Writing Lessons from Monet

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On one of the golden swan song days of last October, my husband and I took our two small daughters to see the Claude Monet: Truth of Nature exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. Afterward, the road home was illuminated by a parting shot from the ripe autumn sun. The signs and curbs and fences stood fully exposed to it, as if they were having their faces washed by light.

All too soon, dusk descended. But as we drove, my thoughts lingered on one word whose mention and reiteration throughout the exhibit had caught me by surprise.

Truth.

A time-lapse video of the water lilies in Monet’s garden had ended with the artist’s own words: “You have to know how to seize just the right moment in a landscape instantaneously, because that particular moment will never come again, and you’re always wondering if the impression you got was truthful.”

Monet was known for working on several canvases at a time in this effort to “seize just the right moment,” going from one to the next as the light and colors shifted. He was so intent on accurately conveying the scene before him that he had to stop painting if he could no longer capture what he had glimpsed:

I’m chasing the merest sliver of color. . . I want to grasp the intangible . . . Color, any color, lasts a second, sometimes three or four minutes at most. What to do, what to paint in three or four minutes? They’re gone, you have to stop. Ah, how painting makes me suffer!

—Wall text, Coming into Giverny in Winter, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO

He became a master at working quickly to capture these colors, usually outdoors. Small strokes, dabs, and unintelligible dashes of paint melded together to create fresh portrayals of the evanescent beauty and texture around him.

I had known about these hallmarks of Impressionism, but I’d never realized how intently Monet and his colleagues tied their art to the notion of truth-telling. These “mere impressions,” at first derided by contemporary critics, were meant to be more than a fanciful, personal take on the world; they were meant to provide a window to the reality of light, color, and movement in a particular location at a specific time.

Monet’s pursuit of truth has been shared by artists through the ages. John Ruskin believed “the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see” (Modern Painters III, Part IV, Chapter XVI ‘Of Modern Landscape’). According to this view, the onus is on the artist to “tell what saw” as simply and as clearly as possible—not crudely, as with a litany of facts or a slew of haphazard images—but so that the viewer, the reader, or the listener can plainly perceive the subject at hand and perhaps comprehend some true aspect of it anew.

Of course this isn’t the only consideration that artists must keep in mind, but it is a crucial one. When they forget or neglect this charge, they run the risk of dwindling into the fate of C. S. Lewis’s painter ghost in The Great Divorce:

“No. You’re forgetting,” said the Spirit. “That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about the light.”
“Oh, that’s ages ago,” said the Ghost. “One grows out of that. Of course, you haven’t seen my later works. One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.”
“One does, indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower—become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.”

—C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Chapter 9

Monet’s emphasis on accurately relaying the impression of a moment, I think, spared him from being consumed by this form of self-love. It helped him not to become so caught up in the art of the telling that the given object—the truth he wished to represent—was obscured.

Impressionism and Writing

I strive with words, not paint, but Monet’s methods have helped me reconsider some of my own.

I am, for example, frequently too wordy for my own taste. At the outset of any draft I’m tempted to put forward an intertwined mass of ideas all at once, keeping in all the connections I can think of rather than unsnarling the skein and plaiting it into order for the reader. This desire sometimes makes it desperately hard to “murder my darlings,” and, unchecked, would probably render the reader desperate to see the point I’m trying to make.

But the short brushstrokes in The Parc Monceau (1878) call my attention to the cool sun-dappled beauty of the scene simply by being brushstrokes. The oil paint is thick; the bristle-marks are visible. Monet did not attempt to conceal or blend or make individual masterpieces out of them.

These dots and dashes remind me of Chaim Potok’s novels, in which simple words and straightforward sentences—even the unremarkable but recurring appearance of two gendarmes in The Gift of Asher Lev—make up an utterly absorbing world.

“Suddenly he was weeping, silently,” Potok’s narrator says at an unexpected place in The Gift: “He sat there, silently and unashamedly weeping, the drawing in his hands. Devorah looked down at her plate. The children were very quiet. ‘This kind of art I appreciate,’ my father said through his tears. ‘Please excuse me for a moment.'” There is perhaps nothing momentous about these words in a bald excerpt, but when I read them for the first time with the charged history of the characters fresh in my mind—suddenly I was the one weeping.

Kenneth Grahame recently caught my attention in a similar way with a description of a winter scene: “[Mole] nosed his way over a field open and trackless and bare in the faint starlight.” “Open” and “bare” I skimmed without much thought, treating them as the sturdy lexical bookends they were, but “trackless”! “Trackless” brought to life the lonely, wintry, silent expanse that lay between the heroes and home, all in the span of a single word.

Finally, in the same vein, I’ve found that some of my favorite passages by Tolkien weave their enchantment through unembellished color. White shores. Green country. Grey rain-curtain. A rising red sun amid gold and red autumn trees. The author who had an endless supply of actual and invented words available to him chose a basic palette to make Middle-earth real for us, and I am both intrigued and grateful.

These writers, in verbal complement to Monet, remind me that vivid writing calls for more than piecing together interesting turns of phrase. Not every paragraph can be a showpiece, and not every paragraph should be one.

Like canvases scattered around a garden, the amount of truth that comes through in my work will depend on how much Light has passed through my life.

Amy Baik Lee

The masters who transport us work with the exact same materials as beginners. They have learned, however, that sometimes fewer paint strokes, words, or musical notes are more effective than layer upon layer of the same. They have honed their pacing, refusing to overwhelm the senses continually, so that we are drawn to the places of emphasis in their works. As Linda Sue Park notes, “The challenge is to make it whole, seamless, so that story and language aren’t separate concerns, but work together to enhance each other.”

The smallest building blocks are thereby arranged into a luminous whole. And there is a certain humility I’ve glimpsed in this restraint and rhythm that I am trying to learn: the humility of an artist hieing herself out of the way so that another can see.

Impressionism and Kingdom Living

When an artist does this well, a thread of consistency forms. This particular mark of creative skill is not an ability to mention the same pet subject in every piece, but the ability to relate any subject in the same distinct way. Authors thus become recognizable by voice, photographers by style. I find it fascinating to trace the steps by which certain juvenilia developed into beloved literature or to consider how world events and movements shaped specific artists and musicians.

Passing on what you see, after all, means that you must first figure out how you will take in the view before you, as well as the world at large. Monet established both a way of noticing his surroundings and a means of communicating them, so that even the paintings he created when cataracts affected his vision were unmistakably his.

But for those who believe there is a deeper truth and gladness undergirding the world—a story that runs through the whole of history and creation—the thread of consistency goes even further, beyond the bounds of the artistic sphere. The truth we tell as believers asks also for a constancy of soul.

This is the kind of thing the church says all the time but which I am always in danger of forgetting, and so warrants repeating to myself again, and again, and again: the simple acts and the hidden dashes of our lives comprise the greatest part of our work here. The tone of our words, the responses we give to small children and strangers, the voluntary acts of love that seem so much less pressing than the next deadline, the prayers we offer in the dark: all of these matter, and I gloss over them at my peril. The smallest moments will prove or disprove the integrity of our art—whatever our main creative channels may be—and ultimately shape the whole of our lives.

If I wish to be a better writer in the service of my King, then, I have to pay heed to the above principles not merely at my desk but throughout the rest of my life. Restraint over thoughtlessness. Sensibility spent in hospitality. A refusal to become enamored with my tools and my reputation, and a willingness to get out of the way so that Christ might be seen.

Like canvases scattered around a garden, the amount of truth that comes through in my work will depend on how much Light has passed through my life.

The artists who have succeeded in truthfully conveying visual forms to me have permanently changed the way I see. I’ve walked beside garden ponds and down many country lanes, but Monet has gifted me with the wondrous possibility that I might see rain-ripples on my street that are as blue and brilliant as the puddles in The Geese. Through his perspective I’ve discovered that the everyday splendor of straw-colored light falls on both the grainstacks in Giverny and the avenues of Denver.

And I am left with the quiet resolve to tell the truths I know as clearly and as well as I can, so that they may add up to one honest impression of the Great Creator’s glory. To live them, so that these brief numbered days might gleam with the evidence of His work: the deep color of renewal seeping into every corner of this life.

Click here to read more of Amy’s writing at her blog.


1 Comment

  1. Dd Ritterbush

    Lovely post! From the outset, your discussion of artists pursuing the true or essential reality through their works reminded me of Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne, which comes up at various times in Potok’s “Gift of Asher Lev” as well. To be able to communicate the essential thing, so that the viewer sees exactly what the artist intends – I found this an intriguing and challenging thought from the Letters. The challenges you set forth in your post are equally useful. Of course, great Art ultimately extends “high, farther, onward and upward” into greater/deeper truths, touching upon meaning beyond what the maker originally intends, but this does not mean it shouldn’t first fulfill and communicate the simple, true thing the maker has seen.

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