Writing with Pictures: Poetic Advice

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Stanly Kunitz, in the August 1988 issue of The  Paris Review, described well the process of getting art from the head to the page. As a believer that illustration is “writing with pictures,” I often find advice from writers to be particularly use in my teaching and professional practice.

“The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance starts when you try to convert it into language. Language itself is a kind of resistance to the pure flow of self. The solution is to become one’s language. You cannot write a poem until you hit upon its rhythm. That rhythm not only belongs to the subject matter, it belongs to your interior world, and the moment they hook up there’s a quantum leap of energy. You can ride on that rhythm, it will carry you somewhere strange. The next morning you look at the page and wonder how it all happened. You have to triumph over all your diurnal glibness and cheapness and defensiveness.”

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) won many awards for his writing including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Pize. He was the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2000.

Grayson Perry’s Seven Lessons of Creativity

“A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.” -W.H. Auden


I love this quote because it speaks so well of all artists and their need to balance the personal and the public.

I love, too, where I found the quote – in a report on Grayson Perry’s talk last year at Advertising Week Europe. Perry, a Turner Prize-winning ceramics artist (and now Chancellor of the University of the Arts London), presented his seven lessons of creativity -in all of his transvestite glory. Perry’s given a number of these talks with slight variations, but they all make the same important points, and come from the same perspective.

Grayson Perry at University College London. Photo by Kerston Holst, 2013

Grayson Perry points out, “The word creativity has really gritted on me because it’s often used by people who aren’t, and say it’s very important.”

He’s not a fan of words like eclectic, authentic and profound. “If someone says they’ve got eclectic taste, I say they’ve got no taste.” As for passion, it’s too often spoken about by “men on stages with head-mics.”


Photo from Advertising Week Europe

Seven Lessons of Creativity


Know Yourself

“Whether it’s anger, sadness, adrenaline, sexual perversion, narcissism, addiction. You’ve got to own [your feelings] and use them,” he urged. “Don’t be scared about being too open, I’ve always thought. It’s never done me any harm.”

“I built a whole show around my teddy bear,” which Perry says acted as replacement father figure in his life after his own left at a young age.

Artists must take the terrifying road of “doing your own thing.”


Be Uncool

“Coolness is a form of orthodoxy. It’s a set of rules already coalesced around something. Being uncool is a powerful creative force.”

Don’t go along with the crowd, avoid the hipsters and don’t be afraid to make art that you think is beautiful, about what you’re interested in (in Grayson’s case headscarves and kinky sex) and where you live.

“As a transvestite I’m genetically impelled to be a bit uncool,” he said, showing a picture of himself as a 14 year old boy dressed as an “old lady.”


Play Seriously

“If you’re making art then you must make it seriously”

“You’ve got to take all of your little musings seriously. That little doodle in your sketch book might seem inconsequential but down the line it might turn into a major idea,” he said.


Be Specific (Not Global)

“In a global culture people shouldn’t be afraid to be specific. Look at what’s happened to youth culture. The internet has made youth culture across the world the same. it’s a mash-up of things. There’s nothing worse than attempting to be globally applicable.”

“A poet’s hope to be, like some valley cheese, local but prized elsewhere.” -WH Auden


Nobody is Original – Don’t Try

Perry said that according to the “Helsinki Bus Station” theory, an artist’s career is like picking a bus: the bus is your artistic style, and as you get off at each stop you meet different people who will compare your work to something which has gone before. So you go back to the bus station, and pick another bus. And repeat the process.

“You’re in a no win situation,” said Perry. “What you’ve got to do is stay in the fucking bus.”

“The creativity happens after 50 stops; you’ve just got to keep plugging someone else until you become original.”


Put the Hours In

Get better at working all the time. Focus on the skill of making something, regardless of the meaning of the finished product.

“I learned about that by making model airplanes. I get obsessed with detail.”



Notice your reactions to the world, especially if they’re angry ones.

“I like using anger… anger puts me in a different place”



Further Observation

Grayson Perry’s Venn diagram for aspiring artists. (Fuzzy photo courtesy of an attendee.)



More about Grayson Perry’s creativity talks here, here and here.

Ruskin On Style: Go Your Own Way

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In 1857 the opinioned and influencial British critic, artist, writer and educator John Ruskin put out a beginner’s drawing book in which he laid down the laws of that he believed on the subject. While there’s plenty to disagree with in his heavy-handed tract, I found it enjoyable and enlightening to read. Here’s my favorite screed from the book in which he encourages artists to push towards individuality in their work and against the forces of  assimilation, which exist in every age.

And herein the great masters separate themselves finally from the inferior ones; for if the men of inferior genius ever express law at all, it is by the sacrifice of individuality.

Thus, Salvator Rosa has great perception of the sweep of foliage and rolling of clouds, but never draws a single leaflet or mist wreath accurately. Similarly, Gainsborough, in his landscape, has great feeling for masses of form and harmony of color; but in the detail gives nothing but meaningless touches; not even so much as the species of tree, much less the variety of its leafage, being ever discernible. Now, although both these expressions of government and individuality are essential to masterly work, the individuality is the more essential, and the more difficult of attainment; and, therefore, that attainment separates the great masters finally from the inferior ones. It is the more essential, because, in these matters of beautiful arrangement in visible things, the same rules hold that hold in moral things. It is a lamentable and unnatural thing to “see a number of men subject to no government, actuated by no ruling principle, and associated by no common affection: but it would be a more lamentable thing still, were it possible, to see a number of men so oppressed into assimilation as to have no more any individual hope or character, no differences in aim, no dissimilarities of passion, no irregularities of judgment; a society in which no man could help another, since none would be feebler than himself; no man admire another, since none would be stronger than himself; no man be grateful to another, since by none he could be relieved; no man reverence another, since by none he could be instructed; a society in which every soul would be as the syllable of a stammerer instead of the word aof a speaker, in which every man would walk as in a frightful dream, seeing specters of himself, in everlasting multiplication, gliding helplessly around him in a speechless darkness.

Therefore it is that perpetual difference, play, and change in groups of form are more essential to them even than their being subdued by some great gathering law: the law is needful to them for their perfection and their power, but the difference is needful to them for their life.”

-from The Elements of Drawing, 1857, by John Ruskin (1819-1900)



Bernie Fuchs on Capturing the Viewer – Through Sensation


illustration by Bernie Fuchs

In illustration, as in many other things, the more things change, the more they remain the same. How interesting to read from a 1964 Society of Illustrators Annual, and find that the topic of discussion in a Note From the Editor by Bernie Fuch is the exact same topic that we addressed yesterday in my class, as if it were new. That is, in a world of distraction, how does an illustrator attract and connect with an audience? After all, art of the illustrator is not placed in galleries and museums for quiet contemplation. No, illustrators create work for viewers who are not looking for art at the moment that it is seen.


illustration by Bernie Fuchs

A Note From The Editor  by Bernie Fuchs from Illustrators ’64

This is not the kind of book you find lying around in dentist’s offices; so it’s a good bet that anyone who peruses it will do so because he especially wants to.

It will have willing interested lookers -people who come to see and ponder the pictures.

Even with this kind of audience it will be necessary to go back several times to really see the pictures.

Compare this audience of art-savvy people to the average thumb-wetter who dashes headlong through a commercial magazine with no idea and little interest in how the illustrations got there. Think of this alarming challenge as you view the contents of this book – and think of it as you face your next rectangle.


illustration by Bernie Fuchs

A picture captures a moment, holds it there and allows the viewer to ponder It lays itself open to a multitude of abuses – mainly the fast flip of the page or the nonchalant glance of the reader who has too much on his mind to be bothered. Actually, I venture to say that even very good pictures fare only slightly better than average, or go along with the media research experts, slightly worse than average. To use the phrase probably conceived in the media research, “in today’s fast moving world,” we picture-makers are bucking horrendous odds. Books, movies, plays and TV seize the viewer and hold him through their stories. They gee him the nearest thing to the real experience. The most exciting means of expression today, the movie, has a tremendous full-bleed, wide-screen spread with which to engulf the viewer. It can mage his eyes move when and where it wants them to with utmost authority. These mediums, with the exception of writing, have three overwhelming assets: sound, visual movement and the ability to tell a complete story with a beginning and an ending (the book having only the latter). A picture has none of thes, though some people when confronted with one, state in the dignified vernacular, “That really has movement.” Let’s face it, an image on TV or a musical score literally moves.

Again, the picture has only that tiny instant that it stops forever, and with that it has to make someone see. It has to hold him there long enough for his imagination to wander through the moment and feel, not literally but imaginatively, the sensation of a movement, a sound, a memory or an anticipation of the next instant which can only be conjecture in the mind.


illustration by Bernie Fuchs

Our task is monumental because even if a picture has all these potentials there is no guarantee it will be seen. For, alas, the flippant viewer will not participate. Ashamedly we admit, he has apparently gotten very lazy, -for example, the successfully rated TV commercial which lists the product’s remedies for constipation in oversized handwriting while a well-groomed finger points word for word as it’s read to you.


illustration by Bernie Fuchs

But, as long as we’re in the business gof making pictures, the least we can do is point the finger for him and give him the benefit of the doubt. The only way we can do this is to start with the feeling we want him to end with. We have to portray the right moment and honestly let it happen as we see it. We are lucky in that we spend enough time with a picture so as to allow our imagination to wander and literally move it, either on it’s tumbril or towards a degree of success. The quickest way to the guillotine is to inherit the viewer’s own despondent attitude which ultimately leads to the role of the imitator or the quick-sell solution, while salvation lies within our own imagination, and our willingness to use it. After all, if the research ratings are true, are we not as much to blame for our public’s lazy disposition as he is? Are we expecting him to improve without our help? Are we capable of bucking the odds? —Bernard Fuchs, 1964


cover art by Alan Cober

Further Observation

Bernie Fuchs (1932-2009) was a giant in the illustration field in the second half of the 20th Century; a fixture on the walls of The Society of Illustrators annual exhibitions. In his lifetime, the narrative and decorative norms of illustration art were pushed into more painterly and conceptual directions. Without a doubt, Fuchs pushed the former more than the latter. He led a number of trends of surface exploration, montage and eventually, the use of photography as a basis for paintings featuring exaggerated effects of light.