Weekend Herald - Canvas
A THOUSAND WORDS
Steve Braunias makes an artistic statement
Anyone who can pick up a pencil or a paintbrush and make some sort of mark on a page is an artist — and anyone who believes that is insane. I have been taking art classes these past few weeks. I sit in a quiet room and sketch, draw, paint. Pretty much everything I’ve created is really lame but once in a while, now and then, something happens, magic, chance, luck and I create something merely fairly lame.
It was the Travel editor’s idea. He sent out a group email saying there was an opening for someone to take art lessons with a view to drawing or painting a scene from their travels. I got in first. I thought:
I can draw. Faces, mainly, all of them hookednosed, grotesque, in profile, smoking, with long legs and long feet, their thin mouths forming unhappy, sardonic expressions. The same face, over and over, with minor variations — bald or bearded, so a man’s face. Very well, they’re all mirrors, all autobiographical. But there is a pleasing certainty about the lines. Sharp, confident, sure lines, pressed deep on the page, nothing vague or wanting revision. I can draw.
I can’t paint. Besides, I hate colour, don’t want a bar of it, drive it out of my life. “Grey,” sighs my daughter after I wake up in the morning and get dressed, “again.” Jacket, shirt, pants, shoes, head to foot. I’m a column of fog, a puff of smoke. Did Picasso have a Grey Period? Show me it at once.
People are forever urging other people go outside their comfort zone. I like my comfort zone. I read in it, write in it, watch telly, shop for records, collect pine cones from the nearby woods — the list isn’t endless or especially interesting. It was a shock to sit in the art classes when I first turned up. It felt strange, foreign, impossible. It was a discomfort zone, but I never missed a class.
They were held on Friday mornings. TGIF, because those two hours were my dreamtime, a soft, floating end to the week. There was a large table in an empty room. Gum trees and white villas were outside the window. Tony, the tutor, worked on a whiteboard. Naomi came every week and mostly Pippa and sometimes Helen. I was too shy to say anything to
anyone for the first week or two. I sipped from my blue thermos of instant coffee, and usually brought a doughnut.
The class was given coloured pencils (Staedtler), a watercolour set (Winsor & Newton), and an A5 notebook with 60 sheets, acid-free, from the Gordon Harris art store. We learned about ellipses, eyelines, the Golden Mean, white tops and sides, an ochre base, the wonders of the chinagraph, a sky in ultramarine to pick out a tree, vanishing points, the law of eight ovals. We stood outside and painted a house. We sat inside and drew each other. Tony examined my portraits and said, “You might want to bring the line of the nose in a bit, make it not so hook-nosed.’”
Tony was kind and illuminating. I learned a lot. I learned I can’t actually draw. What happens to us when we leave primary school, leave behind the happy hours of playing with pencils and paint? What happens to our hand, our eye? My sharp, confident, sure lines are a pattern. I have stuck to it for years and years and years, and it was good to sit in art class and try to break the pattern, allow the line to go somewhere else.
Some Friday mornings I took the bus to a stop beside a park and walked around it to the next bus stop. It has a lake in it, willows, white geese. The walk was a way to shake the week’s words out of my head before sitting down at art class. I see things in a different way these days; I stop and look at trees, houses, the sky. I look at the way they might look in pictures.
The class finished last Friday. I always feel sad at the end of anything; when school finishes for the summer and I walk past a deserted playing field or set of classrooms, I think about the approach of death. Tony reviewed our lessons. I’ll really miss Naomi and Pippa and Helen, who were so nice and made such good pictures. I sipped from my thermos and nibbled at my doughnut, wistfully. And then I sharpened all my pencils.