Part 1: What I Did On My Work Holiday (or, How To Discover Yourself Without Buying a Ferrari, Having An Affair With An Awkwardly Younger Person, and Wearing Trendy Clothing)
I Learned How To Paint.
Well, okay, maybe “learned how to paint” is a bit grandiose. I painted.
When I was a young child, I took a summer art class. It was taught by an artist and animator who worked on a children’s cartoon and I recall (vaguely) that I was horribly uncomfortable in the class, but really enjoyed the encouragement from the instructor to try something new. And try I did: I painted a mountainous landscape with the shadow of a hawk cast upon the mists. It was no Bob Ross — more on him later — and it wasn’t going to win any awards. Until it did. At the tender age of blissfully young, my grand work was entered into a local competition by my parents and managed to carry the day by winning the first prize over a series of more experienced ladies and gentlemen who were less than impressed by this whippersnapper. That was my one moment of visually artist glory. A corduroy and canvas mic drop. My painting career was at an end, with me going out at the highest point of my three month long artistic life.
Flash forward a few decades and I found myself watching my wife Nadya seated at our Sunday afternoon auction barn special desk, amidst her African violets, sketching on her pad of paper. Nadya has drawn some magnificent pencil works in her time, even producing some small commissions of portraits, and I’d been encouraging her to get back on that particular paper horse. I’d mentioned a few times that it might be interesting to see if she’d enjoy painting, to which she’d simply stated that she had never done it and wasn’t convinced she’d be able to achieve anything by doing so. I’d almost given up pestering her about it when she introduced me to Bob Ross via YouTube. If you haven’t heard of Bob Ross, there’s a world of sick pleasure awaiting. Bob’s demeanour is so awkwardly soothing that you begin to allow him into your heart despite all his paintings being, effectively, the same. His technique of wet-on-wet oil painting is extremely simple yet yields very consumable results without challenging the artistic soul. Remembering, perhaps hazily, my moment in the autumn sunlight of my youth with my own imperfect landscape, I bought some paint, some canvases, and a selection of brushes as a surprise for Nadya.
To my pleasure, she took it in the spirit intended: an opportunity for us to experiment with something together. I wanted us to have something to do together where we could just be together and be creative. No expectations of masterpieces or even Bob Ross quality output. We would simply sit at the living room table with a glass of wine (or hot chocolate!) and have a lovely time playing with paints. And so we did. We spent several weekend evenings listening to music (thank you, JAZZ.FM and Mike + The Mechanics, for being great soundtracks to those evenings!) and fumbled with colours, brushes, and our own lack of experience. It was a blast! We’d complete a painting over a two hour period, never returning to that canvas once we’d exhausted our creative urge.
We tried acrylics. Acrylics were great because we could simply wash everything off with water, the paint would dry very rapidly, sometimes frustratingly so, even though I would try to mist my palette to keep it from forming a skin of rubbery colours. My side of the table looked much like my childhood self was still seated there: a mess of colours swirled together and big dollops of paint to create texture on the canvas. Nadya’s side would look carefully orgnized with tiny dabs of neatly mixed colours and very smooth canvas filled with — shall we say — less impressionist subjects. My chaotic, extrapolated view of the world in contrast with Nadya’s structured and precise approach.
We also tried oils. This was where we found the most divergent experiences. I loved oils and their seeming ability to mix more freely on the canvas. What I didn’t love was the multi-week drying period. Nadya seemed to struggle with the medium itself and the less immediate result of building one element and then constructing another over the drying or dried layer. She just seemed to prefer acrylics. I produced several oil paintings during this phase, all but one in my “blue island period” featuring oceans, islands, and shorelines under the night sky. The single exception was of a bean field in bloom which Nadya likes to call my “cabbage field”. We giggle about it, but I feel it exposes her underlying bias for her native Russian diet. Beans are so bourgeois.
What I really learned: I really suck at painting. Not that I expected significantly different results, but don’t we all think to ourselves, “You know, I get it intellectually, so how hard can it be”? That realization could kill a strong creative wind. When the things at which you excel come so much more easily after years of experience, it’s hard to remember that you’re not going to be opening a gallery for your first works of art. Any complex action takes more than just an intellectual understanding or theoretical awareness. The hand must know what it feels like to hold a brush; the sensation of resistance from the canvas; the intricacy of shapes produced by a flowing liquid on a bristled instrument; the frustration of trying to make those colours work together to form what the mind imagines. As with anything, experience is informed by theory to create art of any form. Or technology. Or a romantic dinner.
I learned that it was okay to suck at painting when you’re learning. Learning takes effort. I’d spent a long time learning my trade from a position of experience. This was an opportunity to start from zero (or, almost zero, if you’re willing to count my award-winning-and-artistic-high-bar oh those many years ago!), humble myself, and to savour every second spending time with Nadya doing something new and safe together at the living room table on a winter’s eve.
We still paint from time to time, but don’t look for our works gracing your local gallery — at least during our lifetimes!