I often get asked how on earth I made the transition from Fine Art student to travel writer.
But I have come to realise that the key to creating both beautiful words and beautiful images is learning to look. Much emphasis is placed on the final product – the storyline, the opening paragraph, the composition, the message – but this is all simply the end result of looking properly, thoroughly, without bias or expectation. A storyteller – visual or verbal – must first be an observer.
At art college I signed up for life drawing classes. The temptation is to stare at the vast white page, delicately balancing the charcoal marks, smoothing things out with a putty rubber, forming a leg which bends like a leg should bend, a hand which is clasped like a hand. It’s frustrating work. But during the classes, looking at the page was forbidden. We were to trace a line across it while following the model’s exact outline with our eyes: the curves, the angles, the lumps. There are strange corners on knees, bulgy knuckles, twisty toes, foreshortened forearms. Fingers bend unexpectedly, buttocks flatten across stools. I ache to look at the sooty line that slinks across my page, in painfully slow motion. A balloon of belly fat, a crescent breast. Nipples and navels are strange satellites as I lift my hand from the page and replace it in their assumed location. Nostrils land on necks, one arm hangs limp by a shin.
But when my time is up, when I finally turn my head, what I see is not an abstract mess. It is not in proportion either, but somehow that is irrelevant. The details are there. The black lines are unquestionably human. The hand – always impossible to recreate – is a hand, and the leg curves gracefully into a foot. Expressions are captured, wonkily, Picasso-like, on the side of a face – but what expressions.
I drew not what I thought I should, or what would look attractive or balanced on my white page. I drew, unwittingly, what I saw. I studied the model and her flesh, intently, unwaveringly, to the point of not seeing her as a person but as a composition of light and shade and curves and negative space. And it showed – on my page I have captured her essence. She is there.
Writing is much the same. I can weave words and thumb through my thesaurus, I can write what I think needs to be written – but the only way to really capture a place is to look, without looking away. With so many hours spent in front of a screen it’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to become obsessive about what I am putting on the page – and not what I am actually writing about in the first page.
So I picked up two old sketchbooks. They were not filled in the life drawing studio, but on some of my earliest travels, over ten years ago. Even at the time I was aware of the difference between what I was doing and what the photographers around me were doing. The saw a scene, snapped it, and moved on. But sketching, sitting down for 45 minutes in a single spot, seeing the coil of a window plant, the way a stone step had been polished smooth and saggy in the middle, a tarnished tile stood out from the hundreds around it – I was the one actually seeing the place, and observing the details I needed to truly describe it.
So, as tempting as it is to see 20 things in a day, I need to try and just look at two or three, and evoke their essence on the page. Writing isn’t so different to drawing, after all.