My father was an artist. A commercial advertising artist. I picture him often, standing at his drawing board, a pencil behind his ear, his teeth holding another pencil, while he deftly moved a third pencil over a large sheet of paper. He always had at the ready a putty eraser, but he rarely needed to use it.
Sometimes he’d let me paint rubber cement on a piece of construction paper, so that after the glue was dry I could peel it off and circle it into a ball. Now that was just fun for a kid.
He had few tools: a couple of rulers, some erasers, glue, charcoal pencils, and his thumb for blending and shadowing. His best tool was his practiced eye.
Dad would stand at the board for hours, but to him, it was always sheer joy!
I think of my father especially during the holiday season. Dad was the decorator of the house. Every Christmas tree was a work of art. Every table setting worthy of a magazine feature. He taught me a great deal about structure and form. About how the eye always looks upper left first, then across and down. “Always put your tallest item at the left,” he would advise. “That’s where people first look, so you want to give them something big to look at. And group things in odd numbers. Symmetry is fine for some artists, but imbalance is much more striking.”
I was always too kinetic to learn much else. Standing for hours at a drawing board was well beyond the understanding of my busy legs. It seemed more fun to roll rubber cement in my fingers than to take on the pose of my father at his board.
Nevertheless, my father’s lessons of symmetry and imbalance somehow struck a chord in my mind. I think of that often as I’m writing. A good story rarely seems a study in how characters are copies of one another, but rather how they may differ. Conflict. Differences. Imbalance. That is the magic of story – how characters move from one disruption to another, and how each conflict changes the characters involved. In the end, there may be balance … or symmetry … but often, I notice my characters have unwittingly simulated my father’s visual pattern of left to right – discovering their initial conflict, moving through and across it all, and finally ending up with the smallest and most poignant detail to be revealed at the end of the story.
I think my father would like this year’s Christmas tree. There’s nothing symmetrical about it, but it sure has character!