I’d never had to sit and try to think about exactly what I meant by each thing I was saying, because normally, I had written it. And so honestly, what I tried to do was picture what an actor I admired would do, and I copied that. And that is the absolute truth. I imagined what somebody would do if they were given this part, and then I did all of those things.
Below the original is my attempt to copy Sargent’s painting. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how people learn to paint. I’m starting to think that maybe copying paintings you like is a good way to study other people’s paintings technique while forcing yourself to learn some basic skills along the way. I gather that this is how students learned to paint back in the day, so it seems like a good thing to try in my spare time.
The painting took about an hour to complete, but I feel like I learned a lot in that time. Here are my random notes in case you are interested…
This entire thing is fantastic.
This is so awesome.
So here’s something you don’t hear about a lot — Bob Ross, the famous afro-ed host of The Joy Of Painting, was taught his famous “wet on wet” fast painting technique by a German expatriate painter named Bill Alexander, who, believe it or not, had his own PBS painting show calledThe Magic of Oil Painting, that ran from 1974-1982.
Lethem on art and identity and betrayal:
We are so prone to feeling betrayed by the artist in some way. Because the art does something so extraordinary to us that then we find out some detail. “Oh! He stole that from Willie Dixon.” “Oh! He beat his wife.” “Oh! He picks his nose in public.” “Wait a minute. He made that thing that changed my life. This is incongruent. I don’t like it!” That’s why we get so betrayed by the knowledge of appropriations, because we’re holding art to this very weird standard where it is actually about us. It’s about our own lives.
On T.S. Elliott and art that lets you cite:
T.S. Elliott has this appendix to The Wasteland where there are all these citations. We’ll put aside the fact that probably no one ever bothers to read that. But it’s there. He tried. It’s right there. But if a painter makes a canvas, it does not have room for footnotes on it. And a lot of art, the form doesn’t invite the same kinds of embrace of transparency. The specific gestures just don’t work. So what do you do? There might be follow-up. You could speak in an interview, you could make a gesture. But you know what? Not everyone wants to do that. Not everyone wants to be interviewed about their work at all. They want to just make it. And that’s okay.
On Led Zeppelin and Willie Dixon vs. Paul Simon and Graceland, and the axes of judging appropriation:
There are sort of two primary axes on which we make the individual judgment. One is: degree of transformation and the other is degree of transparency and or citation. In other words, how much do they really make something different out of what they appropriated? And how much did they make it easy to see that there was someone else’s gesture behind their own?
When I was reading this New Atlantis article on self-help, I found mention of Ben Franklin’s ingenious plan for becoming a better writer: imitation, summary, repeated practice. He set up lessons for himself, varying ways of copying from The Spectator…
- One method was picking an essay, summarizing every sentence with a brief “hint”, setting those summaries aside for a while, and then trying to recreate the essays from his own notes. Then he’d compare to the original and see where he came up short.
- Sometimes he’d put these hints on separate sheets, jumble them all up, and set them aside for a few weeks. Then he’d try to re-order them and re-write the essay, and compare his with the original.
- To work on his vocabulary, he transformed the prose stories into poetry, waited a while so the memory was no longer fresh, and then turned them back into prose again.
Dang. Who has time for all that? Basically everyone with discipline: “My time for these exercises and for reading was at night, after work or before it began in the morning, or on Sundays, when I contrived to be in the printing-house alone, evading as much as I could the common attendance on public worship…”
He did this while still a teenager working at the printing shop. Here’s how Franklin tells it in his autobiography:
My father happened to find my [letters] and read them. Without entering into the discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I ow’d to the printing-house), I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remark, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.
About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious. My time for these exercises and for reading was at night, after work or before it began in the morning, or on Sundays, when I contrived to be in the printing-house alone, evading as much as I could the common attendance on public worship which my father used to exact on me when I was under his care, and which indeed I still thought a duty, though I could not, as it seemed to me, afford time to practise it.
What a badass.
Amazing! Bird sounds from the lyre bird – David Attenborough – BBC Wildlife. When the lyre bird sings, it copies other birds like kookaburras, and even human things it hears like camera shutters, car alarms, and chainsaws (!!!).