A NU START
On beginning again (and again), art as a form of self-improvement, immortality, and cats.
When you’ve been painting for a stretch of time, something odd can happen.
Lift your attention from the canvas, and the world appears as if made of paint, impossibly bright and detailed. Nip out to get some groceries at night and the streets are a dappled mix of brushstrokes and tones; a light fan brush-stroke here, a dark dry-brush scratch just so. Clouds, trees, grass, houses, the sky; for a time, until the effect fades, you are living in a landscape by Matisse or Van Gogh or Bob Ross. It’s not too far off this scene in the Vincent Ward film What Dreams May Come.
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In my experience, it’s worth taking up painting just to experience it.
This mild hallucination, which frequently persists into dreams, is called the Tetris Effect, although as my painting experience shows it can appear in more forms than just video games. I’ve been experiencing it a lot lately, because I’ve been painting up a storm.
Which brings me to our cat.
My then-girlfriend (now wife) and I fostered Bianca for the SPCA, and in the process saved her from a cat flu epidemic that swept the shelter. After that we couldn’t give her up. She’s been with us for almost 15 years. This long ago:
This is her last month.
Bianca has had arthritis for a while now, and a mini-stroke several years back, but she’s stayed strong and happy throughout. A week ago we noticed she was looking straggly. This was odd, as she’d always been so clean, her pure white front looking freshly-laundered.
A half-hour trip to the vet. Cancer, inoperable. Euthanasia, this month, or sooner.
I wept the entire drive home.
Which brings me back to painting.
Some time back, a photographer friend took a stunning picture of Bianca, and when Louise saw it she fell in love. Instead of getting a print made, I offered to do a painting for her birthday.
Unfortunately, I missed the deadline by… quite a margin. I just checked and it turns out I optimistically posted “Anustart on anupainting” on Instagram1 in September of 2018, so it’s been almost five years. God. I thought it was three. In that time we’ve moved house several times and had a child. There’s been an election, a global pandemic, and much more besides. They managed to get rid of Donald Trump and turn Dune into a watchable film while I languished on a pet portrait.
A year later — having missed Louise’s birthday by a month — it looked like this.
All paintings go through an ugly stage, but this was something else. The proportions were all wrong. I put the painting aside for what turned out to be several years and returned to it after moving house, and began the process of repainting it from scratch.
I worked on it on-and-off (mostly off) for a couple more years. The problem was the ambition: photorealism. It turns out that painting every individual hair on a cat that’s twice life size is both hard and time-consuming, and I kept banging my head against an unyielding skill ceiling.
I kept at it until Bianca herself gave me a sign. One day I went in to my studio to find that she’d made her own little addition to the painting.2
She’d had some difficulty dislodging a clingy turd after a visit to the litter box and the little tart had chosen my painting of her as the perfect place to scrape her anus. I thought about chucking the painting out, but I’d sunk too much progress into it. So I scrubbed the shit off, taking a bit of paint in the process, and carried on, sporadically.
And after quitting everything else, and Nana passing away, then finding out Bianca’s diagnosis, I decided I’d had enough of sporadic progress. Our beautiful cat, witness to our marriage and birth of our child, who adopted neighbours and passers-by and road-workers and made a friend of everyone she ever met, who invariably came to us whenever we were sick or sad, who chirped and snuggled and purred.
Bianca might be dying, but before she did, I would make her immortal.
And, as of today, it’s done.3
It’s bittersweet, but I am still very proud of this piece.
Which brings me to self-improvement, because for many people learning to draw is one of the things they’d most like to self-improve at.
When I show my artwork, even (or especially) if it’s something I’m not particularly proud of, someone always says something along the lines of “oh, you’re so talented!” and it makes me wince. I don’t really think talent exists, or at least not in the way that people tend to use the term. They see the end product; I remember hours or days or in this case years of work and a cascade of mistakes and frustration, yelling “oh come on” and my favourite, “for fuck’s sake!” at the canvas. Someone once told me that it must be very soothing, doing art, and I laughed in their face. They were trying to be kind, and I wasn’t trying to be mean, but… no. Involving, yes, but it’s also a full spectrum of emotion that frequently includes mental and physical pain.4
And yet. There’s something there, or we wouldn’t do it. Once the necessary skill has been acquired you really can get into a flow-state doing art, and I’ve experienced it a few times — most recently while working on a commissioned piece that I decided, on a whim, to do in an abstract style. It was cathartic. I loved it.
Even on the more frustrating pieces is an enormous satisfaction in identifying where a piece needs work, and doing it; and with some artworks there is a moment that very much approaches magic; when you’ve all but finished the piece and the toil is more a memory, and you begin to see it as someone else might and the thought comes:
How the hell did I do that?
Which reminds me of another thing people say when they see finished artwork, looking crestfallen, wistful, sometimes even a little unconsciously angry: “I could never do that.”
This is a bubble I am happy to burst. Actually, you probably could! The ability to draw or paint things that look like what they look like is an acquirable mental trick. Practically all people with decent fine motor control and the ability to see can learn to draw to a standard they’d never have thought possible.5 There are many reasons they don’t, including time — it takes about six weeks, working for an hour or two a day, to get to a place of significant improvement when you’re starting from scratch — and their own history when it comes to drawing. Children often place a lot of importance on the ability to draw “realistically” and they can be hypersensitive to criticism right at the age that their cognitive and motor skills are advanced enough to actually do it. One careless “wow, that drawing sucks” can torpedo what might otherwise be lifelong love of making art.
There’s that, and the fact that the way art is taught in schools is terrible.
If people are keen — please let me know in the comments — I’ll do a longer post on art as a form of self-improvement, what’s wrong with art education, and how people can go about it in a way that works. For now, this is a status update. A big reason I started this newsletter was (somewhat paradoxically) so I could get more art done. Almost unbelievably, it’s working. Quitting everything to concentrate on just one (or, rather, several) projects has turned out to be the best self-improvement thing I’ve ever done. I’ve got more painting done in the past month than I have in previous years. But wait, there’s more. The yard is in at last in something approaching good shape, my job is going well, and I’m even managing to go to the gym.
Is this what self-care looks like? I’m not sure I know, not having a lot of prior experience.
I will miss Bianca, so much. But I’m glad to be able to use my skills to have a piece of her in our home forever.
Figuratively, and literally. I’m pretty sure some of the brown on that painting is hers.
We were re-watching Arrested Development at the time.
And the carpet, and my desk, and my keyboard.
Apart from a coat of varnish. And there’s something about that left eye that’s bothering me NO STOP JUST STOP IT’S FINISHED GOD JUST LEAVE IT ALONE
Every cartoonist (and writer) I know has a profoundly munted back and wrist from the constant sitting and seething.
Yes, even people with aphantasia. More research is needed in this area, as the idea of aphantasia is quite new, but many people I know who claim to have no mind’s eye at all can draw extremely well.