Monday Motivation: The apprentice in every genius

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Some people have a kind of preternatural understanding of story structure, an inborn ability to create memorable characters and a clear appreciation of the need for detail, tension and conflict in their narrative. Lucky them.

Most of us are less gifted. Between us and anything half-way decent lie years of trial and error (mostly error); scenes that have to be written and rewritten so often that we come to hate the blasted things; deliberation so self-conscious that, to begin with, everything feels stilted and false.

The greats, in whatever field, stride effortlessly through narratives that appear flawless; paintings in which every brush-stroke is perfectly placed and perfectly executed; concerti of astonishing balance and beauty.

And then we went to see an exhibition of drawings and paintings of the young JMW Turner at The Higgins Art Gallery and Museum in  Bedford just a hop and a skip from our marina.

The exhibition is on a tour of Britain to celebrate the acquisition by Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Turner’s celebrated painting of the city’s High Street.

It is a masterly work of art. It seems to confirm everything we know of artistic genius. The lines are true and clear. The composition is pleasing. The city’s air of light and learning is apparent in, yes, every brushstroke.

So, our case rests. The greats just have it. The rest of us have to learn it.

But hang on a mo. Our guide through the exhibition pointed to the prodigious effort that Turner made in order to master perspective in the first place.   The fact that he spent four years preparing for his inaugural lecture (as professor of perspective at the Royal Academy) – and the fact that he then managed, quite royally, to screw it up.  One member of the hundreds that crowded in to hear the great man expatiate on the theme of mastering perspective said he came away utterly confused.

Well, I suppose all that proves is that he was a terrible communicator. But look at those lines in the Oxford High Street painting! Doesn’t that establish beyond doubt that he had an instinctive understanding of the subject, whatever his shortcomings in the lecture hall?

Well, consider the fact that 30 000 preparatory sketches that Turner made before he committed himself to his architectural studies. That gave him ample opportunity to err – and revise.

Or the fact that, at the age of thirteen and fourteen he was learning the skills of an architectural draughtsman, and later studied under another renowned master of perspective, Thomas Malton.

We can conclude that, Turner, although unquestionably a creative genius, had to apply himself to the underlying skills and techniques of his craft before he could bring off his signature paintings.

So when next you look at some of those astonishing paintings of his later life – Rain, Steam and Speed, The Fighting Tremeraire and dozens of others, remember that he began where we all begin – as an apprentice.

Happy writing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: No resolutions, please. Here’s what to do instead.

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