Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sketching Dickens

My little sister and my best friend enrolled in the after school art club when we were in elementary school. I cannot recall why I was there, but I am confident it didn’t have anything to do with artistic ability. One of the exercises involved a self portrait. You study yourself in the mirror then sketch your face. I’m not going to lie -- my effort today probably wouldn’t look much better than what I drew twenty whatever years ago.

As it turns out, training your eye to see things differently separates me from the artist. Some of you drawing types can correct me on this, but an artist studies a face. The painter visualizes lines, shadows, perspective and so on until he/she knows how to sketch the contours. An untrained schmuck like me looks at face and ends up with a circle and a couple of dots.

A writer must also train his/her eye to see the world differently. Dickens comes to my mind as someone who paints detailed characters with a sure stroke. For grins, I snared “Great Expectations” from the bookshelf and randomly turned to a chapter. The following passage quotes Dickens’ description of Mr. Wemmick (introductory paragraph of Chapter XXL):

“I found him to be a dry man, rather short in stature, with a square wooden face, whose expression seemed to have been imperfectly chipped out with a dull-edged chisel. There were some marks in it that might have been dimples, if the material had been softer and the instrument finer, but which, as it was, were only dints. <…> He had glittering eyes – small, keen, and black – and thin wide mottled lips.”

I have to think that even Dickens did not naturally see nor describe people in such a manner but what a visual we now have of Mr. Wemmick. In a few broad strokes, Dickens sets out not only Mr. Wemmick’s physical description but the manner of the man himself. An encounter with such a stern fellow sets the chapter’s tone and mood.

The description of Mr. Wemmick contrasts with my natural inclination to describe hair color, eye color, and style of clothes (this is key) all without a thought to how these things personify the character. I don’t recall learning anything in art club, but I am determined to learn from Dickens and others. Sketching a lively fictional character just takes a little training and practice.


  1. I love an interesting character description!

  2. I'd say Sherry (Holmes) Baldwin fits that. She's definitely memorable. Of course, anyone with a ghost for a mother and bird for a grandfather has to be quite a character ...