Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The edge of the canvas

with 2 comments

The Mystery of Picasso, Part 2

In my senior year in college, I took a course on studio painting. For a classics major who had no serious aspirations for a career in art, it was a fairly random choice, and I suspect that I may have been motivated by the sense that my undergraduate years were ending with too many avenues left unexplored. I was lucky to get in all: the course was open to perhaps twenty students, and we had to audition by executing a painting on the spot in black and white acrylic. I’ve always been a decent sketcher and amateur artist, so I made the cut, but I quickly discovered that I wasn’t meant to be a painter. At some point, I hit a wall on how much progress I could make, and although my instructor predicted that I could produce respectable work once I managed to break through, it never really happened. (Based on some of my written assignments, he did say I’d make a good art critic, and although that isn’t the way my life ultimately went, I’d like to think that it had some impact on the stories I ended up writing.)

But I enjoyed the class enormously, largely because of the technical and practical insights it afforded. I’d never done much in the way of work with my hands, so I particularly liked the process of stretching canvases. There was a woodshop at the Carpenter Center that we could use to cut stretchers to size, and I loved wielding the table saw and pneumatic nail gun, as well as the pliers and staples that we used to stretch the canvas itself. You have to staple part of it, then pull the rest tight, followed by several applications of thick gesso with repeated strokes of the knife, and my proudest moment was probably when the instructor used my prepared canvas as an example for the other students. (I believe his exact words were: “You can all hate Alec now.”) My experience here—and my subsequent dismantling of a semester’s worth of paintings, which I rolled up and brought with me to New York—later informed the chapter in The Icon Thief in which Ilya takes apart a painting for easier transport. And it also taught me some valuable lessons about the act of creation itself.

The Mystery of Picasso, Part 6

More than anything else, I came away with an understanding of how a painting is a snapshot of a process that takes place in time. I’d already learned much of this from Clouzot’s great movie The Mystery of Picasso, which uses stop-motion photography to show the remarkable evolution of Picasso’s canvases in the studio: figures are added or subtracted, the style moves from representational to expressionistic and back again, and the entire composition is successively destroyed and rebuilt. After a certain point, you realize that one of an artist’s most crucial creative choices is knowing when to stop. A painting can be refined and toyed with indefinitely, and if you’re not satisfied, you can always add another layer. These stages are usually invisible in the finished work, but you can occasionally see them on the edge of the canvas, which stands as a geological record of each stratum of work. For a while, I went through a pretentious phase in which I would check out the edges of the canvases in galleries, and I always felt a quiet satisfaction when I noticed a thin line of cadmium red that hinted at some earlier, hidden chapter in the painting’s history.

And the result has shaped the way I think about literary art as well. At the moment, I’m reworking a novel that I began writing more than seven years ago, and although the current manuscript is pretty tight, you can still catch glimpses of the older, messier version that lurks beneath it, visible even after fifty drafts. What used to be an entire subplot has been condensed to a paragraph; a sentence that had one meaning in the original narrative now plays another role entirely, even as it lingers on as a vestigial remnant of the story that used to be there. I’d like to believe that I see similar traces in the works of other writers: Infinite Jest, for instance, contains lines that feel like artifacts of an earlier draft, one more openly indebted to Pynchon, and you can see a similar form of accretion in the last, unrevised volume of In Search of Lost Time, in which a character said to be dead in one chapter turns up alive in the next. Every work of narrative art is a snapshot, often taken at a time enforced by deadlines, mortality, or artistic exhaustion, and although it presents itself to the viewer as a unified whole, you can often pick out its earlier incarnations just by looking at the edge.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2013 at 8:50 am

2 Responses

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  1. A very enjoyable read. My only complaint is ignoring the opportunity to give the word “palimpsest” some use. Truly appropriate occasions for its invocation are so rare.

    Alex Varanese

    June 26, 2013 at 2:50 pm

  2. Point taken!


    June 27, 2013 at 6:43 am

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