Tuesday, January 22, 2013


As you may (or may not) know, Vincent Van Gogh was an artist for only ten years. (I know, I know. Take a minute to let that sink in.) He started late for an artist--at about age 27--and died a decade later. Of course he didn't just start right away painting starry nights and work boots to knock your socks off, he first took a lot of time teaching himself to draw and then paint. He read books on drawing, he took classes and he analyzed what other artists were doing and how they were doing it.  Even when he was pretty far along in his career, he kept learning, and using tools that helped him learn. One of the things he used that stopped me in my research tracks (stopped me with delight, I mean) was something called a perspective frame. Here is the Van Gogh museum's description of it, and below, a sketch of it by Vincent himself:

"During a significant part of his career Van Gogh worked using a perspective frame, a centuries-old artistic aid. The frame could be secured to one or two supports at eye level. Van Gogh would view his subject through the frame and on his blank sheet of drawing paper or canvas would sketch the lines that corresponded to the wires and edges of the wooden frame. In this way he was able to make an accurate assessment of the depth of field and the proportions of his chosen subject and to render these correctly onto a flat surface."

So two things about the perspective frame intrigue me. One is that it is a tool to learn while you are doing. What do we who are writers have that does that? More than the writing itself, I mean. (My friend Laurie says each book teaches you how to write that book.) And the second is that it is a tool that frames a scene for you, or helps you frame it, I should say, depending on where you place it. Go, stand up, and look out the closest window. That's a frame into your outside world, isn't it? If you wanted to paint that scene, the window frame (or a single pane if you have a multi-paned window) would help you put things into perspective (even without the wires) and also frame it for you in a way that would help you see it more clearly and, I think, even more beautifully.

Recently on a panel someone asked me why I decide to write something as nonfiction or fiction, as picture book or long-form narrative book.  I answered that usually the project told me itself (Ok, that sounds weird, but you know what I mean) what shape it wanted to be. But that's only half the story. Once I decide on a frame, that helps me write the book. So the first frame is format and length--fiction, nonfiction, picture book, YA book, middle grade, narrative, photobiography, etc. I put my own perspective frame around it, such as in my new book, The Boy Who Loved Math. Making it a picture book ensured that I will had to carefully craft a narrative that fit into 32 (or thank you, Roaring Brook, 40) pages. That limit and the limit of the age level and the frame of a book with illustrations all went a long way into helping me shape the book. Looking through that frame every day helped me see it in a very particular way. That creates the second frame, the story I choose to tell. (With Charles and Emma, it was a love story.) Once I decide on that frame, I have to discard (almost) everything that is outside the frame. What I end up writing is from the perspective of me standing looking out my window into the world of my book. What ends up on cutting room floor is outside the frame.

It's all how you look at things. That is something my parents tried to help me see growing up. That how I looked at the world and at certain things that happened to me would guide me throughout my life. It's all in your perspective of it, they'd say. (Seems they usually said it when I was upset about something!). As I write this, Barack Obama is about to take the oath of office in front of the nation (having already done so in private the day before), and this will have a special meaning for me as a person who likes him, and a different meaning for a person who doesn't. It will probably have a very different and more heightened meaning for someone who is African American, seeing how it is taking place on Martin Luther King Day. If someone writes about that, and helps me see it from his or her perspective, that will make me very happy. (OK, I'm adding this after watching the inauguration. Wow. I couldn't stop crying. And I would like to add that writing that from the perspective of so many of the people who participated would be fascinating: a member of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir; Richard Blanco, the poet; Chuck Schumer; Lamar Alexandar; our President himself.... )

Where was I?

Back to writing:  When I told one great writer friend of mine about the perspective frame, she said that we all need a little help sometimes. Yes, we do. So do children when they are learning to write (and to read). Whether it's a writing prompt or a restriction of some kind (I think restrictions really help in writing) or a genre or a format or a word list even, having a little help is an honorable thing. Hey, if it's good enough for Vincent....

But it's what we do with that help and inside that frame that matters.  Here's what Vincent said about his frame in a letter to his brother Theo:

" The perpendicular and horizontal lines of the frame, together with the diagonals and the cross — or otherwise a grid of squares — provide a clear guide to some of the principal features, so that one can make a drawing with a firm hand, setting out the broad outlines and proportions. Assuming, that is, that one has a feeling for perspective and an understanding of why and how perspective appears to change the direction of lines and the size of masses and planes. Without that, the frame is little or no help, and makes your head spin when you look through it."


Peggy T said...

I love the idea of looking at your subjects through a perspective frame. We all carry one around with us. We just need to appreciate that each one will be different. THanks Deborah.

Deborah Heiligman said...

You're welcome! And sorry, everyone, for the typo in the title earlier. Rubbing sleepies from eyes.

Steve Sheinkin said...

Great point, about needing the frame - a love story, an action-adventure story - and how everything comes into focus once you have it. So simple, but hard to define sometimes. I try to get projects to talk to me, but they don't always cooperate - what's the secret?

Deborah Heiligman said...

Steve, what is the secret of getting projects to talk to you? You mean inanimate objects don't talk to you? Seriously, of all people, I think you have figured out how to find the story!

Steve Sheinkin said...

But that first step, setting up the frame - is it just harder for writers than visual artists? For me it seems to require so much trial and error.

Cheryl Harness said...

So true is the knowledge
We gain, log after college:
There is no shame
In thinking freely within a considered frame
So simple
And yet – it ain't
This business of freedom
Within constraint.

Cheryl Harness said...

that's 'LONG' after college
rubbing sleepies from me eyes
from staying up late, hypnotized,
watching the serious Inaugural frolic
Every 4 years: a civic tonic

Susan Kuklin said...

There's also the proscenium frame in theater, dance, opera, etc. And there's the frame of the camera lens that in some way is eerily similar to Van Gogh's. Nonfiction writers have the built-in frame called "truth."

Then again, "truth" is broad canvas. Interesting, thoughtful conversation. Thanks Deb.