Natalie Goldberg,
Living Color: A
Writer Paints Her World

(Bantam, 1997)

If for nothing else, buy it for the paintings -- but stay for the words.

"What I recall clearly about the first true painting I ever did was the feeling that night that something real was happening," says Natalie Goldberg in the preface of her book, Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World. And for readers of this book, more about the process of painting on a personal and spiritual level than a primer or a how-to volume, we find that just in the reading, there is also something very real.

Goldberg found fame with her books on writing (and probably her writing itself, though I've never read any of her fiction), and her skill in that arena is self-evident in Living Color's prose. She very accurately portrays the feeling of transcendence and wonder that can be found by losing yourself in a creative endeavor -- and the often disappointing realization later that your result isn't always what it looked like in your head. Her message of doing it anyway is one that should be tattooed on the back of all fledgling artists' hands.

The best thing about this book is not that it's just a great read -- following Goldberg's magical journey through the practice of painting, or her capture of the essence of the moments that lead to a completed work. What I found to be the single most inspiring thing about it is that her work, though full of color and soul, is NOT what most people would consider to be "high art." Most people, in fact, would probably say that her work is childlike and scrawled, out of perspective.

But she does it. And she published it without fear. And she loves it. And therein lies the lesson: keep at it, love what you do, and it doesn't matter what the critics -- internal OR external -- have to say about it.

I would strongly recommend this to parents of teen girls who are "into" artistic expression. The message is a positive one. Anyone else who may be a writer or an artist will probably also find some good in it, as well. Aside from the message, there are some ancillary "tips" for beginning artists that come in handy, but may be too "common sense" for the experienced artist. (However, for the experienced artist, there are also well-crafted stories about the life of a woman living outside her medium, which are amazing and worth the purchase price.)

Another very strong positive about this book is that its illustrations have been kept in full-color. From the vibrant reds to the in-your-face cobalts, you see every color choice and line of Goldberg's work, which adds a depth that black and white illustrations would simply not have done.

From the first chapter, "How I Paint," which is about process and procedure, to "Hanging on to a Hershey Bar," which is a wonderful chapter on how her father influences her painting, Goldberg mixes a small dose of how-to with her stories. Though the stories can stand on their own merit, the inclusion of snippets of information make the book's content useful, as well.

For example, Goldberg is having a conversation with an artist friend and teacher. She complains that another artist had better apples to work with for a still life, and that's why hers look so sad on her canvas. The teacher responds, "No. That's part of an artist's job, to choose what to paint. He recognized those apples. How many people here just eat them?" A good story, yes, but also a loosely-concealed hint: recognize the beauty in your subjects and your painting will reflect it.

As far as I know, this title only comes in paperback. It is well bound, however, and has held up to a month of my occasional reading and frequent flip-throughs well. It's on a great low-gloss, heavy paper that stood up to dog drool, and though it's probably not indestructible, it's a better paperback than most. I'm impressed.

I won't lie and say this is the best eighteen bucks I've ever spent. But I will say that I haven't regretted opening up the wallet to get it, either. It's a great way to escape for an afternoon, and to reconnect for a moment with that part of you that wants to express itself visually, but feels bound and gagged. It's an inspiring, personal view of art from Goldberg's perspective, mixed with stories and lessons and beautifully-colored illustrations.

I wouldn't hesitate to buy it again.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]
Rambles: 8 July 2001

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