I occasionally like to reference paintings and other pieces of artwork in my writing. I like the idea of the reader going away from the novel (temporarily, I hope), finding a copy of the picture online or in a book and studying it, nodding as they think of the scene within the book, hopefully picking up on the emotions I feel it evokes.
Quite often I will describe the painting in detail, from the way the light falls to the thickness of oil on canvas. But sometimes it’s nice just to keep it vague — to entice the reader into taking that extra step and, if they aren’t already familiar with the work, Googling it or picking up a book from the library. I’m not sure how successfully I do this, but it’s nice to imagine that the reader is so involved that he/she feels the need to find and study the piece in question.
Whilst outlining my next novel, I found I needed a way to express a husband’s longing and his distance from his wife. Naturally, I have the usual tools in my toolbox. Words. Human behaviour. The simple mannerism that say so much. On top of all this, though, I wanted something more — something that would frame it in a way that another character within the novel, a child, could more easily grasp, on an emotional if not intellectual level.
My first port of call — and, in fact, my only port of call — was my favourite artist, Edward Hopper.
I’ve never exactly been what you might call an art aficionado. I’m by no means an expert. Yes, I can tell a da Vinci from a Dali, and I like to think I can appreciate and understand each equally. But, as the old cliche goes, I do know what I like.
And I like Hopper. I like his use of light. I like the simplicity of his compositions. I like the cinematic quality. But, more than anything, I like the emotions that he manages to evoke — the sense of longing and isolation, boredom, regret, alienation… it’s all there in such dependably understated treatments.
So which painting have I chosen to add a little thematic texture to the novel I’m about to write? Well, there were a number that touched upon the emotions I wanted to communicate, but none quite so successfully as Hotel by a Railroad.
All text © 2009 Gary William Murning