Writing on the Wall

This spring, I moved in to a new apartment. It’s a lovely large home for our growing family, complete with a pretty office space with its very own skylight. Since our previous home was much smaller, I’ve spent the last couple of months furnishing the new rooms, and now I’ve reached a familiar crossroads: furnished house, bare walls. Art is always the last thing to be put in place when I move, but our new apartment with its huge lofted ceilings frankly paralyzes me. It’s the exact same feeling I get when I sit down to write fiction. Big blank page, big blank wall. The pressure. So, in the manner of the overly left-brained, I start the process of deducing the perfect piece of art for over our fireplace mantle. First, I define the size of the art needed based on the size of the problematic wall—it has to be at least two-thirds of the mantle’s width. Second, I grasp at a vague definition of intended style based on the rest of the room (rustic textures and modern lines; neutral with splashes of bright). Third, I comb through every piece of large-scale art I can find online to make sure I’ve seen it all, and I realize too late that most of the art I like is north of $2,000; defining a budget should have been one of my first steps. In the end, I methodically whittle it down to a few perfectly sized and styled pieces of art . . . that I don’t feel a connection with at all. Needless to say, the walls are still bare.

During my epic art search, I came across the work of an artist named Jaz Parkinson from the UK, who dissects famous novels by transcribing their visual “color signatures.” Each time the text evokes a particular color, she adds a line in that hue to a spectrum that becomes the book’s color signature. Perhaps more intellectually interesting to me than they are visually interesting, what’s most striking is that the palettes are not always what you’d expect. The Color Purple has only a sliver of purple in its predominately black-and-white range; and The Road, which readers will recall as being visually bleak, is dramatically punctuated by “glistening peaches” and “iridescent orange fire.”

Many writers are aware of the underlying symbolism and emotional effect that color has—but finding fresh, innovative ways to use color in your scenes can be challenging. Clichés abound. Jaz’s artwork made me wonder about process: Are there novelists who approach their work with a painterly eye, planning to express a scene’s mood with the purposeful aid of color? Would an everyday moment between a man and his adulterous wife feel tenser dressed in a discordant combination of purple and orange? Would the meaning of an old dog’s death be sadder if the moment was shrouded in yellowing light or in washed-out blue? Could writing with a mind to the compositional rules of visual art be a vehicle to help create more satisfying and meaningful settings?

I haven’t tried it, but it’s an exercise I’m going to file away in my writers-block toolkit. Perhaps working up a scene based on a predefined “mood palette” is akin to finding the right painting for your wall by logical deduction—you’ll wind up with a sort of “Franken-scene” that you don’t really love. On the other hand, relying on the inherent power of color might be a new way to approach your big blank page and turn out visceral moments that resonate like works of art.