Painting Your Way

Starting from Art: Painting Your Way to a Story

Dec. 7, 2016

Focus is essential in our increasingly busy lives and media-crowded minds. Sometimes our brains get short-circuited by too much everything, and when that happens, I quiet the competing attentions of my mind by turning to a painting or a photograph – some kind of visual inspiration, and use it to start a story. What I love about this exercise is that looking at art often prompts me to explore a new story idea I might never have come up with on my own.

So for this week’s exercise, we are going to use a painting as the springboard for starting a new story. I like to start with a painting that has some element of mystery and tension—both great elements for writers—so for today, we’ll use Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Gauguin’s Chair.

First, I’ll tell you a little about the painting— and be forewarned, this is what little I know. Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin started off great friends— they were even roommates, and rented a house that doubled as a studio space in which both painters worked. Like many artists, they had powerful personalities, and strong opinions. Ultimately, they quarreled and Gauguin left the studio in fury, vowing never to speak to Van Gogh again. Van Gogh missed Gauguin, and — perhaps — regretted losing him. AS a way of working through that loneliness, Van Gogh painted Gauguin’s empty chair in an attempt to capture what was lost between them:

Now that you know this anecdote, forget the story.

What I’d like you to do is to reimagine the story of the painting entirely. So we are going to focus on looking, imagining, and do a little bit of writing to see if you can generate a new story by improvising on cues and ideas that you take from the painting.

For this exercise you need:

    • The painting, Gauguin’s Chair
    • Something to write longhand with—pen, pencil, notebook or journal.
    • A timer or stopwatch, unless you wish to take your time.
    • Allow yourself five minutes for each prompt.

Prompt 1:
The best writers look deeply, and look long, and linger on details in stories- much like great painters. In his poem “Let Me Tell You” the poet Miller Williams encourages writers to “notice everything.” Please spend five minutes noticing everything about this painting. You can make a list, you can write sentences, the only rule for the free write is that your pen must keep moving- no stopping. You will get tired and have to look deeper-that’s the point in spending five full minutes. Go!

Prompt 2:
We are going to take the list and turn it into a 5-minute free write. For this portion of the exercise, write whatever you wish. Drain your brain of all distractions of daily life. Finish your grocery list if you must, but keep pulling yourself back to look at the painting and move towards starting to tell a story. Give Gauguin’s Chair a persona, give it an antisocial or comic personality if you wish, explain what you like or don’t like about the chair- but keep the pen moving. No stopping.

Prompt 3:
Now, let’s begin to inhabit this painting. We have a character- Gauguin- and he has a name. However, you are now free to make your character whomever you wish. Rename him- or her. Be liberal and free and inventive- write a few sentences about this character. Who sits in this chair? Why has the chair been left vacant? This is where you move beyond reporting on what you see and move into an imaginative reading and re-telling of the story of this painting. Who is this character?

Prompt 4:
Describe the setting this character inhabits, focusing on sensory details. What is Gauguin’s world? Be inventive. You can set this on another planet, in a dystopian post-apocalyptic seaside town, in the 1930’s, wherever your imagination leads you. Take as many liberties as you wish- you are, after all, the writer. You are now rendering the world of this painting with your words. Let us know what the elements of Gauguin’s world sound, smell, feel, taste, and look like.

Prompt 5:
Shift your focus to point of view. There is another character involved in Gauguin’s Chair, after all—the viewer. Point of view is very powerful, and it changes everything. Choose a point of view. Who is watching this chair? What are the viewer’s intentions? Is the viewer the narrator? Is the viewer an omniscient, third-person? Is the viewer a relative, close friend, romantic partner or the family dog? Tell us what motivates that point of view- why is she/he/it watching the chair? What emotions are loaded in that gaze?

Prompt 6:
Reveal the conflict between your Gauguin and another character in the story. Explain to your reader why the chair is empty. What has happened? What on earth has gone wrong? Find a hurt, a joy, a disappointment for these two characters you’ve created, and prepare to reveal it through dialogue and scene.

Prompt 7:
Spend about five minutes time-traveling so that you can tell us the story of this empty chair. Either flash back- tell us a backstory between the two characters you are working with- or flash forward- and tell us something about the future that these two characters don’t yet know.

Now you’re on your way to writing a story. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at And as always, if you write something terrific, send it in and we’ll consider it for publication in Bridge: The Bluffton Literary Journal.

Happy writing!

Jamie Lyn