When I was perhaps ten or eleven years old, I read an article in Reader’s Digest about the painter August Renoir. The article was written by his granddaughter, and in it she spoke of painting with her grandfather when she was a child. While he painted a landscape with a pond, he would suggest something smaller for her, a single duckling. What I remember from the article, after more than four decades, is him saying to her, “See how the sun makes a spot of yellow on that duckling’s breast? We will try to make such a lovely yellow spot.”
This single observation holds so much that’s essential to art. It singles out something small, specific and particular – the spot of yellow made by the sun on a duckling’s breast. It really sees it, and then it articulates the single most important thing about the artist’s work: We will try to make something like that.
Every time I think of that observation, I see a little pale yellow duckling on a pond, perhaps a bit late in turning to follow his nestmates and mother, paddling in that sideways-kick way that ducks do when they’re turning. The water is blue, with little sparkling ripples on it, and the reflected light makes a single dancing spot of brighter yellow on the duckling’s breast as he turns. If I were still in practice with painting, I could paint him from such a vivid image.
Renoir wasn’t talking about slavishly copying life. He was talking about taking something from life and doing our best to translate the quality of it, the loveliness of that yellow spot of sunlight, into the art. A painted duckling is not going to be as fluffy, as quick, as charming as a live duckling, but art tries to recreate as much of the real duckling as can be captured, whether it’s in a painting or a bit of verse.
I have no formal training or education as a writer. All my education and training has been in painting and printmaking. Still, the lessons that I learned in those arts are equally applicable to writing. In writing, as in art, one has to see, to respond and to recreate or translate.
Lorne Elliott says that the most important thing a writer can have is real experience. He’s right about that. We need the real experiences, but we also need to be engaged with them and to be thinking about them and about how we can translate them in our work.
Last night, just before I fell asleep, I lay listening to my own breathing, which is rather interiorly noisy right now in the final stages of my lung lurgy. At the end of every exhalation I heard a papery rustling in my lungs, and an almost inaudible whistle in my throat. And I thought, “I need to remember this for my viewpoint character in ‘Here be Dragons’.” I’ve been doing this kind of observation for most of my life.
I know I’ve had other teachers in the art of observation, but I believe those words of Renoir’s, reported by his granddaughter, were my first awareness of its importance.