practice is about discovery. The alluring push and pull of wet pigment on the surface, the intermingling of colors joining to make new hues in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of shapes and textures. Gently nudging the chaos is exciting and keeps me motivated to make art. Each piece provides unique challenges. Those challenges open the door to my inner world and help me understand more about myself and my relationship to the outer world.
The resulting images from my practice often have aquatic themes. Water has been a big part of my life and those memories come back again and again. Often my audience tell me they sense a spiritual element in my work, and they feel the works are meditative. I love that my audience senses that and it reminds me of our connectedness.