Painting Outside the Lines

On remembering how to do fun things for fun, again.

Do things for no reason; go somewhere, and don’t take a picture; make something, and throw it away. Remember that there are important parts of nourishing yourself that do not include anyone else. Success does not always look like awards or perfectly executed presentations — sometimes, it’s Sesame Street themed.
Image courtesy of Unsplash

From Yellow, Plastic Tables to Hardwood School Desks with those Annoyingly Attached Chairs which are also Always for Right-Handed People which seems Exclusivist but that’s a Topic for Another Day, or, Part I

When I was little, we had an “Arts & Crafts” table in my family home. It was Sesame Street themed; its bright yellow plastic surface eternally littered with crayons and construction paper, coloured pencils and glitter, paints and stickers, small plastic scissors and tape — all those things we might possibly have needed to feed our love for colourfully recreating the exciting imagined worlds of our young minds. We sat at that table for hours, colouring and drawing and painting whatever our little hearts desired — horses, princesses, monsters, and superheroes; creating stories and narrating them; giggling at misshapen puppies; and staring in awe at our cousin’s natural talent for drawing the Powerpuff Girls. We did everything and nothing at that small, yellow table — creating for the sake of creation. I adored every minute of it.

Twenty years later, as I have entered my professional life of full-time hours, projects, assignments and grey-scale business-casual attire, inculcated by years of school work and of applications and of Instagramming or Facebook-posting every damn thing that happens for resume-building and/or bragging rights — doing everything for something — I find myself longing, now more than ever, for the colourful freedom of those creative endeavours. Because somehow, somewhere along the line, art had stopped being so fun.

***

Throughout school, I always took art classes: from after-school programs to my chosen elective, it remained part of my daily curriculum. And although art was the most enjoyable class of the day — because Algebra was not, and never will be, as fun as drawing a one-eyed princess with green hair, whom I always named Angelica because I wished I had been named that — it still was a class, just like any other.

Art projects were to be done for a specific purpose, in a particular way, with a definitive endpoint — as a completed assignment, a grade, an extracurricular for my college applications, (a gift for my mother when I was broke, aka my whole life), etc.

By middle school, the Sesame Street table had long-been donated to Goodwill — now, we had a ‘Homework Table’; a long, rectangular pinewood table that was littered with eternally mounting piles of papers, textbooks, and educational “articles” my mother ripped out from magazines about the dangers and realities of drug-use, new laws regarding underage drinking, the “Top Ten Best Extracurriculars Colleges are Looking for”, and so on — (appearing conspicuously on top of our ‘homework piles’ until each of us children had initialled the bottom to prove we had read it, only to be immediately followed by another). My art projects were now enmeshed in the short time between math homework, lab reports, and reading about the benefits of taking on Leadership Roles — none of which involved any princesses, ever.

By the end of high school, the space and creative energy dedicated to practising my art shrunk even further to take the form of a small notebook — carried in my backpack, called upon whenever I had the time or energy to sketch.

From One-Eyed Princesses to Old Men in Cafes who are Cool in their Own Way but Typically Don’t have Green Hair and also Usually Have Two Eyes, or, Part II

By the time I was turning to this ‘abbreviated’ arts and craft table, my approach changed. I had been educated in a variety of techniques for painting, sketching, drawing, shading and capturing. I had learned the importance of productivity, dedication, commitment — and taking on leadership roles.

I had learned that more realistic portraits of old men got better grades than Princess Angelica.

I wanted every work to be perfect. When I picked up my pens or paints, instead of imagining princesses and dragons, I imagined the completed piece before I had even begun. I imagined showing it off on my online profile, giving it as a gift (Hi, Mom), or getting compliments from visitors as it hung on my bedroom walls. I valued it for being something, instead of valuing it for what it could be, and, basically, the “fun” part of art wasn’t very fun, anymore.

Yet, for all my seriousness and ambition, it was never about being a ‘professional’ artist. I still considered art to be a beloved pastime, borne of the small, yellow plastic table covered in graham cracker crumbs and piles of pictures only a mother could love. It was a break from an endless pile of schoolwork, something I liked to do in my free time — because I could tune out the black and white demands of the world around me and retreat into the endless possibilities of my own mind.

Except, my art had become black and white, too.

As I marched my way through a basically endless accumulation of reading and writing assignments (otherwise known as University), and then onto my first ‘real job’, my notebook correlatively filled up more and more with work notes and to-do lists — and less and less with twisted trees or the old man sitting across the cafe, or, really, with any art, at all.

From Occasionally Drawing Old Men in Cafes to Sitting at a Desk All Day — Again — Except this Time the Desk had a Rolly Office Chair which was Nice but Still Nowhere Near my Old Cookie Monster One, or, Part III

My full-time job proved demanding and draining. It seemed like I had finally reached the maximum level of ‘adult’ (God forbid): I was expected to wear grey tones, read silently at my desk, maybe refuel (hello, beer), and then sleep. Every. Day.

But there were — there are — other parts of me, important parts, which this 9–5 lifestyle neglected; the parts of me that had shined at the yellow, plastic table; that had reached for purple glitter to add to the red and green hair of my one-eyed princess because why not; that had giggled when my puppy looked more like a horse because who cares horses are awesome, too; that had stared in open-mouthed awe at my cousin’s super excellent Blossom drawing, which was the best and coolest thing I had ever seen, and way better than mine. The parts of me that loved painting or drawing or colouring for no other reason, no other purpose, than because it was fun.

Unfortunately, I believe these are also the parts of me (perhaps, of a lot of us) that are neglected by the demands of full-time jobs and to-do lists and paying taxes and conforming to social norms, and not wearing superhero costumes to the grocery store and other, serious, adult stuff — until they all but disappear.

(God forbid)

So, I couldn’t let art become just another skill to put on my resume — I couldn’t. It was one of the few outlets I had left that allowed me a possibility to nourish myself in a different way than in my academics or my profession, that reminded me how to paint my life and the world in the colourful and beautiful and childishly invigorating ways that are important to the full spectrum of my health and vitality.

And, unfortunately, spending hours paying painstaking attention to the shaded detail in the minute wrinkles of a black and white portrait of an old man honestly really weren’t cutting it as far as ‘freedom’ and ‘vitality’ went.

From a Yellow, Plastic Sesame Street Table Covered in Paints, to an Old Towel I Stole From a Hotel on the Floor of my Rental Apartment Covered in Paints, Which Doesn’t Sound like an Improvement but it Actually Is, or, Part IV

About three Monday’s ago (which in adult world means could-have-been-yesterday, could-have-been-a-year-ago), after a long day wearing khaki and black, I decided to try something different. I picked up my notebook, flipped past all my to-do lists and legal notes and the occasional old man with a boring number of eyes, and turned to a fresh page.

I turned on some old-school Elton John (not the everyone-in-the-bar-knows-the-words stuff, but the weirder-I-didn’t-Elton-was-so-weird stuff), brought out an old towel that I definitely purchased, and laid it on the bit of bare floor in the corner of my small, rented bedroom. Then, I took out my paints and my brushes, took a deep breath — and let go.

I didn’t think about what it was going to look like. I didn’t think about whether those colours went well together, or what the theme was, or who I might show it to. I chose colours because I wanted to, painted what I wanted, where I wanted because I felt like it. I dipped my brush in tangerines and hot pinks and purples — colours that I rarely used because they weren’t ‘my style’. I drew ugly faces then painted around and over them. I let the music guide my hand. I smeared and swiped and coloured over and around and through; I used my fingers, I went off the page, I made a mess: I painted like a child.

And I ended up with something that would have made Michelangelo and Picasso cry in envy and admiration.

Just kidding: actually, I ended up with an extremely mediocre page of blurred browns– but that’s not the point. The point is, I felt it. Release. The pure, self-unaware, who-cares-I-want-to, childish magic of release.

I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it.

***

Improvement looks like Messy Hands, or, Part V

Today, I don’t have an Arts & Crafts table in my room, and I definitely don’t have a Sesame Street-themed one. But, I do have an old towel covered in paints in the corner. And I have a pile of ugly paintings that I never show anyone, or look at, or do anything with (although, honestly, I suspect the cat may use them as a litter box backup on occasion).

And I still go to work (dressed in khaki-and-black) every day. But, sometimes, I arrive at the office with messy, paint-spattered hands that would fit in perfectly at the yellow, plastic table — and that look pretty damn beautiful against the plain black keyboard of my office desk.