Usually when I start researching my novels, I hop on the Internet and type keywords into search boxes—an effective but dry process. However, for Painting the Moon, in which a main character is a famous Cotswold artist, much of my research came straight from a real-life source, my 92-year-old grandmother, Della Sandifer.
She’s been painting all her life, since high school. For decades, she’s painted portraits and landscapes as Christmas and birthday presents for her family members. So, early in the research process for Painting the Moon, I had frequent conversations with my grandmother about the basics of oil painting, which I knew nothing about (I wasn’t blessed with that particular creative gene). I would ask her about things like brush techniques, color choices, whitewashes and canvases, etc. But as we talked, we discovered how incredibly similar the painting and writing processes can be.
When my grandmother starts a new project, she first “brainstorms,” starting with the seeds of an idea—a landscape, a flower, a person. She stares at a blank canvas and tries to envision a new creation. Then she does “research,” by flipping through magazines or seeking out photos for subject material. Next, she “outlines” by pencil sketching her design onto the canvas, creating a framework.
And when she’s ready, she begins her “rough draft.” This is the hardest work, the lengthiest part of the process. As she paints, she makes careful, tedious decisions about colors, brush selection, technique. She sees the canvas close up, but then sometimes backs away to get a broader perspective of the piece as a whole, the bigger picture. As she fills in the canvas, bit by bit, she falls back on her own instincts, as well as years of study of other artists, other masters. She has studied her craft. And, like a writer penning a novel, she becomes easily absorbed in another world as she works. Time passes by without her even noticing.
Finally, after hours upon hours of work, when the whole canvas is filled, her last step is to “edit.” She analyzes the canvas with critical eyes, correcting mistakes, brightening or softening the colors, deepening the perspective, adding the finishing touches. She gets the painting to the point of completion, to the point where it’s time to let it go, to let the piece be whatever it’s supposed to be.
Sometimes, she might try and sell one of her canvases. When she approaches a potential buyer, perhaps it’s not the piece the person was looking for. Or maybe it’s too big or too small for the person’s taste. This “rejection” is not a reflection on my grandmother’s work—it’s about the work not being the right fit for that person. But she doesn’t give up. She tries again. And eventually, hopefully, that piece finds its home.
Those research conversations with my grandmother, about the art of painting, became the inspiration for the quotes I wrote at the beginning of each chapter of Painting the Moon, where my main character coaches her niece about art, about life. Because ultimately, as I discussed art with my grandmother, we ended up making direct parallels between art and life, itself. The frustrations and setbacks, the joys and inspirations, the regrets and heartaches, and ultimately, the life lessons learned.
I’m grateful to my grandmother for inspiring me to inject more than “just” art into my novel. She helped me to find the art in my novel, as well.
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