I do not have to be “qualified” to play a Bach fugue on the piano. . . But I cannot play that Bach fugue at all if I do not play the piano daily, if I do not practice my finger exercises. There are equivalents of finger exercises in the writing of books, the painting of portraits, the composing of a song. We do not need to be qualified; the gift is free; and yet we have to pay for it . . . Madeleine L’Engle—Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art
Sometimes I’m so taken with an image or color or reflection on the lake that I wish I could paint, I mean, really paint, like my Instagram friend Uli with her playful bovine beauties and boats with reflections in harbor. I want to capture it and share it, this fleeting wonder that I see.
My first, and only, real painting success was in a Beginning Painting class in college. It was an evening class. I was thirty-two, a mom back to school. We were doing contour drawings. We had a model with porcelain skin and dark hair that parted in the middle and fell heavily over her shoulders. She sat on a wooden table in folds of cream satin, her knees raised and encircled by her arms.
I poised my pencil near the top of my canvas-size sheet of drawing paper. “One continuous line without looking at your paper . . . or lifting your pencil.” Minutes and more minutes pass. When I turn finally to look at my paper, I am astounded to see what I have captured of the woman, her face, and her folds of satin. The result is more than I could have done had I been able to look back and forth from model to paper. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts. It was art. I was so taken with it that I finished it Picasso style with sections of bold color.
When my children were very young, I painted their likenesses on a wooden plaque, inspired by the illustrations of Joan Walsh Anglund in her tiny books. Three chubby-cheeked figures in sweaters and hats, reaching into fat orange pumpkins. I used a toothpick to paint the details on my art-on-wood. Primitive folk art. Then there was the translucent jar of yellow daffodils painted on a small, dark, curved breadboard for a friend who often quoted Whittier, substituting “daffodils” for his “hyacinths.”
“If thou of fortune be bereft, and in thy store there be but left two loaves, sell one, and with the dole, buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.” ―John Greenleaf Whittier
I loved her witty, beautiful soul. With all the lovely things she had in her home, somehow I thought my simple painting was just what she needed. It hung in her laundry room for years and years, so maybe I was right. It was the late 70s-early 80s. Besides wood and acrylics, my mediums were fabric and yarn. Quilted applique designs for pillows and wall hangings, granny dresses for little and big girls, crewel embroidery, patchwork Christmas wreaths and stockings, tree skirts, handmade quilted ornaments. Holly Hobby dolls.
And all these years later I relax with a crocheted afghan project on my lap. The joy has always been in the creative process . . . choosing color, design, texture. Matching the afghan with the style or personality of the recipient. I’m still an artist at heart, decorating my little cabin for each season, as if it were my playhouse. The milk bottle of golden glow in the kitchen window before the chores. The vignette created from vintage books and an old painting, brown bottles and dried weeds on the ledge across from my computer before writing. The candle lighted on the kitchen sill before starting supper. Always the beauty first.
So, while I might dream of painting like Uli, it’s not likely that I will achieve that since I have not learned the fundamentals or “done my finger exercises.” Instead, I will keep trying to capture those images and colors and reflections with my words, a medium in which I have practiced.
Perhaps I will get my acrylics out again, and the set of new brushes, and paint this photo my guy took and edited into art . . . just for the pure joy of it. I’ll call it, “Coneflowers in Fall.” And I can always dream of having one of Uli’s paintings in my home, though it would be hard to choose. (See how my dreams immediately race away with possibility! Uli paints in Switzerland!) I love her cow in the butter yellow coffee cup, “Just a drop of milk, maybe?”—for my cabin kitchen, but the one I can’t get out of my head is the blue boat in harbor, moody sky reflected on the water. “Softly Anchored.” I’ve never seen a blue exactly like that boat.