Nigel Williams, crime writer, people-watcher and artist, puts us in the picture, as he explains why seeing is an art in itself.
I’m never sure about what to write for my ‘slot’ with the Crime Cymru blog each year. As a writer of fiction, I am no expert in the dark arts of the wordsmith, but if I wrote about fine art, a more enduring passion of mine, then perhaps I could fool more of the people for more of the time into believing that I know what I’m writing about.
To be an expert in anything, it’s said that at least ten-thousands hours must have been devoted to developing a skill. I’ve probably devoted three-times that number of hours to art over fifty-odd years and far more than ten-thousand hours to writing, but truth be told, I still have no real idea of what I’m doing. I’d rather say I’m more ‘comfortable’ with some aspects of writing than I am with others.
I’m a self-confessed people-watcher and, as a result, I like to think I notice things that most other non-writers would not see. My career as a painter has also helped me develop this skill. Indeed, I think being ‘nosey’ is something imbued in people from small communities like the one in which I grew up. As a child, I watched elderly neighbours – Les Dawson-esque matriarchs – leaning on garden fences, fags dangling from corners of mouth, blue-rinsed hair battling nets that Quint could have used in Jaws. Pale-blue or pink Nylon housecoats, proudly worn as the uniforms of the housewife of the time. Pale, meaty arms folded in defence from the whispered gossip they too were spreading faster than Covid. It amused me. It was the Twitter or Facebook of the sixties and, whilst I don’t teach the art of gossip, I learned a lot from those times without realising it. I believe being nosey is a basic instinct, part of our self-defence system. Throughout history, the Church, the Governments and every powerful establishment sought to gather information that would give them an advantage over the masses. So, whilst I don’t teach or even encourage gossip in my art classes, I certainly teach students to ‘see’ rather than just ‘look.’ There’s a huge difference.
To be a good painter of realism, ‘seeing’ is perhaps one of the most undervalued skills. I’ll try to explain my thinking on this.
When we first learn to drive, we are tense, attentive, careful, precise, and always thinking about where the gears are located, watchful for hazards and thinking about what we will do next. As we become more confident, the learnt part of driving is stored in our subconscious mind, and we don’t have to think about the actual process of driving. This is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because the mundane actions are removed from our conscious brain and allows us to think about other things. It’s bad because of that very reason.
Seeing is, I believe, the same. As new-born’s, we view the world with eyes that are keen to explore and learn. But it doesn’t take long before the novelty wears off. We get used to our environment, and although we are looking, we are only processing the essential. We do not ‘see’ everything. Our focus contracts and we miss things because we are just ‘functionally looking’ and not really ‘seeing’. The process has found its way into our subconscious, like driving, unless something triggers a rapid recall back into the conscious part of our brains.
Training students to ‘see’ always takes up the first part of any course I teach. Before a single mark is made, I insist they sit quietly and just absorb everything before them. This applies to still life, portraiture, landscape and anything that requires accuracy or a sense of realism. From a young age, this is something I have always done. I’ve always been a bit odd. If I look at anything or anyone, I tend to trace my eyes around edges, lines, shapes and think about how I would draw them if I had a pencil in hand. I saw things others overlooked. On one occasion as a police officer, I took the report of a stolen coal lorry and followed a trail of tiny pieces of coal for several miles and hours over a mountain to an isolated farm where it was being cut up for scrap. Call me Tonto! This pedantic ability has also found its way into the things I write.
But ‘seeing’ extends beyond the physical ability to visually observe. Blind authors Helen Keller, Haben Girma, John Hull and Jim Knipfel, to name just a few, prove that ‘seeing’ for writers includes any or all of the senses. It’s an ability to absorb situations, environments, to taste, touch, smell, hear or imagine whispered conversations, an inappropriate passing of wind, to sense fear or love. A writer needs to be a big-arsed sponge to soak up anything and everything. A good writer needs to know what to squeeze out and when.
A story is a transaction between the writer and the reader. Too much description can stultify a story and crush the joy for the reader. A good writer teases and tempts but lets the reader complete the transaction. Knowing when to stop is just as important as knowing where to start. And on that note, see you next time.
Nigel Williams writes as Nigel C. Williams with co-writer Arthur Cole and also as Russ Geraghty.
He is a lecturer in Fine Art and holds a Master’s degree in Fine Art.