I've always bought homes that were fixer-uppers. While I rely on friends and handy partners to do most of the hard work, I take on the painting and am proud of the walls, ceilings, floors and doors that have been transformed by the slap of my roller and tickle of my paintbrush. I've turned some ugly ducklings into swans in my day, but lately, I've picked up a brush to overhaul something else - me.
For a long time, I've been nursing a restlessness, a quiet yearning. It flares when I'm travelling and makes me feel itchy (no, it's not bed bugs). When I see vineyards in the Douro, a Santorini sunrise or a petit garçon in Paris lugging a baguette as tall as he is, I pull out my camera but what I really long to do is whip out a sketchbook and draw, then paint, what I see. I am a frustrated artist. And, unfortunately, an untalented one.
Artists can draw. Maybe not modern artists, but others can see or imagine something, pick up a pencil or a chunk of charcoal and draw their vision on paper, canvas or caves. People can look at the sketch and distinguish between a horse and an elephant, a fire truck and a fountain. My drawings do not make such distinctions possible, so I had no hope of painting. Or so I thought.
After a trip to Spain with my artistic partner, he dug out his easel, brushes and paints and declared that he was going to paint a picture and needed my help. He chose a postcard of a poster originally painted in 1932 for the Seville Spring Fair of a flamenco dancer in a yellow dress with cascading ruffles and lace. Seville buildings were surrounded by fireworks and stars in a night sky. My job was to paint the background on the almost 6-foot by 4-foot canvas.
We started by stretching primed canvas across the frame and stapling it securely. It was a huge, white question mark of possibility that was both intimidating and challenging. I was instantly nervous looking at the array of paintbrushes and tubes and tubs of acrylic paint. What did I know about any of this?
Partner dearest assured me that the project was meant to be fun, not stressful, and unlike writing (my profession) with its structure and rules, painting was a purely creative process. Uh-huh. It felt like Leonardo da Vinci was trusting me with painting the bits around the Mona Lisa.
He sketched in the dancer, then the background buildings with their varied roof lines and windows. When he was finished, the white canvas was a road map of intersecting lines that looked like the kind of paint-by-numbers project I loved as a child. I was heartened. All I had to do was paint inside the lines with the colours he mixed up for me.
He handed me a palette with a blob of ultramarine paint and told me to choose from among the paintbrushes standing bristle-up in an old coffee can. I used a flat brush to shakily paint the horizon then switched to a fat one. Thinking of Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night, my sky was awash with swirls instead of the straight lines I would normally use for door trim. The high I felt as I washed my brushes was akin to winning a lottery. And, as I found out, addictive.
The "art studio" consisted of a large drop cloth with an easel and a small table overflowing with supplies in one corner of my home office. The next day, I tried to work on an article, but found myself staring at the canvas instead. My sky, so lovingly painted the evening before, looked too bright in daylight. When I mentioned it to my patient partner, he just shrugged. "It's only the first coat. We'll tweak it as we go along." I was flabbergasted. This was nothing like house painting where you pick a colour, put it on and live with it.
When I put down my pen for the day, I was ready to play painting again. While he mixed up the periwinkle for the cathedral walls and tower, I looked at my photos from Spain and was horrified to see that some small tower details were wrong. I quickly changed the pencil lines to make them accurate then picked up my brush.
Hours passed. Only the fact that I was starving made me put down my paintbrush and pick up a pot, a pattern that was repeated many times over the next 12 weeks. I stopped watching television, barely got through my book club selections and spent weekends working on the canvas rather than renovating the bathroom, doing laundry or working on my novel. I was infatuated.
Painting the buildings in muted browns, greys, greens and blues was like constructing a town, house by house. On one, I decided that the windows needed a little something extra, so I altered the lines to give them Moorish arches that echoed the shape of the dancer's arms over her head. She was coming to life under my partner's brush. Her dress, a mass of flouncing lemons and oranges, shimmered and shone against my subtle background. She watched us, smiling softly.
The sky was ultimately slathered with three coats of paint and a wash before it was deemed perfect. Stars glowed thanks to halos smudged on with my finger. I also peppered on vermilion fireworks, a task that occupied a few nights but added a rich spiciness. Dotting on the lace at the end was my only contribution to the dancer. It took partner and me nine hours each to complete the delicate work.
The picture, now hanging in the living room, lights up the space and makes me smile every time I see it. I know I should really get going on painting the hallway upstairs, but I'm itching to start my next masterpiece instead. I may not be an artist, but I do love being a painter.
Brenda McMillan lives in Toronto.
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