Writers' other creative outlet: art

Many well-known writers saw painting as a relaxing pastime, in contrast to the hard work of writing.

A fortuitous encounter in college sparked Donald Friedman's fascination with well-known writers who also make art. He came across paintings by D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, which surprised him. He had not imagined that these iconic writers possessed such skills in the visual realm. The discovery set him on a decades-long search for other examples of writers' art. This background enriches his recent book, "The Writer's Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers."

The subject of writers who also paint has been touched on intermittently over the years, in print and in a smattering of exhibitions, but "The Writer's Brush" brings together reproductions of the art alongside passages that show how it fitted into the writer's life.

D.H. Lawrence, as it turned out, was an accomplished painter, and in 1929, 25 of his paintings were exhibited in London – but 13 were removed under obscenity laws. The author of "Sons and Lovers" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover," in order not to have his confiscated paintings burned, agreed not to exhibit them in England again.

Henry Miller was an enthusiastic watercolorist who found painting less laborious than writing. His bright painting of Paris, for example, has a child's exuberance but a mature sense of line and color. Tellingly, he titled a collection of his watercolors "Paint as You Like and Die Happy."

This unbridled spirit permeates a large number of the artworks displayed in the book. "Joy is a continuing theme throughout [the writers'] diaries and letters," says Mr. Friedman. "They all saw painting as an extraordinary pleasure, and they always described it in contrast to writing, which they saw as a misery."

The art falls roughly into four categories: doodles and cartoons meant to entertain; serious painting or sculpture by an accomplished artist who then steered his creativity into writing; character sketches that animate a writer's thought process; and drawings and paintings that served as self-expression, diversion, visual diary, or memory bank. The images range from exalted to bawdy, haunting to humorous, intriguing to macabre.

Friedman took a three-decade detour into a career as a trial lawyer before returning to his first love – writing. For this project, he sent out letters to contemporary writers who also painted or drew. His list of writer-artists eventually ballooned to the 203 whose biographical sketches and art examples are compiled in "The Writer's Brush."

Friedman saw patterns emerge in his study of such a broad swath of writers. Many endured childhood emotional upheaval. Their creativity becomes a tool by which they attempt to distance themselves from the hurt, he says. "It's not that creativity results from the trauma; creativity is more a response to it."

The writers' visual styles often match their written styles. In Edgar Allen Poe's self-portrait, for example, the eyes stare out with the same melancholy that one finds laced throughout his stories.

However, a number of authors produced art that seems wildly at odds with their written work. Friedman describes sitting in the New York Public Library leafing through an envelope of Joseph Conrad sketches. He had imagined seascapes or dark portraits from the author of "Heart of Darkness" and "Lord Jim." What he found instead were dancing girls. On closer examination, he found a pencil notation in which Conrad's wife, Jessie, had attempted to justify her husband's choice of subject: "This little sketch was done by Joseph Conrad in his rooms in Willow Road Victoria in 1896. To show me how the girls for the ballet were engaged."

Some writers felt an instinctive attraction to painting, but were wary of the time required to become proficient in visual art. Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, a British poet and a novelist, lived in Paris in the 1930s when they decided to paint. The two friends realized they could never live up to the standards set by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. They pushed ahead anyway. "They decided to paint with the attitude that they weren't going to deprive themselves of the pleasure because they didn't have the skill," Friedman says.

Winston Churchill "grew into his skill," says Friedman. He continued to improve his painting throughout his political career, receiving instruction from notable artists whom he knew. With the exception of five years during World War II, Churchill painted continuously. The oils became both a respite and source of pride. He offers inspiration to those who come late in life to the making of art. In an article, Churchill wrote: "We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint-box. And for this [sic] Audacity is the only ticket."

For these writers, a paint box or a stick of charcoal provided a more tactile, immediate outlet for expression than they sometimes found in writing. Creativity, which Friedman says they already possessed to a superabundant degree, couldn't be contained in just a single discipline, but oozed out into other forms besides writing.

As readers and thinkers, we are the beneficiaries of such largess.

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