Picture Perfect


The first time I painted something other than my house was when I was 51. I picked three girlfriends who wanted to be brave with me. We went to one of those venues where amateurs are taught to paint their own masterpieces in step-by-step fashion. At our table was a canvas for each of us. Blank canvases. It was terrifying. No pre-drawn pictures, no little numbers that corresponded to the colors we should use, no brushing on water and the colors appeared.

We saw the completed painting we’d be reproducing. It was lovely. There was no way mine would in any way resemble that. Since 90 percent of everything I sketch looks like a cartoon, I expected my finished work to look like a preschooler did it.

“It’s relaxing,” friends had told me. “It’s fun,” they said. Fun, yes. Relaxing, not so much. It was an OCD nightmare. I walked into the place a recovering perfectionist; I walked out completely off the wagon. I constantly looked around at others’ work, wanting a “do over” when I saw what I could have done differently. I wondered why people said this kind of thing “frees you up” when all I wanted was a giant bottle of White Out.

The instructor talked us through it in precise detail. She made it look easy as her voice lulled each of us into believing we were Rembrandt.

Lylas had branched out with her tree instead of following directions; a former teacher, she knows how to think outside the pallet. My friend Red, perhaps the most laid-back person on the planet, was blissfully relaxed with her horribly perfect branches. And Rosebud had worked through any perfectionistic tendencies early in the evening; she was planting happy little flowers all over her scene. I needed an intervention.

Nobody’s painting looked exactly like the example at the front of the room, which I found both consoling and disturbing. Was a perfect rendition something that could never be attained? Was this some kind of sick joke to see how many people would pay money to experience utter failure? Some of the painters even had the gall to choose colors other than those on the example. Rebels in aprons. I was horrified, yet inspired.

After two nights of sleep, and heavy drinking, I grew to love my painting. It lives in a land far, far away from comparisons – our hallway.

Several months later, I took Flash with me to try it again, at a different paint-it-yourself establishment. We invited Rosebud and her husband, Captain, to come with us. Since the event was courtesy of our financial planner, I was more relaxed knowing it wasn’t my money that would be wasted on another failed attempt at becoming the next world-renowned artist. Just have fun, just have fun was the mantra in my head this time.

For the first 30 minutes, I had no idea what I was painting. The picture of the evening had been pre-selected, and because we were seated far from the front of the room, I hadn’t seen the example. Two red-orange hills and a couple of patches of grass later, I finally saw the autumn scene on display.

“Is that what we’re painting?” I gasped as I made my way to get a closer look. It looked much harder than my first attempt months before. There were more trees. And a road. And a lamp post. And an umbrella. And colors that didn’t make sense; I’ve never seen teal grass. And rain. And two people. People – the bane of my drawing existence.

What our instructor lacked in teaching skills she made up for in her inability to speak above a whisper. Repeatedly I watched as elderly attendees turned to each other and said, “What did she say? I can’t hear her.” Many of them had more white from the canvas on their works than any other color.

Somehow, I made it through the hills, over the teal grass, and down the path. Rosebud and I glanced at Flash and Captain’s canvases. Surprisingly, Flash was getting the hang of it, and I immediately had lamp-post envy. Then we looked over at Captain's canvas and were shocked. He is so talented in drawing, yet we were unsure if we were painting the same scene. His method confused us. Rosebud and I smirked at each other in an “Aw-how-cute-at-least-they-are-trying” way.

Soon, it was time to use black in our paintings. Black, the fully committed color. There’s no going back with black. Even if you try to mute it, it’s still gray, which is like black’s cousin. To lead us through this uncharted territory, our guide helpfully explained, “I don’t really know what this black spot is on the right-hand side of the painting. I don’t like it and wouldn’t have put it there. But, anyway, you arch it over….” We all, like sheep following a somewhat demented shepherd, painted that ominous blob as directed. It was like some kind of group mentality - a case study in social psychology. “It’s an oil slick,” Flash surmised.

Then, Flash, Rosebud, and I glanced at the quiet Captain’s painting; he’d been the only one not complaining about the alabaster patch on a hill. Suddenly, the meaning of life, or of our paintings, was crystal clear.

“Captain! It’s a shadow on the ground! How did you know?” I was amazed.

“Yes, it’s a shadow. From the overhanging tree branch above it.”

“You couldn’t share this with the group, Captain?”

“I thought it was obvious.” It’s often the quiet ones who get the whole picture; all his elements had come together beautifully and his painting was, indeed, lovely - the only one without a blob.

Next, the teacher of the year directed, “Draw a circle, then draw a triangle underneath. These are going to be your people.” Human beings derived from two geometric shapes. No way; mine would have looked like a cute little snowman couple in October.

I skipped the bipeds and did some road construction. The one helpful hint I’d heard from the instructor as she passed by was, “Water fixes everything.” I added water to my brush, and went to town. My sidewalk became a country road with East Texas red dirt. The teal grass became a more realistic color. Water was the answer to life! My colors were softer, more muted. Everything flowed better. Everything except the Exxon-Valdez contribution to my countryside at dusk; it draws all viewing eyes to the abyss.

But I enjoyed this painting experience far more than my first, throwing out the rules and making the creation my own. If only my epiphany had hit before darkness fell upon my Sistine Chapel. I could have been a contender for a display at the Louvre. But, it was finished. Finally, I was at peace. Until our ride home.

Flash broke the silence with, "Do you think we can fix that oil puddle on our paintings?"

“You’re still thinking about that?” I loved playing the sane one, as if I’d never give that little black spot a second thought for the rest of my life. Mr. Who-cares-what-anyone-else-thinks was obsessing, and I wasn’t.

"Of course I’m still thinking about it. You talked about it for two hours. Even the stupid instructor didn't know what it was, so why would she tell us to paint it? She didn't know it was a shadow; only Captain did. Can you find out what kind of paint to get? Can you get some red and orange, and we'll make it look like ground is showing through? I think we can fix them."

Who knew OPD, Obsessive Painting Disorder, was contagious?

As he rambled on, it all came flooding back. The desire to right what was wrong, to brush away the blemishes from the face of the earth, to make the world a decent place, to help others not twitch when they saw our masterpieces. I wasn’t alone in my affliction; I had company. I was normal by default. Where two or more are gathered, there is normalcy.

I made a call the next day to confirm we needed acrylic paints. While thousands of people across the country would be putting fresh coats of paint on their houses that summer, we’d be doing our part to make America more beautiful from the comfort of our own living room. Our reputations would be saved.

But it never came to fruition. Life got busy, and we forgot about that blob. Now, when I look at Flash’s autumn scene, my eyes gravitate to the couple strolling down a lane together, in the rain. Mine reflects stillness in nature, a country road tinted orange as the sun sets. With the passing of time giving me distance from my mistakes, my focus has changed. I’m kinder to myself. Beauty surpasses human error, and love surpasses disdain.