A Guide to Historic Art Print Descriptive Writing
by Mal Stylo, Resident American Historic Artist
A "historical art print" (HAP) is a middling rendition of a real or imagined scene from military history, usually the American Civil War. People actually do these for a living!
A very important part of the HAP sales process is a prerelease brochure with a heroic description of the HAP. The brochure stresses the "limited" availability of the particular HAP to the general collecting public and must convince its reader that not to order the subject HAP would be akin to Jefferson's having told Napoleon "No thanks!" on that Louisiana deal. Since the output of artists chronicling the nation's past on acid free paper is prodigious, any wouldbe historic artist absolutely must have a good blurbwriter a skilled practitioner of the art and science called advertising (e.g., "propaganda" in wartime and "lying" during an election).
The blurbwriter uses the brochure to evoke a notion that in exchange for a monetary pittance, usually $125 on up, the buyer is getting a frozen dramatic moment in time (FDMIT) that can be relieved over and over by simply staring at the HAP. The buyer can later sell his HAP/FDMIT at a profit, like old six packs of Billy Beer.
The following general rules can turn anyone with a word processor, a little imagination and no scruples into a HAP descriptive writer. (Note: demand payment in cash, do not accept a copy of the HAP.) If you fit the little bit of imagination and no scruples category, but don't want to be a HAP blurb writer, enter law school or run for political office.
Start Out Describing The Weather If you're recounting Lee evacuating Richmond, try a variation of "It was dark and stormy, the night they dragged ol' Dixie down..."
Throw In a "Probable" Quote This bit of contrived imagery may even give you the title for the HAP. For example, describing any battle, you could say the officers urgently yelled "aim low boys!" The HAP could thus be entitled "AIM LOW BOYS!" This three word imperative fits a vast range of all war's battle scenes; from the Wicked Witch of the West defending her castle against a Munchkin attack to a Civil War episode of men in the rear rank doing... well you know, and the officers not wanting the front rank to get sprinkled.
Give Any Famous Animal A Superhuman Intuition and the Ability to Communicate "General Grant's pet hamster, 'Grapeshot,' sensed the end was near and trilled sharply as the Union army camped near Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. The General slowly turned to Colonel Ely Parker, a full blooded Native American and said "Grapeshot says Lee will surrender today, Sir!" (Note the politically correct inclusion of an historical fact about the contribution of an ethnic group to the war effort.)
Extol The Fame Of The Artist Note the artist's commitment to recording the Civil War an idea that has never occurred to anyone else! Something like this is good: "Mike Angelo is America's premier resident military artist, who feels the passions and sees the carnage of the War Between the States as vividly today as Lee, Grant, etc., did then. The War is real to him and that reality is frozen in every print of 'Aim Low, Boys!'"
Describe the Military Gear Every HAP worth its $125onup asking price has painstakingly done renditions of enough pieces of military gear to supply 200,000 men. "Gen'l Forrest looked at the US model 1860 light cavalry saber manufactured by Ames at Chicopee, Mass. He took a swig of water from one of the dozens of federal model 1858 smooth side canteens scattered about as he noted the inspector's mark on its pewter spout. He was fustest with the mostest again and would takest the loot from his victory."
Remember to Write, "They were fighting for what they believed in." This is important since it grants justification to anybody fighting for anything. "They were fighting for what they believed in" works if one doesn't think too much about the consequences to American or world history of a Confederate victory.
Include A Free Bad Poem As I said, many people are in the HAP business today. You as a writer have to give your artist an edge a poem. It really doesn't have to be bad - but I've never read a good one. I therefore surmise that there is a rule in play here. The poem must rhyme and be rather simple in meter. One example I read rhymed "lead' em" with "Antietam." It is of course irrelevant that the HAP had a Confederate theme and South called Antietam "Sharpsburg." But if you can't bring yourself to purposely mutilate the English language and history simultaneously, make your poem "thoughtful." A sample of a really bad poem is included below:
Glancing carefully at Stonewall's map
as her beloved general snoozed under his cap,
Little Sorrel had a suspicion
of a major weakness in the Yankee position!
"Our soldiers around their flanks could creep.
And if our move a secret we keep,
Ol' Jack could close in for the kill
at a battle folks will call Chancellorsville!"
Hint the HAP May Increase in Value Maybe it will, but all of us should live so long. The truth is, one can buy less expensive, already framed, better original paintings at the "Starving Artists Sales" held at major local motels and shopping malls.
Putting It All Together Remember HAP blurb writing is unfettered by the rules of writing style. So don't fret about runon sentences or even logical sentence construction! Just write to grab and hold their attention; something like this:
The day was as hot and sultry as a fiery, breathless senorita waiting for her caballero. Little Sorrel, Jackson's faithful warhorse, knew a flank march now could catch Hooker's yankees off guard. The fourlegged warrior communicated this to Mighty Stonewall by her continuous tugs to the left and by grabbing the regimental flag in her mouth in a gesture that said to all who saw it "Follow me, you brave Johnnies!"
"Remember to aim low boys," the officers yelled to grizzled graybacks who grumbled as they grimly gazed at the green grass. Strewn about were model 1855 cartridge boxes with "Made in Pakistan" and other marks plainly visible. Other stuff like canteens and hats, a shoe, some bayonets, and such, were strewn all over the place, too.
The moment of Old Jack's flank ride ("The Men Marched") is vividly committed to acid free paper by Mike Angelo, America's foremost recognized, acknowledged, true premier military artist and a man who still feels the stomach wrenching emotion of a nation torn asunder by different interpretations of Constitutional law, but reunited by unity.
You've gotten my helpful hints - now go out and make a killing! (Artistically speaking, that is.)