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What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Painting

Tattoo Dragon by Courtney Cantrell (not for Taming Fire)

I know I’ve mentioned this here a few times before, but in case you’re not yet in the know: I oil paint.

My first foray into painting took place in high school, and it involved a less than stellar application of watercolors to paper. (Less than stellar in my opinion, anyway. My teacher seemed oddly pleased with the results.) I didn’t plunge into oils until my last year of college.

I fell in love and haven’t looked back since. I now have close to 100 original oil paintings to my name.

Commissioned Cover Artist? Really

When Aaron first approached me about painting the cover for his fantasy novel Taming Fire, I was skeptical. “I paint for fun,” I explained. “I’ve never undertaken a painting project so ambitious. I’ve never painted something that could be critical to someone else’s financial success.”

Aaron looked me square in the face and replied, “But you’re good. And I think you can do this.”

My dear inklings, if you hadn’t already figured it out, I’ll say it on-record now: I’m a sucker for a compliment on my creativity.

And that’s how I became a commissioned cover artist.

That was about 8 months ago. I finally started painting last December. (You do the math.)

Cloudy Complications

I got as far as the basic black background — and then I got sick and stayed sick for the better part of 10 weeks. I had neither the frame of mind nor the energy with which to paint. The blackened canvas sat and dried and sat and dried, while I tried to recover from the various maladies that had decided to plague me most inconveniently.

As soon as I got back on my feet, it was time to delve into the publishing process of my own Colors of Deception. There were final edits and drafts of back cover copy. There was a major photoshoot and a pickup truck full of dead trees (don’t ask). I was organizing and cooridinating, and the right side of my brain — where I prefer to live — fled the horrors of structure and went into hiding.

Aaron, gracious soul that he is, didn’t nag me. He didn’t push or threaten me with a cattle prod. He wisely waited until a sort of calm had reestablished itself in my life…and then he asked gently, “What about my cover art?”

Okay, right-side-of-brain. Time to emerge from your hiding place and get cracking.

Last week, I painted clouds. And a moon behind the clouds. And moonlight shining on clouds. And a rainstorm on the horizon.

I think it’s been about 4 years since I last painted clouds. I put brush to canvas, dabbed a little, smudged a little — and bolted to my computer to seek out an online tutorial on cloud-painting.

An hour later, I thought, “This isn’t working. This is impossible. I can’t be frantically searching the Internet for every new element of this painting!”

But I felt as though I’d un-learned all of my technique accumulated over the course of 12 years.

I’ve painted in the last year! What the heck was wrong with me???


I didn’t figure out the answer to that question until last night. Around 22:00 (that’s 10:00 p.m. for you non-Europeans 😉 ), I settled in for some cover art painting. I referenced a few pics I’d found online, took a deep breath, and started painting the dragon.

Oh yes. There’s a dragon. Had I not mentioned this? ; )

After a few false starts, I felt my body relaxing into the rhythm of my work. More importantly, I felt my mind relaxing into it. At one point, I leaned back to glance at the clock.

More than an hour had passed, and I hadn’t even noticed. Even better, my night sky now contained the outline of a swooping, wings-spreading, tail-lashing, neck-sinuousing* dragon.

“Huh,” thought I. “I guess this is going to work out after all.”

And that’s when it hit me: The only problem had been me. Ever since Aaron first asked me to paint his cover art, the only obstacle in my path was me. I was standing in my own way — and though Aaron and others tried to reassure me that yes, indeed, I had nothing to fear, I wouldn’t be able to rise above that fear until I recognized that I was the only true hurdle.

Is this still an intimidating project of unusual magnitude? Sure. Does it still make me nervous? You bet. But last night, as I applied blue-black paint to the long curve of the dragon’s neck, I realized that in spite of feeling nervous and intimidated, I wasn’t afraid anymore. I wasn’t subject to fear anymore.

I could trust myself.


Now. Take everything I’ve said here about paint and painting and canvas — and replace it with words and stories and writing. How often do we writers stand in our own way? How often do we look at our habits, our preferences, our conveniences — ourselves — and let it all overwhelm us into shoving a story idea aside and not doing anything with it?

How often do we let our fears keep us from writing what we’re really meant to write?

All the time.

My conclusion is this: Writer, trust yourself. Trust the part of you that was inspired with that story idea in the first place. You envisioned it — that means you have everything you need in order to write it. Muses don’t give us ideas we can’t do anything with.

Get out of your own way. Trust your inspiration, and trust yourself. There is nothing to fear. There be no dragons here.

Except for the ones you dream up yourself.

And that’s WILAWriTWe.

*From Courtney’s Rules for Living: Verbify anything.

2 Responses to “What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Painting”

  1. Joshua Unruh says:

    I hope you’re pleased with yourself. Because you made me write a blog post for Monday and you’ll probably get linked to the follow up on Tuesday. Getting out of my own way inDEED.

    Also, you know I will verbify anything EVER. It’s not just a good idea, it’s something you owe the English language! Or whatever it is we speak now…