December 4, 2012

The Techniques of Art

Oct. 1, 2012. An Afghan refugee girl stands next to her family's sheep
in a field next to a slum area on the outskirts of Islamabad (via Time Lightbox)

Since beginning the Project 365, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about art in the broader sense, art with a capital A, and how techniques from one medium translates to another.

Take this photo, for example.  It’s one of Time Lightbox’s best photos of the week for Sept 28 - Oct 5. What makes this photo so amazing?  Why is it any different from any girl standing in front of a herd of her family’s animals?

Well, first and foremost because she’s wearing red.  The eye loves red.  It is the most alluring and seductive of colors, and it screams, “Pay attention to me!”  But I don’t think it’s simply the red by itself.  It’s the contrast of the red against the natural colors of the background and also the contrast between the everyday job of tending goats with this beautiful red of her garment.  She is dressed to the nines, as if someone is wearing a beautiful evening gown to muck out the stables. 

It’s not only the red.  This is a beautiful and mysterious girl.  The way she looks at the photographer with this unreadable and cryptic expression.  She’s thoughtful and penetrating.  And her hands.  She holds them in thought, picking at her fingers. 

The late afternoon light coming full onto the scene gives it a glow that it wouldn’t otherwise have.  This is one of my favorite kinds of light ~ first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon.  It imbues everything with honey gold undertones.  What is it about this light that appeals to me especially?  I’m not sure.  The equal balance of light and dark, how it brings out undertones and makes colors richer.

The pastoral setting, too, brings something special to picture.  They’re goats, for heaven’s sake.  Not cows - expected and normal in America.  No, goats.  This lends it a bit of exoticism. And these are not puny ordinary goats ~ these are huge and rich in color and vibrance.

But this pastoral setting is marred by what seem to be plastic garbage bags, which means this has to be near a dump, where the winds have blown the bags away and they’ve become caught in the grass.  So the rural pastoral nature is contrasted so strongly to decay and garbage, and there’s this beautiful girl, this Cinderella.

Composition plays a part as well.  The eye loves thirds.  Yet this photo is set up in such away that it doesn’t portray the ideal proportions.  No.  Instead, it makes you uncomfortable.  By choosing to place the girl almost in the center, it puts you off balance.  Right in the center would be boring, but the human wants things proportional, so just off center gives it a bit of tension, just as edge anxiety ~ the figure right next to the edge ~ would make people nervous.  That’s horizontally.  Vertically, it is nicely proportioned into thirds, which somewhat counteracts the horizontal tension.

Then there is the depth of field.  We get such a sense of distance here. The tight focus on the girl to the fuzzy mountains in the background gives us room to breath.

All this makes me think about how these techniques translate into writing.  The red color.  We want something astonishing.  I say astonishing, not shocking, because (as the recent FB meme pointed out) shocking is boring.  Shocking means you haven’t given it enough thought or development. Astonishing means you’ve put so much of yourself and your art into it, it transports the reader. 

All the other elements also translate into fiction writing.  Contrast.  You have to set things up and then have a payoff in writing.  If you don’t, the reader will not believe you.  This is where contrast comes in.  You have use like elements and contrasting elements judiciously.  In literary fiction especially, you have to do the unexpected and contrast it with the everyday.

Composition.  Writing is a linear meeting you have to encounter through time, through a line of words.  In that way, it is a performance piece.  Therefore, it has to have a beginning, middle, and end (thirds again) or some structure that gives the reader an aesthetic pleasure.

You have to have a sense of depth.  There has to be setting and backstory and depth of character, even if they don’t immediately show up on the page.  The writer has to know.

I better stop.  I could do this all day.  It’s so fascinating.  All the different creative acts feed into each other.

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