The word has spread about how great our Drawn To The Page workshops really are – and this month BBC Radio 4 popped into say hello to us at Jerwood Gallery as we explored portraits in the collection and the Chantal Joffe exhibition. They recorded the session and interviewed participating writers as part of an upcoming feature for the Open Book programme in June, which will focus on the relationship between writing and art.
On Saturday we paired Chantal Joffe’s bright, contemporary portraits with portraits by artists in the collection, such as Maggie Hambling, Stanley Spencer and David Bomberg, to explore characters and characterisation, voices and points of view. We began upstairs in the collection galleries, looking at portraits and writing down our thoughts and responses about the people and paintings. Did any particular ‘personalities’ jump out at us? Which portraits spoke to us and why? And which didn’t? Writers wrote down their thoughts as they went round the gallery, also jotting down any voices that did emerge – even in a fragmentary way – from the paintings.
We then talked about what we’d found, about the different ways that the artists used their paint brushes (as opposed to pens) to create characters. We noted how colour, the working of the paint, the settings and spaces within the frame and the objects surrounding people contributed just as much as the faces, bodies, expressions and clothing of the sitter to the over all portrait or – to use a more literary term – portrayal. We also talked about the difference between how the artist might view their sitter – from the outside, and how the subject of the painting might have seen themselves – from the inside.
This all lead on to an extended period of writing. Writers chose the portrait that ‘spoke’ to them most clearly, and were invited to write two short pieces, one in the 3rd person looking at the person objectively as an artist might, the second in the first person as a stream of consciousness portraying the sitter’s thoughts, emotions, memories and feelings about being painted. The portraits proved a great jumping off point for creating characters, exploring point of view and the different emphasis and perspectives 1st and 3rd person offer writers. Approaching the same character from two different perspectives proved really helpful for writers, as they started to experiment with the best point of view from which to reveal a character – they got to grips in a very immediate way with the sorts of choices we all have to make when creating fictional people.
After a short break we headed downstairs to view the series of portraits by Royal Acadamician, Chantal Joffe. Joffe paints powerful portraits, mostly of women and children, which have astonishing insight, integrity and humour. She paints with expressive fluidity, using large brush-strokes to capture personality and a sense of movement. Her work provided a strong contrast to the portraits upstairs and as we once again went round with our notepads and pens, we were again asking the question – who speaks to us, and why? Back together as a group, we discussed Joffe’s style which often distorts bodies and renders faces almost mask-like – did this help or hinder our readings of the people? Did it reveal or hide the identities of the sitters? Opinion was divided on this, but this drew us into a discussion about how we can move beyond the mask. As writers, how can we create characters that have depths, layers, and how can we lead readers into them?
Our final writing exercise of the day encouraged writers to create a character, and take the reader ever deeper into their psyche. Writing from their favourite portrait – writers took their new characters through their paces via a series of short paragraphs or stanzas. Each paragraph was intended to drop readers one layer deeper into the mind and life of their first person narratives. The end result were characters full of depth and complexity – everything a good character should be, a fitting tribute to the humanity and vulnerability of Chantal Joffe’s portraits. As always, participants in the workshop have the opportunity to publish their writing on this blog – so look out for these in the forthcoming weeks.
We have two more Drawn To The Page workshops planned for May and June – so why not come and join us on this project for writers that’s now gaining national recognition? We’ll be at Towner in Eastbourne on Saturday May 30th, looking at landscape photography by Richard Billingham, as well as works from the collection. And on Saturday June 20th we’ll visiting the much anticipated Bridget Riiley Curve Paintings exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. Details of both of these will be up on the Drawn To The Page blog and New Writing South and gallery websites very soon.