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The Artist as a Reader

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

My earliest memories as a reader take me back to a one room library. Our small town did not have a formal library yet in the late 1970's. Instead, we had a tiny building that housed rows of books up to its ceiling. It was nestled by the railroad tracks and shook when the train passed. I had the privilege of spending many afternoons there because my mother volunteered to check out and shelve books.

At 7 or 8 years old, I began reading some of the musty classics on the shelves. I particularly liked Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. The books gave me the ability to live vicariously in settings very different from my own surroundings. Through reading, I rehearsed and prepared for situations that might occur in my own life. Reading also fine tuned my visual imagination. It gave me the ability to see images in my mind's eye.

As an artist, seeing and imagining possibilities is a key aspect of creativity. Reading poetry helps me visualize colors that represent emotions. Sometimes, it's the words that are left out that stretch my visualization the most. When I was a teacher, my favorite project for my students was illustrating poetry. They invariably used grays, blacks and blues for Robert Frost's Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, even though those colors are not mentioned in the poem. The ability to envision what a color, line or shape will look like in a painting, while the paper is still blank, is an artist's skill that reading enhances.

A friend of mine says he doesn't like to prioritize reading because it takes away time from creating his own art. For me, it is reading that influences and enables my creations. Reading provides insight to different ways of being and thinking. Literary fiction helps me to build empathy and gain an understanding about how others see the world. This in turn, helps me to step outside of myself and view my work through the eyes of others. Books also provide inspiration for the subjects and themes in my work. Reading puts me in touch with moods and emotions that help to intensify my art.

If you're an artist struggling through a painter's block (and, yes, we all do), reading can be a remedy. A good book will evoke images and emotions. You can use these as a springboard for your art. Books are filled with ideas about the way others find joy. I remember reading Kyo McClear's Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation and becoming inspired to draw birds. After reading Susan Orlean's, The Orchid Thief, I wanted to paint every orchid I could find. Now I'm working on a series of paintings based on my favorite book characters. You never know where reading will lead your creativity.

By the way, my friend who doesn't want to take time away from art, recently discovered the efficiency and fun of listening to books while painting.

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