Hi, here's an opening thought:
What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.
-William Ralph Inge
First, because copying, imitating, repeating, and adapting what others do is the precursor to finding your own style.
This is what Vincent did.
(In my book I'll be showing how protagonist Johanna did this too. She copied first what she'd learned from others before the breakthrough that caused the art world to listen to her and finally recognize Vincent's talent.)
Vincent practiced; once he started painting at age 27 he never looked back, but trained and learned continuously.
He tried out lots of methods - from learning through copying the classics at the Louvre, to brightening his own canvases with more color in imitation of the Impressionists. He experimented thinning out his oil paint with turpentine for a watercolor-like effect. He tried the stippling practice of Pointillism. He added large planes of color to his paintings after admiring and collecting Japanese prints.
He painted still-life, landscapes and portraits of neighbors, friends and (always chronically short on money and unable to afford models) dozens of self-portraits. All to practice, experiment and paint every day -- so much so that he left behind more than 800 paintings when he died.
While reading it struck me that there must be many Van Gogh paintings that are not good. I wonder how many Van Gogh paintings hang on museum walls today that Vincent would have considered just practice?
The second idea on gaining originality: grit.
More than simple determination, grit is the ability to get up, again and again, despite failure or setback and to try again. For example, Vincent's breakthroughs of originality began to emerge even as struggled with recurring mental illness, including being confined to an asylum. You have to hang in there long enough imitating others before your own style will emerge...and then continue producing and hanging in there when life throws you a curve ball.
I have a few modern-day examples of artists that had this potent example of practice + grit. I read about them in a blog by Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist. A few weeks ago he wrote about artists and musicians that turned physical limitations into the means that ultimately led to originality. Here's a portion of Austin's post (edited a little):
For years now, I’ve been collecting stories about artists whose physical “shortcomings” have led to their signature work. Examples:
- Chuck Close, along with his paralysis, suffers from prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, in which he is unable to recognize faces. And yet, he’s most famous for his face paintings, which help him remember faces. (We have one of Close's amazing paintings, "Keith," in the St. Louis Art Museum.)
- Tommy Iommi, guitar player for Black Sabbath, after he lost fingertips in an industrial accident, was inspired by Django (guitarist Django Reinhardt lost the use of two of his fretting fingers, and played all of his solos with the remaining two fingers). Iommi formed homemade prosthetics, and detuned his guitars down to C#, so there was less tension on the strings. This detuning is part of what makes Sabbath’s guitars sound so heavy, and thus we have heavy metal.
- Henri Matisse’s failing eyesight and health led him to make his “cut-out” paper collages. (I first discovered Matisse's cutouts at MOMA in NYC and heard how, bed-ridden, Matisse would have assistants hold colored paper and turn it according to his instructions while he cut out shapes with scissors.)
Their determination to create despite their handicaps led to their originality. This reflects ideas I'm toying with when it comes to my book about Johanna van Gogh. A good story is about persistence in pursuing a goal and overcoming obstacles along the way. Despite many handicaps (widowed, single parent, social pressures against women and more), Johanna persisted in gaining Vincent van Gogh recognition as a major artist. But it can't be the only point to my story, otherwise you already know how it ends. Johanna's achievement is an important outcome but not the only one -- and I'm working on those ideas now.
Will it be original? We'll see!
How I'm Writing the Book
Writing Craft: I finished a rough draft of the 3-page outline of the book's scenes but it needs lots of revision. I also brainstormed around a killer sentence, or elevator speech, on what this book is about so that I can grab people's attention with just a few sentences. When I have a few versions I like, I'll run them by you and see what you think.
Research: As you can tell from this post, this week I traced Van Gogh's experimentation and evolution of painting style, but I honestly did not capture very good notes. I need a more disciplined way to keep track of the research. My notes are simply in stacks and folders; I've failed to adopt a system other than making copies, highlighting passages, and copying quotes into my journal. My least favorite thing to do is to backtrack and organize previous notes but I will need to find the time to do this.
This next week I'll be in KC with my mom visiting daughter Cristina, checking out the Eisenhower Presidential Museum in Abilene, and then returning home for a night in a sleeping bag on a downtown St. Louis street to raise awareness of homeless kids and the work of Covenant House. I found my long underwear and will buy some hand warmers to prepare. It's just one night for me but there are teenagers who face these conditions often and need shelter. Please check out my fund-raising site for more info.
A final word from Inge:
There is no law of progress. Our future is in our own hands, to make or to mar. It will be an uphill fight to the end, and would we have it otherwise?
We would not!