“Show don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to a writer; and this is the case with artists too. Yet sometimes we like to hear an artist explain their method of working. And so the other day I listened to Phyllis Davies, Painter and Textile Artist, as she discussed her art at a presentation to the Association of Midland Artists in Leamington Spa. As she displayed her vibrant wall-hangings, hand-embroidered on digitally printed fabric, she spoke of her feeling for light. Warmth and coolness, sunlight and shadow, these command her attention first of all, and lead her on to consider texture, line, mass, colour and design. The artists I love the most are those for whom the variation of light is where it all begins. A good example of this, from another period, is Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, which has long been one of my favourite artworks. The quality of the light and shadow in this great painting fills me with awe.
Phyllis Davies finds her inspiration in Venice, and her glorious wall-hangings are full of the opulence and brilliance and splendour of that city. She said: “it is always more interesting to look at things through something else.” So as an artist she prefers to view a basilica, a bridge, a church, through a fence. And this reminded me of the exhibition I reviewed a few weeks ago, Lost in Lace at the Birmingham City Art Gallery & Museum. Everything there was defined by spaces and holes and boundaries, even to the point of one artist tying threads round holes in fences.
Another abstract feature stood out in my mind from Phyllis’s presentation: movement and stillness. She represents this through variation of light and colour, and in the viewpoint she takes of Venetian scenes. To me, listening to an artist describe how she works is something that feeds directly into how I feel about creative writing. Movement and stillness translates into pace and tone and mood. Warmth and coolness, sunlight and shadow, all play their parts in a novel, as we consider the effect of positive and negative, high emotional stakes and the subtle passing of information – the art of “showing” and not “telling”. Whether the novel is literary or popular, I still feel that these elements are present, there in the writer’s art.