What screenwriting taught me about expressionist painting - Part One: the artist's search for meaning.

I find it in other art forms: a song or a movie - it takes my breath away - “That,” I say to myself, “is exactly how I feel right now.”  The piece has been able to say something I wasn’t able to express for myself; as if the creator looked directly inside me and spoke on my behalf.  That is the magic of music, poetry and storytelling.

It is this magic I chase after, and have yet to achieve, in my own work.  It should be possible to receive that same emotional validation from a painting. What is it about these songs and movies that I feel is missing from my own works? It’s certainly a host of things concerning truth and connection, but, I believe, it starts with meaning.

As I navigate my way through to genuine expression, I find myself referring back to what I learnt as a screenwriter rather than as an art student.

Incredibly, I was never taught self expression in art class; I was taught to work from inspiration rather than from my soul. I was never encouraged to question why I was attracted to certain sources of inspiration, which would have been the start of the journey to revelation.


In my final year at art school, we were required to give a thirty minute presentation as part of our exam and I chose to talk about filmmaker Oliver Stone.  As my tutors knew very little about this topic, I was given a tutor from the film department as my mentor.  I remember our first meeting very clearly. Not only was it thrilling to visit the film department - and part of me regretted not changing my course to film during my first semester as I’d once explored - but the tutor assumed, as I was an art student, that I’d want to discuss the merits of a visually exciting director, like David Lynch (at which point I recoiled).  No, I had no interest in that.  Oliver Stone was intriguing to me as I learnt that his creative choices came from a deeply personal space; he made JFK because he believed the assassination of President Kennedy led to him having to fight in Vietnam; Wall Street was his alternative reality if Kennedy had lived and ended the Vietnam war.  This deepened my appreciation of those films and his many others. I remember prattling on for over thirty minutes in my final presentation, not about the visuals, but about the meaning.

And yet, I still failed to make the connection with my own work. 

No surprise then, that, upon graduating, I ditched the soulless art and design and moved to meaningful media.

Screenwriting forced me to dig deep inside and examine every creative decision I made. I learnt that the "why" is of prime importance because knowing the why is not only the key to an artist’s work evolving, but also, how she will get through the hard days; the days when the artist loses faith in what they’re doing. The why urges us to keep going, because if I don't tell this story, who will? Maybe no one, and that would be a loss to the world.

Okay, that might sound overly dramatic to you, but many pieces of art (especially relating to film) take years to complete, so the creator needs to have a strong reason to be dedicated. This worked for me as a screenwriter - passionately working on one particularly story for over a decade - but as most single paintings don't require years of dedication, I have left the why question, largely, unexamined and frequently feel the negative consequences.

I've been quite open about my ongoing battles with depression and anxiety. Recent revelations regarding the role anxiety plays in the creative process (courtesy of Dr Eric Maisel's book 'Fearless Creating') have transformed the way I work. I’m progressively taking control of my [work related] anxiety.  More relevant to this discussion however, is Dr Maisel’s other book 'The Van Gogh Blues' where he examines the question of why so many creatives struggle with depression. After counselling many artists through their darkest times, he has come to believe that the reason is due to creative personalities having a particularly intense need for meaning and as life is so often difficult and unfathomable, we are easily thrown off course, losing hope, believing all is pointless!

He says creatives are “caught up in the struggle to make life seem meaningful to them. [They] have trouble maintaining meaning. It is clear that some people grow up doubting and questioning, while the majority don’t. These meaning investigators are prone to meaning crises and consequent depression by virtue of the fact that they find meaning a problem and not a given.”

He goes on to say, “This is why creating is such a crucial activity in the life of a creator: It is one of the ways, and often the most important way, that she manages to make life feel meaningful. Not creating is depressing because she is not making meaning when she is not creating. Creating but falling short in her efforts is also depressing because only insufficient meaning is produced if her products strike her as weak or shallow. Even creating well can be depressing because of the lingering sense that what she is doing is only veneering meaninglessness.”

Oh Dr Maisel, how you know me!

I'm very familiar with this feeling; I can slip in and out of it several times a day. It’s been particularly challenging in recent years, since quitting screenwriting.  Although as a screenwriter I battled with crippling self doubt, [as mentioned above] meaning wasn’t elusive. I believed being a screenwriter was my 'calling', my life's purpose, so turning my back on it was not only a heartbreaking decision, it also caused an identity and existential crisis. I had to rediscover who I was and what I wanted. In the years that followed, I learnt that I hadn't actually changed; that creativity is a fluid thing; being a screenwriter was not my identity and purpose, it was the medium through which I chose to express. It was my ‘mission’ for a while, but my purpose is more connected to my strength and gift, which, I have come to understand, is to encourage others. 

There have been periods in my life when I’ve played to this strength and they have been the most difficult, yet rewarding periods of my life.  In my little world, there are a number of tensions  [a great screenwriting tool that I will return to many times in this blog series], one of which is the war between my understanding that community is good for me and my default position of solitude.

Clearly, in order to encourage others and fulfil my purpose I have to come into contact with people and develop relationships [meaningful ones, obvs]; although I may be good at it, it is a challenge for me.  I’m mindful that in these recent years, I’ve grown more isolated [maybe as a consequence of losing touch with my purpose] and am curious to discover ways to trick myself into changing that!

But one thing at a time.

How can my artwork encourage others?

If I think about the music that has reflected my soul, the list looks like this:

Dan Whitehouse 'Somebody Loves You'

Tom Chaplin 'Hardened Heart' and ‘Still Waiting’

Florence and the Machine ‘Shake it out’

and most of the album 'My Head is an Animal' by Of Monsters and Men  

These artworks appear as notes-to-self; when they were written; the ‘well' songwriter was addressing their unwell self, urging them forward, telling them not to give up, that this feeling is temporary, “as your future self I'm telling you: there is hope”.  They encourage me because they make me feel less alone in my disconnected state. This has to be a place from which I must paint.  If my artwork acts as the bridge between the darkness and the lightness, it will connect with those who need it.

The works of art in film and music are, of course, multifaceted; they draw upon many tools at the artist’s disposal: a voice, a sound, a melody, an image. They are not just one thing, they are many things, covering a period of time. How can a single image, a painting, achieve the same level of storytelling and meaning?

A painter also has many tools in her toolbox. As an expressionist artist I am especially free to use all of them!  Each tool has the power to communicate whatever the artist wishes.

Over a series of works I’ll be using screenwriting techniques for effective storytelling to examine how I might apply them to my expressionist paintings.