I am willing to bet that this is the most unusual “how to start to paint” story you have ever heard. If you know of a better one, Please let me know.
But, before I tell you this story, I need to tell you something about myself. I am a totally unexceptional person. Take any area of life that is of importance: Intelligence, talent, wealth, beauty … I have a little bit in each one of those areas, but not too much. So you can walk up to me and challenge me on anything and you will be hard pressed to register a reaction. Perhaps you feel compelled to prove that you are more intelligent than I am. Don’t break a sweat my brother, I am happy to concede with no effort. Or perhaps you suffer from the most modern form of snobbery and you think that you are deeper and more spiritual than I am. “Om Shanti om”, or whatever you deep people like to say, I leave you to your kingdom of deep breathing and lovely tingly feelings- happy to crown you as the supreme queen and wear the beggars clothes in that domain. Perhaps you think you are more fashionable, a better cook, or gulp a better parent. Alas my friend let us not argue, I will even forfeit to you and put it in writing. However, there is one area, one single area of excellence where I am without a doubt the absolute best in the world. That one area is …. stubbornness. Stubbornness is a little bit like having a superpower, only its results are unpredictable. Even I can’t tell what will happen next in my one area of excellence. This story is a cautionary tale, about what happens to the poor soul that naively challenges my one area of excellence.
A few years ago, I had a big dinner party at my house. There were about 20 people there and we were all eating, chatting and enjoying a good time. In the middle of this festive scene I decided to tell people what I think about Emily Carr, the most celebrated visual artist of BC. I said “I don’t think that Emily Carr was all that talented”. In truth, what do I know? I don’t possess any special qualifications to judge such matters, except for what my naked eye can see. My good friend, Alyson who is a therapist, decided to challenge me. Since it is part of Alyson’s job to challenge people on their delusions. I don’t mind being challenged on my delusions. I like my mediocre mixture of delusion with reality. Alyson scoffed and said “Elen! you can’t just say that, surely there must be a reason why her art work is displayed in all those galleries”. I got all excited and began to explain how yes Emily Carr had an exotic life style and yes she lived in the bush with first nation people and yes she had a pet monkey and all those things are very cool. I respect the fact that she was independent and that she wasn’t afraid to cast social conventions and live out her passions. My golly- that picture of Emily Carr with monkey sitting on her shoulder is very cute, I wish I had one of those to post on Facebook. But if you ignore everything else and simply look at her paintings, they are not that great. Alyson laughed at me and said “O Elen, you can’t make statements like that. Surely experts in the field see something in those painting that are noteworthy”. “But Alyson”, I retorted passionately “Just use your eyes, just look at those paintings, what is so special about them?” I demanded from her. The discussion got heated and I could feel my face turning red and Alyson proved to be a formidable debater. In the heat of the moment I said “Anybody can squirt paint on a canvas, my kids can paint, heck probably if I tried even I could paint”. That is when Alyson’s eyes got that special twinkle, she knew that she got me: “You can’t just say that!” she challenged me. “I want to see proof” she demanded.
“Fine I will give you proof”
“I want to see a painting”
“Fine I will make a painting for you”
“Errrr…. for your next birthday. You next birthday gift will be a painting by me.”
“Well! Have you ever painted anything before?”
That is when the teasing began. Everybody at the party started to speculate what I will paint.
“Are you going to paint a bunny?”
“Are you going to paint a flower?”
“Or perhaps you will paint a teddy bear?”
“Ha ha ha, We all demand to see it once you are finished”
My esteemed guests cackled in unison.
I looked across the room and realized that the whole dinner party was laughing at me. I looked at everybody and in my head I said: “I will show you, I will show you all”.
The next morning I woke up and realized that I need to find a way to dislodge the foot that has been inserted into my mouth. How to start to paint? is a question I had to find an answer to quickly. I went to the arts supply store to browse. When the store attendant asked me if he could help me, I was too embarrassed to ask him: “What do I need to buy to make a painting”. As I am sure most people walking into the art supply store have more specific questions. I told him that I was just browsing. I looked around in the store for about an hour, looking at all the different supplies and reading the labels to see what they are for. I considered buying a paint by number set, but then thought that would be considered cheating. Finally, I made my decision. I bought a small canvas, a box of acrylic paints and a set of cheap brushes.
I brought my loot home, placed the canvas on the big purple easel that I got for my children at Kids r Us. I stared at the empty canvas for an hour thinking about what I should paint. How to start to paint? What to start to paint? Bunnies, flowers and teddy bears where out. Then I remembered a performance by a classical Persian dancer I had seen a few weeks earlier. I remembered the Degas painting I saw in Europe who was fond of painting ballerinas. The particular genius of Degas was that when you look at his paintings you can sense the movement. Off course being me, I couldn’t choose something simple for my first painting, like an apple, no no no. I decided I would paint a twirling Persian dancer inspired by a genius. “How hard can it be?” I told myself foolishly.
As I began to paint this, it didn’t occur to me at the time that you are supposed to mix the paints to create different gradients of colors. How to start to paint when you have no clue what to do with the colors? The blue is the primary blue and red is the primary red and so on. It also didn’t occur to me to vary the brush strokes to create different effects. In short, the painting looks like something a 5 year old painted. When I was finished I felt very accomplished. I even signed my name at the bottom like real artists do. It wasn’t anywhere close to Alyson’s birthday, but I couldn’t wait to rub her face in it. So I wrapped my painting as soon as it was dry and went to Alyson’s door. I knocked on her door, when Alyson opened the door, I said: “Alyson, Emily Carr couldn’t paint and neither can I and here is your proof”. Alyson graciously hanged the painting in her dining room where I enjoy to stand at her dinner parties and tell her guests the story of how it came into being. I continued to paint after that because I discovered that painting is an enjoyable activity. Nothing close to Matisse or Van Gogh …. but even Van Gogh with his intense talent and crazy chopping off his ear bit…. even he was not more stubborn than I am.
I turned this “How To Begin To Paint” story into a video. You can watch it here.