I have always wished that I could draw but, as anyone who has played DrawSomething with me can attest, it is not an area in which I am particularly blessed. I have to admit to a certain jealousy of those who are gifted in this arena, and when someone like Andrew McKiernan comes along who is not only is a very talented artist but a damn fine writer, it makes me sick, to be honest! Here, Andrew talks about how his experience as an illustrator has impacted his writing, and gives us some valuable advice about drawing with words.
Painting with Words
I am a writer and an illustrator.
It always seems a bit strange for me to say or type that. Like I should be standing in front of some support group, admitting to something for which I feel unworthy. Ever since I could pick up a crayon, I’ve been drawing. Ever since I could form a letter or a word, I’ve been writing.
And yet, I’ve never felt myself to be especially good at either, and I feel very lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to have some small success at achieving publication in both.
When I was at high school, my art teacher told me I’d never be an artist. I’m fine with that; he was right, my interest has always been in ‘illustration’ rather than ‘art’. Illustration was something that he saw as a lesser discipline, not worthy of his time or effort. To him, it wasn’t really creating anything original. It was just taking the words someone else had produced and giving them visual form. There is a lot about that point of view that I could argue with, but I don’t think that’s what I want to talk about today. Nevertheless, I still feel a modicum of ‘stuff you’ rise up within me whenever I see one of my illustrations in print.
The truth is, illustration is very hard for me. Illustration is a tough gig. There are a so many constraints that you have to work with, not the least being: trying to avoid stepping all over the author’s words. You have to produce something that harmonises with the story. You have to be conscious to not give too much away too early – often, as illustrator, you’ve read ALL of the author’s words, but you have little idea where the illustration might be placed in relation to them. Will I give the story away for the reader if my illustration appears on the cover or on the first page of the story? Often an editor or publisher will want you to illustrate a particular scene or character. Have I captured that scene the way the author saw it when they wrote it? Have I missed a particular detail? Have I added something that wasn’t intended? And then you have to fit all of that into what might be a single panel, constrained to the size of the work being published. Possibly black and white. Possibly colour. And if the editor, or publisher, or author really don’t like what you’ve produced you have to re-work the image or maybe go back and start all over again from scratch.
Sometimes I think being an ‘artist’ might have been easier. To be allowed the creative freedom to produce what I want, in whatever medium I want. That’s a fantasy, I know, because I have friends who are artists. When I see what they go through to turn the creative vision in their minds into something tangible (be it a drawing, a painting or a
sculpture) I’m glad I didn’t try and go down that path. I just don’t have the constitution to put my mind and emotions through all that. At least not when I comes to producing something visual.
I think that’s why I’ve moved somewhat, over the past two years, to concentrate more on writing.
With words I can paint in colours visible to more than just the eye. I can paint with sound, and with smell, and with emotion. I can use words to paint tastes and textures. I’m not confined to a static image, but can construct a scene where the reader feels like they’re standing right there inside it. Only the very best of visual art can accomplish that.
But with words strung into sentences and paragraphs and ultimately stories I feel I can get so much closer to passing on to others the things I see in my mind.
It’s not always a matter of piling on the description either. In fact, that’s rarely the case. When I’m writing, I’m not trying to build up the written equivalent of a photo-realistic image. Instead, I’ve found it always better to use broad brush strokes. It’s more like Impressionism.
As an author you have to trust your readers, and you have to credit them with some degree of imagination, especially if they’ve chosen to read speculative fiction. Too much description can hamper the reader’s ability to use that imagination to the story’s best advantage. And that’s the opposite of what you want.
So, even though I find myself moving away from illustration, I think it has taught me a few lessons about what can make a story come alive.
Firstly, use your words to paint with all the senses; sound, smell, touch and taste as well as the visual.
Next, use broad brush strokes; don’t get bogged down in excessive description.
And finally, and possibly most importantly, trust your reader; respect that they have the intelligence and the imagination to put your words together into characters, scenes and stories that come to life for them.
Remember, you’re not using words to paint a picture on a page. You’re using words to paint a picture in someone else’s mind! Once you understand that, you’ve discovered the greatest tool in the writer’s toolbox… the infinite canvas that is your reader’s imagination.
Andrew J. McKiernan is a writer and illustrator living and working on the Central Coast of NSW. First published in 2007, his stories have since been nominated for multiple Aurealis, Australian Shadows and Ditmar Awards and been reprinted in a number of Year’s Best anthologies.
His illustrations have appeared in, and on the covers of, various books and magazines and he was Art Director of Aurealis Magazine for eight years. He is currently a founding and contributing editor for Thirteen O’Clock: Australian Dark Fiction News & Reviews (www.thirteenoclock.com.au). His latest short story, ‘The Final Degustation of Doctor Ernest Blenheim’ will appear at the end of May in Midnight Echo #7.