I don’t often write about the painting. To be fair, these days, I don’t do it often… and definitely not often enough. There is something entirely sensual about the smell of oils and the feel of canvas beneath the brush… something I love…though nine times out of ten I will end up painting with my hands instead. It gets personal. Today, while the electricity has been off and the workmen in, I lost myself in the multihued fairy dust of pastels, working on the design for a private commission.
I grew up with the smell of linseed, copal varnish and turpentine. My grandfather was an artist… a painter and sculptor. It is a sadness that I neither have any of his work, nor any pictures of it. I remember, vividly, the pieces that dotted both his and his parents’ home; murals of a Puckish creature in the bedrooms, bronze masks on the walls… a solar lion over water… utterly Art Deco… that hung in great grandma’s parlour. That was the maquette for a larger, municipal piece, on a building now demolished. And then there were the portraits of both my mother and I as girls.
Most of all I remember the huge mural of Isis enthroned amidst the waters that was on the high wall above the stairs. This too was in a minimal, modern style of clean lines. Today I would ask him if he had taken his inspiration from Dion Fortune’s ‘Sea Priestess’… and would ask if the veiled figure in the painting were more Binah than Isis. As a child I simply loved the shadowy features and the calm, powerful presence she exuded.
One of my very earliest memories is of my mother painting. She could not, I learned later, redecorate the tiny bedroom that was mine in the married quarters in Kent, so she painted Disney characters and pinned them to the walls instead, covering my room in magic. I have never known anyone able to reproduce the Disney style without copying quite as well as my mother could. Somehow, she captured the spirit of wonder. Some years later she painted them again… the bathroom became Sleepy Hollow, with characters in soap bubbles and a walrus over the bath.
Then the boys wondered why I felt the need to paint a seven foot mermaid on the bathroom walls when we moved to a new home. It was simple really… I couldn’t afford to redecorate properly and the previous occupants had left the place a bit of a mess. Oil paints go a long way and seven foot of mermaid barely dented my supplies. She stayed until they became self-conscious about being watched in the shower…
I had always doodled, but had never been good with realism or colour… the world did not look the way I ‘felt’ it and I could never get things to look right. I abandoned my attempts and settled for covering every address book I ever had in miniature drawings, wishing I could actually draw. At least, draw anything other than the fashion designs I couldn’t sew. They did get me my first real job though, when the owner of the company asked what I, a sixteen year old girl with no experience and no hope of a driving licence for a couple of years could offer, when the advert had specified male, 21+, experienced and a driver. I asked him to pass me a pen and paper. I became a window dresser, with a display of confidence I had never felt and a bit of cheek.
I was in my late twenties when I accidentally drew something worth looking at, scrawled with a pen on lined paper while I daydreamed. No-one was more surprised than I. I started drawing a lot more… trying to capture at least the essence of the ideas I would have liked to paint. It didn’t even occur to me to try.
It wasn’t until I was in my late thirties before a friend.. a nurse… gave me a set of oils and canvas for my birthday with instructions to have a go. It provided a way of escape from a house I never left during my partner’s final illness and it kept me sane. The canvases piled up and my son suggested I take them to the school fete to sell. He nagged… young children do not see the insecurities of parents… and finally I gave in, feeling both timorous and audacious. They weren’t exactly great works of art. I was a beginner. Yet they sold.
Then I was actually asked to paint…a proper commission and it escalated from there; emotions, fantasies and dreams smeared on canvas and walls, and some of the commissions were bigger than I could have dared dream. Especially knowing all too well how much technique I lacked and acutely conscious of the holes in both skill and talent. Even so, it appeared to be going somewhere. My confidence grew.
One of my proudest moments was when my son came home for the weekend and asked if he could take one of my paintings away with him, because he really liked it. A few weeks later, the painting was on his locker in the hospital ward as we waited to see if he would wake from the coma. Painting took a back seat. Private commissions continued from time to time, but I no longer moved in a world that smelled of turpentine.
Instead I taught the youngsters that passed through my home. Many of them were troubled in one way or another… it seems many of our children are these days… and the drug culture is rife. We would set up canvases side by side and I would show them how to make a painting they could be proud of in a single session. Something they could take home and with which they could surprise and delight their parents. And I watched as their shoulders straightened. But teaching them, I learned far more than I taught, which is perhaps how it should be.
In explaining techniques I learned to understand them, even if their execution is still far from perfect. I learned how being given the chance to shine for a moment can change a young life by building a sense of self-worth and belief in their own possibilities. And I learned what makes the difference for me between just making a painting and art. It is all about soul and what is poured onto a canvas, filling it with a light and colour that reflects what is in the inner heart.
Of all the lucky breaks I had with painting, this was the one that meant the most to me and the one from which my own confidence grew. It is, I think, often the way that when we give without seeking, something grows in the soul. What I lacked in skill and technique no longer mattered. The canvas, I began to understand, like the page, is my domain… my imagination can run riot and I can dream in paint a world coloured the way I feel it. Like a child.