Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Improvising with the paintbox

with 2 comments


This morning’s quote of the day comes from the diaries of Paul Klee, the Swiss artist whose career provides one of the most lovable and inspiring examples I know of the life of art. When you look at one of Klee’s more famous paintings, like The Twittering Machine, your first reaction is that, well, a child could paint like that—which is precisely the point. Klee worked very hard to recover the primal sense of form and line that children have intuitively, and he filtered it through a lifetime’s worth of experience in color and composition, until his pictures came to seem like the work of the world’s most precocious four-year-old. And it’s startling to realize how systematically he unlearned and then rediscovered the rules of art. I still remember the first time I saw one of Klee’s early etchings, possibly in the Fogg Museum in Cambridge. At that point, I’d only seen his later work, and I was gobsmacked by how classically refined his early pieces were: like Picasso, Klee could paint like the old masters as a child, but it took him a lifetime to learn to paint as children do, and he knew that the first step is to treat your materials with a childlike sense of possibility. Here’s another of my favorite Klee quotes:

And now an altogether revolutionary discovery: to adapt oneself to the contents of the paintbox is more important than nature and its study. I must some day be able to improvise freely on the chromatic keyboard of the rows of watercolor cups.

This is an extraordinarily suggestive statement, and it’s one that deserves to be unpacked. When I read it, I think first of one of those gorgeous jumbo Crayola boxes with sixty-four colors and the little plastic sharpener in the back. When you’re a kid, that box seems to be bursting with possibilities: you’re almost afraid to touch it, because the look and smell of those pristine crayons is so exciting in itself, and there’s always a sense of loss when the crayons first acquire their blunted tips and, saddest of all, you need to peel away the paper. Ultimately, though, these crayons are meant to be used, and the variety of colors provided—not to mention their names—seem to suggest new subjects in themselves. Desert Sand, Antique Brass, Inch Worm, Caribbean Green, Manatee, Pink Sherbet, Timberwolf: these aren’t descriptive names so much as visual story prompts. They’re practically begging you to draw that manatee. And after you’ve explored Pink Flamingo, Robin Egg Blue, and Banana Mania, you’re naturally drawn to try different combinations, and to cover one page with every color at once.

Cat and Bird by Paul Klee

The funny thing, of course, is that you don’t really need all those colors. One of my fundamental childhood discoveries was that I wasn’t contained by the shades that Crayola provided: with the right touch, you could blend and overlay colors to get new effects, and the result was often more pleasing than what you’d get from the colors in the box. (I was similarly tickled years later, in a college painting class, to discover that mixing blue and orange will give you a beautiful gray.) But that initial set of colors is important as well, because it provides its own self-contained, artificial, readymade universe that you can bring to bear on the wider world around you—especially if you only have the smaller box. That’s what I think Klee means here: the crayon box, or the row of watercolor cups, has its own logic, one that exists both in harmony with and in opposition to the objects you’re trying to represent. You can blend the colors to bring them closer in line to what you see, or, as Klee and other artists of his generation did, you can apply them raw, improvising through the constraints they present, looking for insights through the tones and limitations of the materials themselves.

Writers, and artists of all kinds, can take the same approach. The tools in our paintbox are a little different—words, grammar, the building blocks of story—but like Klee, we’re operating in the zone where the world and the materials meet. It’s important to be able to see the world clearly, both as a whole and in its smallest details, but it’s equally valuable to explore the tools we have for their own sake. In most cases, the paintbox you have won’t encompass the entirety of language and thought, but rather be one that you’ve assembled with a particular project in mind, with a set of ideas, characters, themes that naturally lend themselves to different combinations. A crucial part of creativity lies in improvising with those materials, with one eye on the real world and another on the logic of the paintbox itself, looking for different sequences, combinations, and juxtapositions, striving all the while to expand the range of the tools we use while simultaneously focusing on the essential. The result, if we’re lucky, is something that expresses, to paraphrase Truffaut, an idea of art and an idea of life, and it should take even the artist by surprise. As Klee writes elsewhere: “We construct and keep on constructing, yet intuition is still a good thing.”

Written by nevalalee

November 5, 2013 at 8:45 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Hm. I’m trying to draw a comparison with your description of Klee and decide whether there are writers who, at the peak of their craft, have written like precocious four-year-olds. I can’t think of anyone offhand, but if there aren’t any, I think it’s a style someone ought to pursue. “Kids say the darnedest things,” after all. I’m reminded of the daughter of a friend of mine. Around age five, she asked her mother, “When it’s cloudy and dark outside but it’s not raining, is that real?” Simplicity of grammar and vocabulary, but deep complexity of meaning.

    Sharon Rawlette

    November 5, 2013 at 10:22 am

  2. There are definitely writers and poets who have systematically stripped their style down to the essentials, although maybe not to the extent of trying to write like a four-year-old. James Joyce at the opening of Portrait of the Artist probably came as close as anyone can.


    November 5, 2013 at 11:54 am

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