Aug 6, 2011

What can Edward Hopper teach you about writing?

“No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.”

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is the guy who painted Nighthawks.

His portrayal of lone figures in physical or psychological disarray (sometimes both) is tinged with a mysterious light. It is unsentimental, but not harsh. Melancholy as well, though it stops short of despair.

Hopper’s images possess a voyeuristic quality. The painter’s gaze, and by extension your own, falls upon private moments where a quiet drama is about to unfold. Tension lurks beneath the surface, you tell yourself. The scent of old lacquer hangs in the air and the sun shines on promises broken. Edward Hopper’s world teeters on the brink of exhaustion. Tomorrow’s a new day. Perhaps.

Edward Hopper was born in Upper Nyack, NY. During World Wars I and II, they built submarine chasers there. Nyack was also a station on the Underground Railroad. The satellite view reveals a quiet little place where nothing much seems to happen. Fewer than 7,000 people live there now.

You might say that Hopper’s life was uneventful. There are no wild tales of sky battles or encounters with mysterious creatures in the woods. The fact is, he struggled with inner turmoil, much like you and me. He was forced to work as a freelance illustrator, an occupation he’d come to detest. Long bouts of depression weighed him down. Only at 31 did he sell his first piece, and that was painted over an earlier self-portrait.

He wanted to paint, so he did. Even when he couldn’t lift a hand to make a mark on the canvas, he sat before it. As you do before the blank page, waiting for the floodgates to open.

What can Edward Hopper teach you about writing a novel, poem or play?

“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”

Do you know when you’re expressing yourself? Can you separate your opinion from another’s? What is agreement, and what is following blindly?

For the inner self to speak, you must be willing to listen.

For the inner eye to see, you must be willing to turn from the world and concentrate. Concentrate on something. It doesn’t matter what. The mechanics of internal communication are the same.

The world surrounds you with normalizing pressures. You want to belong, so you make compromises. Belonging is good, unless you surrender to the world entirely. Do that and it floods you with distractions.

“Fun” is no substitute for a real attitude to life. “Fun” is not conscious thought. You can have too much of a good thing: amusement conceals, more than it liberates.

Life happens to you. Art is a choice. It’s not an easy one and you have to renew it every day, every minute. Far easier to un-choose creation.

Art is under no obligation to palliate fear. The question that underlies every great work of art is, Who are you? First the creator asks it of himself or herself, then it is your turn.

So, who are you? What impressions come from within that meet and transform the ones without? When you lay your head down at night and your mind flits from one image to the next, just before sleep, what are those images? What do they say?

“My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impression of nature.”

Art and imitation are sisters.

Yet this is the engine of the new: imitation is never perfect. The imitator adds and modifies. Nothing could be more beneficial – so art grows and evolves. Hopper understood this, which is why he intended to transcribe his intimate impressions. So you manifest the life within, the workings of the mind.

Flaws give rise to new understanding. Struggle leads to conquest. (Sometimes.)

Exactness is a virtue; you lose nothing by employing a method. By careful analysis of your subject matter. Method does not stifle creativity, it fosters creativity. Method and discipline are flowering trees growing toward the light. To the disciplined seeker it is always Spring.

Thematic essay by Jessica Murphy || Interview with Edward Hopper, 1959

Other posts about painters:


What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

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