I Took Art Lessons To Write My Book

King of Threadneedle StreetI loved doing research for my new historical, The King of Threadneedle Street. Shameless litte geek that I am, I enjoyed reading about the 19th-century global economy to write my financial genius hero, Andrew Tilmore. Luckily for you, I’m not blogging about that. I’d like to show you how I wrote my artist character, Alysia Villier.

The Death of Sappho by Gustave Moreau (1876)

The Death of Sappho by Gustave Moreau (1876)

I wanted the reader to see the world in light, shadow, color, and shape as an artist does, and really believe Alysia is a gifted artist. I even hijacked borrowed the fantastical and dramatic Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) to be Alysia’s teacher. Historical detail wasn’t enough – I needed to think like an artist. I’d look at a great painting and say something poignant like, “Ooh, pretty.” Clearly, I needed help.

The Arabian Poet by Gustave Moreau (1886) Because everything is frankly better with wings.

The Arabian Poet by Gustave Moreau (1886) Because everything is frankly better with wings.

In middle school I drew cats and unicorns. I thought I was pretty good, until I met my friend Pauline, who is a real artist. I harassed convinced Pauline to give me summer art lessons. She’s a genius. Yes, she taught me how to measure proportion, see negative space, etc., but the way she expresses what’s going on with a piece of art is almost poetry. She explains it so my non-artist brain grasps it.

I needed to tap into this super-artist-Spidey-sense so I could make my character think and talk like this. So I showed up every week to art class and got better at drawing, because Pauline is a genius, remember? Here’s a bit of what I learned in art lessons – the good, the bad, and the ugly from my sketchbook:

 Coco Chanel under an omnilumescent food lamp?

Coco Chanel under an omnilumescent food lamp?

One of my first mistakes was drawing as though light vomits on every surface. It was news to me it doesn’t behave like that. I also didn’t understand there are a million shades of gray in between white and black. On top of that, poor Coco here looks very two-dimensional.

I do have a "thing" for bald guys. rowr.

I do have a “thing” for bald guys. rowr.

I did lots of these studies, trying to understand light sources, reflections, and shadows. And after years of drawing smiley faces, I realized the human head is roughly spherical. Go figure.

This is actually much more difficult than it looks. I might've shed a tear or two in despair...

This is actually much more difficult than it looks. I might’ve shed a tear or two in frustration…

The human eye sees what it wants to see. Well duh, right? It’s very trippy to draw what you think you see, only to find you drew your perception of it. Try drawing a crumpled piece of paper, and you’ll see what I mean. (Pauline made me do this, repeatedly, just to watch me cry, I think.) This mirror-image exercise showed me everything I was doing wrong with proportion. According to Pauline, everything is some variation of a basic shape. Being able to look past a familiar object (a nose) and see its fundamental shape (semi-circles and triangles) is a skill I struggled with and never mastered. Sigh.

*ahem* This is a very scholarly study in proportion.

*ahem* This is a very scholarly study in proportion.

This is the “after” picture. I told you so – Pauline is a genius. Musculature looks weird in 2-D and suspended in motion; the only way to draw it is to assemble it in layers of shapes. I know – artists have all the fun.

I had a terminal case of "soft focus lens"

I had a terminal case of “soft focus lens” before I starting thinking about texture.

At the point I could finally draw a person without accidentally drawing a hedgehog, I was so happy, I figured I’d arrived. It looks pretty good, right? Aside from my persistent trouble with proportion, I hadn’t even started thinking about texture. Pauline didn’t want to hurt my feelings, but she was right to let me know that only photoshopped celebrites lack texture. The problem here: the skin, the eyes, the lips, and especially the hair in this drawing all appear to be made of the same Stepford Wives-ish substance. B-o-r-i-n-g.

Jude Law's "pouty face."

Jude Law’s “pouty face.”

Texture study “after” picture. Skin is oily, and even the prettiest among us have wrinkles and creases. Eyes are wet, lips are bumpy, and hair is reflective.

This is her sad face, actually.

This is her sad face, actually.

Never mind my disappointing regression with texture and proportion caused by adding color, this model had way more character than I gave her. People manipulate facial features to create expression: narrowed eyes, pursed lips, flared nostrils, furrowed brow, clenched jaw, vibrating antennae… (Just checking to see if you’re paying attention.) Those subtle details make the difference between a portrait of a pod person and capturing someone’s personality.

Studying facial expressions

Studying facial expressions

From left to right: exasperation, fondness, forbearance, affronted, shocked.

Studying motion - guitarist & flamenco dancer

Studying motion – guitarist & flamenco dancer

I’m fascinated by motion in art. How do you give the illusion of movement in a static image? I thought it was just a trick with blurry lines. It is, but the more I experimented with texture, the closer I came to creating motion. For parts that are still I tried to use crisp, clear lines, but for the parts that are moving, I used rougher strokes and tried to obscure the boundaries of the shape.

After lots of art lessons...

After lots of art lessons…

Even though I set out to learn enough lingo to make Alysia in The King of Thredneedle Street sound like an artist, studying art did much more than that for me. I know I only scratched the surface, but I gained a new appreciation for art. It was fascinating, learning how composition, perspective, texture, light, and shadow all contribute to a whole that makes the viewer feel something. I enjoy it so much, I’ll probably keep drawing. More scholarly studies in proportion and musculature, for sure.


  1. christicorbett says:

    What a fantastic way to get into your character’s head, and life. Those drawings are AMAZING!!!!!!!!

    I struggle with stick figures and my best thing I draw is a field of daisies…the same exact daisy up and down the margins of my college note taking paper. Sometimes I’d add a butterfly or a bumble bee, and they both would have smiley faces just to make the realism go totally awry…and they always had vibrating antennas (see, I pay attention 🙂 )

    Great post!

    Christi Corbett

  2. Intteresting read

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