I had the pleasure the other day of attending the St. Louis Art Museum's special exhibit on Monet's water lilies. In particular, a three-panel piece (Agapanthus) he did, the three pieces of which ended up in different museums and were united in this exhibition for the first time in over thirty years. Artistically, it was quite impressive, and almost chilling, and if you're in St. Louis over the winter, be sure to check it out. Click the picture below for more details.
While artistically impressive (I've always enjoyed the art of the Impressionists, and in particular Renoir) I couldn't help but be struck by the similarity of Monet's painting process to that of writing. You see, the exhibit not only displays the artwork, but takes one through the history of the work, step-by-step:
- Monet's garden in France.
- Monet's "studies"
- The final work
- An analysis of the work itself.
Let's start with his garden in France (Giverny). We are shown pictures of Monet's garden, then and now, and told about how much he loved horticulture (something I did not know--I just thought he painted all the lilies because he was bored). I was struck by something often heard in writing circles, that we should write what we know, and what we love. This is true of writing, and of Monet.
We were also shown samples of his "studies." I had heard this term before but never knew what it meant. Apparently, they are bits and pieces of a larger painting that an artist completes so he can bring them into his studio and use to complete the master work. To me, this relates to a writer writing different scenes, dialogs, plotting the story, or even developing character sketches. All bits and pieces of the larger whole that are brought together to complete the final product.
The final work was spectacular. I think I had seen it together back in 1980, but on many trips to the art museum over the years, I've seen the center panel, housed in St. Louis, many times. The other two are kept in Kansas City and Cleveland. It was great to see them together - like a good trilogy.
What really struck me was the final part of the exhibit, which showed how the painting was changed - by Monet - several times over the course of several years. Curators have taken very small samples from the painting and analyzed them, showing layers upon layers of paint. One can also see quite a difference between the studies and the actual painting. In fact, Monet had originally painted a particular flower in the lower left corner of the painting, only to go back later and paint it out! He did this throughout the painting.
What does this tell us about writing? Revision, revision, revision. Monet constantly revised this masterpiece, which by all intents and purposes was probably pretty darned good to begin with. The result was a masterpiece.
It also points out that our finished work may not be exactly what we pictured to begin with. I know writers who are "set" in their plot and storyline and don't allow themselves to go with the flow. They are frustrated with the process and often give up on their stories. My advice? Let your characters live their own lives.
This happened in one of my first short stories, The Artifact. In this story, our protagonist finds a device that let's him travel back in time. He goes back to try and save his wife, but fails. My original intent was for him to keep the device so he can travel back to visit her. Instead, in his anguish, he tosses it into the river and moves on with his life. Problem solved. If I had not allowed my character to live his own life, my story would have had a much different, and less significant, ending.
So next time you want to revise, go for it, and think of Monet working in his studio on the masterpiece pictured below. I don't know about you, but I think it turned out just fine.