Writing, Art and Outlining

Nicholas by Rubens

       Rubens’ son, Nicholas, 1916.

          Elephant by Rembrandt

        Rembrandt’s Elephant, 1637.

I took the opportunity to see an exhibition at the Albertina Gallery in Vienna at the weekend. It is part of the Hofburg Palace and was built during the Hapsburg dynasty. The building itself is beautiful and the exhibitions are varied and interesting. While also viewing an exhibition of black and white landscape photos and an Impressionist exhibition, it was this temporary exhibition of Rubens and Rembrandt which caught my eye and got me thinking about outlining. 

I love art and can happily while away hours in galleries given the opportunity. I have painted a great deal in the past, but setting up a canvas and oils takes time and space so I haven’t painted for a while. These drawings are a collection of 170 pieces of Dutch art and were penned or (penciled) at over a period of time, but in the 1900s, drawing was becoming an art form in its own right, as opposed to being used as a preparation for larger paintings.

Outlining is an important part of the writing process and, as I wandered around the gallery gazing at the drawings, I was struck by the similarities between the two forms: Writing and Art.

Writing and Outlining

Many would argue that writing needs an outline, although not every writer works this way, and that it is an important part of the process of your work. I recently wrote a post on structure and plotting.

Outlining your work can be really helpful and speed up the process of novel writing, avoiding the need for major editing towards the end. An outline is a sketch, if you like, for the finished painting and an image of how your story will hang together, how it will look in the final stages, with its cover.

Art and Outlining

Although these sketches in the exhibition were mixture of both drawings in their entirety and preliminary sketches for a finished painting, I thought about how an outline is needed in both cases. If you look closely as many impressionist paintings, you will see the outline drawn or painted onto the canvas before the layers of oil paints are added with a brush or a pallet knife.

This process is similar to the layering effect of writing a book. You begin with the bare bones and the image in your mind, and then go back and add detail, scene setting, character idiosyncracies, plots twists and, in some cases, flashbacks.

The similarities between outlining in art and writing interweave in a way that clarified the process for me in writing.

Do you outline? If so, what are your methods and do you have a clear idea in your mind of where you are going? Can you see the finished picture?


  1. Jenny Alexander says:

    I sketch in the beginning and ending, so I know roughly where I’m heading, then I take it a chapter at a time. The most painful thing for me is when publishers ask for a few chapters and a synopsis!


    1. fcmalby says:

      I find writing a synopsis one of the most painful parts of the process. It is like condensing a whole orchestra into one instrument. You lose all the sounds and the harmonies. The beginning and the ending are both critical so if you have both then you can focus more on the middle. Taking it a chapter at a time means that you can move things around a little.


      1. Yes, absolutely – and I love the orchestra analogy 🙂


  2. That’s really interesting – you’re right, I think they’re incredibly similar. Personally, I do outline but I don’t like to get too much of the story laid out before I actually start writing it… I guess I like the loosest of sketches! If I’m not being surprised by the story as I go along then I often lose interest! Because of the nature of the way I’m writing the novel I’m working on now, I’ve outlined a lot more thoroughly than usual – I’ve found it helpful but still story points and characters have evolved and changed as I’ve got deeper in to the story. I think that’s just the nature of story development – or the evolution of any piece of art.


    1. fcmalby says:

      I agree with your point that you need to surprise yourself with your writing. If there is no element of mystery then I often lose interest too. If you are not evcited about your writing then the reader is unlikely to be either. Outlining is really important but it is something I have to work on as I am naturally much more spontaneous.


Leave a Reply to beautifulorange Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s