Lockdown is a good time to work from your inner landscape.
|Heart of Darkness #1, monotype and pastel, by Carol L. Douglas|
Today’s exercise is in converting words to images, and the text I’m giving you is the opening paragraphs of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
For your convenience, I’ve made a text file of these opening paragraphs, or you can read the whole novel on Project Gutenberg. This is a complex novel; it’s about madness and sanity, at once a condemnation of colonialism and yet conventional for its time in its racial views.
Conrad was a sailor in the French and British merchant navies, starting at the bottom and working his way up to Captain. He spent three years with a Belgian trading company running the steamer Le Roi des Belges on the Congo River, experiences which formed the basis of Heart of Darkness. Le Roi des Belges was, of course, King Leopold II of Belgium, then operating his infamous Congo Free State. Conrad met and befriended the humanitarian Roger Casement in the Congo. Both men initially thought that colonialism would be good for the Congo; both soon realized their error.
|Heart of Darkness #2, monotype and pastel, by Carol L. Douglas|
The opening scene of Heart of Darkness is serene, contrasting with the choking, awful mystery of the main story. “And this also,” says the narrator, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
A few years ago, I was experimenting with monotyping. I did three iterations of the opening passages of Heart of Darkness. In the end, none of them fully reflected what I thought I felt about sitting in the cockpit of a boat as darkness falls. I was imagining I’d make something more along the lines of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights (1872). Yet I trust my subconscious, and Whistler’s nocturne doesn’t have the undercurrent of destruction that rides at anchor even at the beginning of the book.
How do you paint from a text without training as an illustrator? Read it and follow your feelings, not your rational mind. What about the text fascinates you? Twenty years ago, I was interested in the water and the blue light of dusk; today, I’d probably be more interested in the cast of characters assembled on deck.
|Heart of Darkness #3, monotype and pastel, by Carol L. Douglas|
Once you’ve read the text, without looking at anything else, start to sketch. Make a drawing from your own internal source material: your mind. Don’t worry whether you’re doing a good likeness or not; that can come later. Worry more that you have caught the sensation that the words invoke. Think about the interplay of imagery on the page, and the abstract arrangement of lights and darks. Facts are the least-important part of the process at this point.
When you have a sketch that feels right, you can then assemble some reference material online. Go lightly here. I could not, for example, draw the cockpit of a cruising yawl without looking at pictures of a cruising yawl. But don’t get too dependent on that reference material. Look at it, perhaps sketch it out to memorize it, and then put it away. Be subservient to your original idea, not to photos.
I chose this bit of literature because I like its watery imagery, but you can do this with any written text that strikes your fancy. I did a similar thing with Jerusalemwhile in quarantine in Argentina. The important thing is to find something that resonates with you now, and see where it leads you. I’m interested in seeing the results.