"In oil painting, when two or more pigments of different colors are combined, 'broken colors' occur. Here, for example, is viridian,"she said, and she squeezed a bead onto the palette. "See, it's a bright, pure tone of emerald green. Now, I can create a fake viridian by mixing a blue with a yellow. See? It looks close, doesn't it? But the difference is that it won't reflect the red light waves that makes viridian so fresh. You have to remember that to keep colors luminous and vibrant, it's important not to muddy your palette." (From Broken Colors.)
For many years I was a visual artist exhibiting in museums and galleries, in both the United States and Europe. Over time, random words began to appear on my canvases...then poems...then elaborate fragments of narratives. I started to think more about writing and less about the visual world. Finally, I simply wrote myself off the canvas and onto the lavender quadrille pages of a bright orange-covered notebook. That book was titled Violette's Embrace. It is about the French writer Violette Leduc and is a collage of genres: biography, fiction, and memoir.
My newest book, Broken Colors, is a novel written with a metaphoric paintbrush, or what I call writing from a visual perspective. Writing in this style offered me the opportunity to use my skills as a painter and experiment with vivid color and voluptuous form to create my characters.
Before writing the first draft, I made a psychological and philosophical profile of all my characters, a kind of architecture of their lives. It was the same as making a maquette for a sculpture or a preliminary drawing for a painting. These profiles had an idiosyncratic freedom of movement to them — grand emotional gestures that would eventually be refined and repainted as the book progressed.
Emile Zola said about Edouard Manet: "In beginning a picture, he could never say how it would come out."I started painting/writing the portrait of my primary character, Sophie Marks, at the beginning of her life, not knowing who she would ultimately become until I got to the end. I was surprised, astonished, and sometimes disappointed by her choices.
For Sophie and the other characters to become full-bodied entities, I had to ask questions that were more and more detailed. I had to look for nuances in their emotional lives. I needed to see them, to hear them, even to smell them before I could begin creating the story. Then they started to come alive. Indeed, Sophie moved in with me. For four years she was woven into my life. Every now and then I would sense her perched on my shoulder. She was telling me what to do. Sometimes her imaginary friend, Stella, was on the other shoulder and they would bicker about a decision I had made in the story. The voices helped me to see my characters as three-dimensional people, rather than flat, paper-doll cutouts. Stella, who is blonde and a bit on the voluptuous side, is dressed in a blue and red and yellow flowered dress that buttons down the front and is cinched at the waist. She wears high-heeled ruby-red leather shoes that match her bright red lipstick. Sophie, on the other hand, is a bit too thin, and might wear 1940s flare-legged forest-green pants with a black knit turtleneck sweater. She has a Modigliani face, with dark hair, pulled back in one long braid.
Visualizing the two women helped me understand how important it is to have an intimate relationship with all of one's characters. Depending on the story, one hopes to imagine watching them making love on a grassy hillside in the spring, not worrying about being discovered because their passion is so intense; murdering a human being with their bare hands, and discovering a hidden hideous side of themselves; giving birth in a taxi, the back seat covered with blood and the placenta, and the anxiety of trying to figure out what to do with the cheese-covered newborn on the seat; or eating a croissant with blackberry jam on a terrace under a morning sun, and simply dreaming time away.
Sometimes, if I felt vacant of an emotional description, I would metaphorically climb into bed with one of my characters and ensconce myself in a cocoon of imagination. Once I had a turpentine-smelling dream about a painting Sophie had buried; another time I had a dark and gruesome nightmare about the war; another time, when I was sitting beneath a tree in Central Park, I daydreamed about seeing pinkish-yellow dust motes that sparkled and jitterbugged against the light of a morning sky; once I imagined walking into the Paris studio of Sophie's lover, Luca Bondi, and smelling the strong odor of wood — an unlikely aroma to find in a city; and once...
Like most artists, Sophie and Luca learned to know themselves, both emotionally and artistically, through their visual sense. They naturally experimented with a variety of forms until they found their own perceptual languages. Of course, these forms changed over the years, each change revealing another facet of their beings. For Sophie, geographical location had a significant influence on her art. For instance, at the beginning of her career in England, she would paint and then bury her portraits, petrified about their seeing the light of day. When she lived in the desert, she thought that a part of her sensual self was lost, dried up, ancient. The portraits she painted there were small, jewel-like, reflecting her need to be quiet. But when she moved to the Continent, surrounded by sensual colors and light, she painted the music embracing her, and like an ancient damask silk flower, opened up to love.
The act of placing a brush on a canvas is a physical gesture creating an emotion that is part of a narrative. This gesture is imbued with the same magic as writing down words next to each other, especially if you are writing by hand. The difference for me between the two genres is that I am more intimate with writing and find it more emotionally provocative. I like this. In creating visual work for thirty-some years, I never experienced the same visceral intimacy and immediacy as I do in writing. Painting was more of a physical and intellectual exercise that eventually would weave itself into my consciousness. Writing takes me by the hand and walks with me through the years it takes to make a book.
Now that the book has been published, I have to admit that I miss Sophie and the people in her life. And I still dream about her. She has taken to wearing a cloak of black velvet. The cloak is beautiful; it shimmers when she walks, swings like a bird swooping toward the ground. Although I realize that she is wrapped in approaching death, I continue to count on Sophie to show me the way.
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Michele Zackheim is the author of one previous novel, Violette's Embrace, and one work of nonfiction, Einstein's Daughter: The Search for Lieserl. Before turning to writing, Zackheim worked as a visual artist and has shown in numerous museums and galleries.
Books mentioned in this post