The other day I got nervous that I had lost something important to me. I pulled out boxes of old journals and began flipping the pages in search of a few sheets of faded blue-lined paper tucked near a spine. During the process of dumping over boxes and peering between covers, I found a number of writings I should burn immediately. But that was a mission for another time.
Eventually I found what I was looking for: instructions my aunt Carol wrote me 15 years ago about how to paint when you don’t know how. She was an artist who focused on painting and glasswork. She died in her studio when I was a freshman in college. We flew to D.C. for the funeral, but the only thing I really remember is pulling up to her brownstone that was really white, and going into the basement that was stocked with paintings of flowers. Her husband urged us to tag the canvases we wanted. But I felt strange claiming her work. He just seemed so lost.
I likely romanticize some aspects of her life and the past because that is what happens when someone passes away who you don’t know very well but kind of wish you did.
The instructions came with the last gift Carol ever gave me – a set of oil paints, canvases, palette, palette knife, and brushes. Over the course of six pages she laid out exactly what I would need to do to begin. Step one was acquiring some old newspapers and jars, turpentine, work clothes, and a little space in the basement. I needed room to make a mess.
Carol then explained what each item was for and how to use it. She diagrammed how she arranged her palette with colors, followed by a description of how to blend the paints and apply them to a canvas. Carol was informative but not prescriptive. She made one thing clear: the paints were mine to experiment with.
“The key is to have fun with it. Play with it – be loose with it – get used to how the paint feels – how the brushes feel – the texture the different lines and effects you can make,” she wrote. “Try all the possibilities – add a little more white or more yellow whatever – do it in little bits – discard and start again if you make mud – it’s easy to make mud. You’ll get to know the paints and they all have different qualities.”
The last page was all about how to save leftover paint and her preferred way of cleaning brushes. And that was it. No suggestions on what to try first. No closing, no good luck. Just space on a half empty page. I was responsible for the rest.
I reread her notes, and then tucked them away in the binding of another journal. I haven’t painted in more than a decade. And I never did learn how the different paints moved across the canvas. I just didn’t had a vision for them.
There were definitely a few nights in high school when I couldn’t sleep and I found myself with nothing to do but mix colors on the floor. But the only thing I produced was a not quite finished sky. And lots of mud. Eventually the tubes of paint were stacked in the corner until I went to college. And then they disappeared.
On a whim last month I purchased some blank postcards and watercolors. I think I recognized I need to figure out how to start with blank space and make something of it. And even though painting with watercolor is different from oils, I needed guidance on how to approach something new. Carol’s instructions were simple – put everything out there, use what you have, and see what it can do. (And lay some newspaper down so you don’t stain the carpet this time.)
These next few months nothing and nowhere is certain. D has a job interview in Austin in three weeks, I keep wondering when or if I am ever going to be on Eastern Standard Time again, and our landlord just put our house on the market. A big red for sale sign was planted on the front lawn this weekend. It blew off in a windstorm and I found it on the sidewalk today on my way home from work. I leaned it against the post before heading to the backyard to check the garden. Yesterday was near 60 and I was sipping on Lillet in the sun. Snow is expected tonight.
I inspected the beds and found only the kale has pushed through the topsoil. I don’t know what is happening with the peas. I will give them a few more days before I start rooting around in their box looking for proof of life. Something tells me they just need a little heat. Before bed I pulled a tarp across the rows of kale and secured it with bricks along the edges to give the seedlings a chance against the freeze. Tomorrow I will have to see what comes.