A year ago was a dark time. The pandemic was just settling in for the long haul and we were all coming to terms with the fact that the promised return to normal would not be days or weeks or months. I’m not sure any of us really believed years, but we sure as heck didn’t know what was coming. The bright days of summer, with their brief abeyance of death and loss, only served to highlight that darkness ahead loomed uncertain and fearful. There were also some things in my personal life – not for sharing on a public forum (reach out if you really want to know – we’re all hanging in there) that left me devastated, fearful and feeling broken.
The great crashing of my personal life happened just before we spent a week at Camp Wilmot, trying to drag some fun and normal out of this hard hard summer. I remember going on a run, knowing that I needed to practice meticulous self-care to make it through all this mostly intact, and the thought suddenly popping into my head that I wished I could draw. And in the gift of time the pandemic reluctantly gave us, maybe this was the right time to learn. I don’t even know where this inspiration arose – was it the slanting of the evening light? A mix of form and beauty that caught my eye? Was I going through a catalog of things I would wish I had done when I looked back on my life? This moment is lost to recall. But I came back and I ordered a book: Learn To Draw in 30 Days.
And I did. I worked my way through the book methodically, gradually convincing myself that basic art was indeed a skill which could be learned by interested (if likely untalented) practitioners. And it was fun. It was so different. Especially early on, I was constantly astonished by what I could do instead of frustrated by what I couldn’t. There were new tools and techniques. My eyes saw things in different ways. And at the end I, previously a creator of the ephemeral, had this lovely *thing* that existed in this world, outside of the binary memory of the cloud or the listening ear of another human. I persisted without me in a way words and music did not.
As I pushed on the edges to discover what about it I liked (shading) and what I hated (erasing), I realized that what I really wanted to do was to capture the majesty of the mountains, the wild things, the natural world which has so long been my great consolation. I bought about a thousand books on how to draw wild things with your pencil, but they missed the color and light – especially the light – that turns a leaf into a graceful flicker. And so in the vastness of my ignorance I thought maybe watercolors would be a good way to draw, but with light. I have always liked to color (my collection of coloring books was extensive BEFORE that was, uh, “cool”), and I had watercolor pens, so that was like the same thing, right?
Once again a vast vista opened in front of me, of what watercolors might be and do and how I might feel if I could capture the light with a brush. Art supplies being expensive, but much cheaper than therapy, I walked tight-masked into art stores, armed with lists from the stack of books I began acquiring, and began the delightful acquisition of color and paper (two long time favorites of mine.)
There were so many things I didn’t understand. For example, every book on watercolors has a color mixing section – eg. two parts Prussian Blue and one part Indian Yellow to make a dark green. But I tried to do it by squeezing the tubes to be 2:1. No one explained that part. (FYI, I am pretty darn sure that’s not how you do it – you take the color on your brush and mix a smaller amount usually, but I’m still not sure.). I didn’t understand that once watercolors in your easel dried, you just rewet them and used them again. I thought the whole thing was rather wildly wasteful in that context (good thing I started with cheap paints!). I still struggle to admit how much of watercolor is water, and how little is color. I learned about masking fluid (and how it can take off sizing). I learned about sizing. I learned about blocking with masking tape. I came to understand why the weight and quality of paper mattered so much.
I learned what gouache is, when and how to use it, how to pronounce and aspire some day to be able to spell it without looking it up. At nights, when my thoughts ran dark and fearful, I’d turn my thoughts to the names of colors – glorious names like Indanthrene Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Veridian and Aureolin. I’d think about Caput Mortuum violet and Venetian Red and how those tubes, innocuous on my particle-board desk, stretched back in time hundreds of years and tied me to a far older tradition. I’d plot out paintings I would do some day when I had the skills. And I would fall asleep in the fearful still dark of the night, instead of spinning over and over.
And I got better. I painted mountains. I painted the northern lights (also a bit of a pandemic obsession). I drew things that I painted. I made terrible paintings. I made bookmarks. I slid paintings into the hundreds of letters I also wrote during this time. I was taught by books (I have learned I like to learn by book). I was taught by online videos. I set up my Instagram feed to be all the amazing art of people who were way better than me. I attempted to compose and create my own scenes.
Perhaps my magnum opus was a painting I did for a friend of her favorite quote. I felt gloriously vindicated and complete in that through a LOT of iterations, I had accomplished something that I was proud of, and that I hoped would speak to her.
And it was such a solace to me. To turn away from words, which felt caught in my throat and dangerous, to this way of speaking to which one could hardly be held accountable, was beautiful. The freedom to be terrible is a glorious liberation. The fierce joy of creating a thing of beauty, or the bubbly humor of creating a disaster, were both panaceas to me. My failures all had a back side that I could use instead. Or they could be cut into bookmarks. Or saved as glorious evidence later of how far I had come.
Things are better now. I am in less desperate need of consolation. The world is spinning back up, and the gaps of time are evaporating, and I don’t think I’ll be on my periodic “one a day” track of watercolors. But I am so, so, so grateful for this time and the gift of this light, and color, and lightness of being.
I actually have an album of many of the paintings and drawings I’ve done. You can see them here!