Every three or four years in late spring, our family would be sitting around the dinner table and my hopes and dreams of a fun, carefree summer would come crashing down when my father would announce, “Kids, we’re going to paint the house this summer.”
The level of depression that would wash over me at that moment was off the charts. My usual reaction was to eat a few more bites of food so as to not reveal my shattered state and slip up to my bedroom where I would draw the curtains, curl into my bed and assume the fetal position until I regrouped enough to face the world again.
It wasn’t that our house was particularly large. We lived in a typical middle class neighborhood in a medium sized house. Or that with two older brothers and a younger sister there wouldn’t be others to help.
No, it was the ringing not simply through my brain, but through my entire being, of the barked instructions of my father that I knew would fill my summer. A phrase that to this day sends chills down my spine and causes me to sit up in bed in the dead of the night, drenched in a cold sweat.
“Goddammit, John! How many times do I have to tell you! Don’t dry brush!”
I would hear that command hundreds of times during those summers when we painted our house. It’s not that he didn’t have a point. You didn’t want to skimp on paint as it was as much about protecting the house from the harsh, wet winters of Northern New Jersey as it was about getting the colors right. And in all honesty, I did have a tendency to apply less than the recommended amount of paint to the wood.
But as much as I would try, eventually, I’d fall back into my old habits and sure enough, when I did, I’d hear about it. To his credit, he did alter his “instructions” occasionally. “John, how many times do I have to tell you? Don’t dry brush Goddammit!” Or, more often, he simply barked, “Don’t dry brush Goddammit!”
The fact that my father was a big man and an old school high school football coach with a voice that many of his ex-players swore would carry not only across the football practice fields, but the entire school campus made it a bit intimidating.
I wasn’t cut out to be a house painter. And it showed in my work. Regardless, it was expected that I be out there doing my part in the heat of summer despite my propensity to engage in the mortal sin of house painting: to “dry brush”.
About a year ago, I began taking painting lessons. Not house painting lessons as I have already proven to be a lost cause on that front. Rather, painting of the creative arts variety. This has been a wonderful and very pleasant experience, largely because my teacher is fun, patient and encouraging. I had been progressing fairly well in my efforts and feeling good about myself as an emerging painter until a recent lesson during which my painting world imploded.
As we settled at the table to begin a new lesson, she announced, “Today’s lesson is going to be about dry brushing.”
I froze. I gasped. I started to convulse. Tears of fear began to form. I looked for the exit, fully intent on escaping what had to be a bad nightmare. Surely, this was a horrible dream and that I would soon awake to a world of painting where all was, once again, fun and enjoyable.
Her reaction was first one of puzzlement and then concern.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I responded, gathering myself enough to recount my painful history with dry brushing.
She laughed and assured me that in this type of painting dry brushing was a good thing. It’s an effective way to add depth to paintings and thus an important technique to master.
After a sigh of relief the lesson proceeded.
She demonstrated the technique and when leaving encouraged me to “dry brush until my heart’s content.” She had no idea how welcome those words were.
During the two weeks before my next lesson, I dry brushed with abandon. And despite the occasional echo in my head of “Don’t dry brush, Goddammit!” it felt great! I was liberated!
During my next lesson, she reviewed my work and exclaimed, “Your dry brushing is excellent!” Who would have thought that dry brushing could be in a sentence without the word Goddammit?
I’ve learned many Life lessons from painting. From being bold enough to color outside the lines and to be fearless in putting yourself and your art “out there” for the world to see. But perhaps the greatest lesson has been that, like art itself, dry brushing is in the eye of the beholder.