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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Herring Net

My parents used to surprise us at Christmas with things we didn't ask for. I'm not talking about socks or underwear—they did that, too—I'm talking about educational gifts like Erector Sets or a tool box or a Gibson portable chemistry lab.

On Christmas morning 1967, I unwrapped a large paint-by-number blank "canvas" of Winslow Homer's "The Herring Net" (which I used to call "Two Guys in a Boat"). I wish I could say the picture above is a photograph of my work, but it's not.

On one of those sad days toward the end of Christmas break, I decided to paint by number until my masterpiece was done. Using a wooden chair covered in newspaper as an easel, I set up a studio in our finished basement and began the task.

The slow-drying oils were not on a crusted pallet with a thumb hole, of course. They were in little numbered flip-cap tubs in egg-crate rows to avoid any possible confusion. My tongue curled up over my upper lip in concentration. I dabbed and dragged the brush methodically through the morning and well past lunch, unaware of the time.

Every so often, I'd step back hoping to see the drama and tension of that piece coming through. I finished the boat, the fishermen, and portside water and hurried my way to the starboard corner, saving the boring brown sky and detailed fish in the net for last.

I walked backwards to the far wall the basement, squinting toward my work. Even from a distance, the painting looked nothing like the picture on the box. It was a pedantic mosaic of the artist's brush strokes. Not quite pointillism; not quite impressionism... [terms I didn't know at the time]. It was ugly! How could that be? I had followed the instructions precisely.

Numb with disappointment, I decided to quit for the day and leaned the painting against the front legs of my "easel chair" to begin cleaning up. Bending over to put the paints in the box, I accidentally bumped the chair and the painting fell like buttered bread, face down.

My heart sank. I said nothing, but my left brain cried out to its right, "Ruined! Ruined!" as my trembling fingers tried to raise the tacky board from the smooth tile. It slid a little as my fingertip pried under it. "Ruined," my right brain sighed back in agreement.

Lifting the board, I saw the mess on the floor first. "Ohhhh, nooooo," I whined out loud. The wet paint left a speckled Rorschach inkblot on the waxed checkerboard tiles. I was pretty sure the vague splatter was a picture of my dad kicking my butt. Leaning the picture back against the legs, I ran to get a rag.

[My dad eventually became a calm Ward Cleaver-type of guy, but at this time he still reacted badly to broken windows, dented Bar-B-Q grills, misplaced tools—you name it—and I wasn't sure how seeing a huge blotch of paint on the floor would score on his emotional Richter Scale (no matter how sad the story behind it).]

The floor cleaned up fine, but the picture looked smeared and distorted like the world does through a rainy window. My brother Dave came downstairs as I was kneeling before my loss.

"Cool..." he quipped nonchalantly in passing. "That's more like it?"

"Very funny, Dave. I didn't do it on purpose. You haven't even started yours. It's harder than you think."

"First of all, I have started mine. Second of all, I'm serious. I like it. It looks better than what I saw at lunchtime. If you follow the instructions, it looks like a coloring book. Just use the lines to get the basic idea. Then paint it how you want. That's what I'm doin'.”

He went in the furnace room and came out with his painting. It was also a Homer seascape, but it looked much more like an original work than mine had before the accident. “See what I mean? Don’t paint in the lines. Whatever you did to make it look like that...you should do that to whole thing."

His suggestion would be hard to implement, but looking at his painting, I knew he was right. It’s difficult to re-create creative processes. Drama and tension and emotion cannot be precisely traced. Just as a waltz is more than its 3/4 time, painting the sea cannot be done by numbers. It's a dance of method and motion—it’s a rise of the deep reaching up into light that’s lost again in the brine.

That sky is not a pattern of #14, #17, and #18. It’s the backdrop of time, stretching from past to present, with a hint of the lingering night that lives in a morning fog...and the faint tea-stain of smoke from a distant shore... and foreboding clouds so heavy they press down the backs of the fisherman, those faceless forms whose lives and livelihoods roll with the forces around them.

Homer's eye and brush captured all that on canvas, but I didn't see it at the time. I was too busy looking at instructions and numbers. My brother's observation was dead-on. My effort came closer to real painting —and better replicated the reality of life—after it fell flat on its face and was picked up.

I don't recall what happened to that paint-by-number. I do know I never finished it, but thinking back on it today, I'm not sure art is ever really done—even if done by us it's never quite done with us.


Blogger Nancy said...

"Paint by number"... oh, the memories! That is what I love about your posts, they take me back to my childhood just by reading yours. The beauty of any art is in the eye of the beholder, so I decided all of my art work was beautiful... to me! Of course, no one else agrees. Thanks for sharing.

21/1/07 10:34 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

My brother, Dave, called yesterday. (He is the true artist in our family.) To my surprise he told me there is a market for old completed "Paint-by-number" art. I guess it's sort of kitschy, retro thing. He, too, wondered whatever became of our work from '67. My guess is they did not survive the move to our new house on "the property" in '75. We were away at college when that happened, and many things disappeared that were not missed until decades later. =)

22/1/07 9:37 AM  
Anonymous Rhea said...

Paint by Number always had bizarre color choices, but somehow the finished product always resembled the original.

22/1/07 12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They still sell them.

22/1/07 11:00 PM  
Blogger SusieQ said...

This story reminds me of what an artist on TV would say to his viewing audience about art. According to him, art consists of a lot of happy little accidents. I guess you could say the same thing practically. The accident with your paint-by-number art piece turned out to be a happy one in the end. ;-)

I took an art course one time years ago. I did a study in oil. My only one so far. I spent many hours on it. One thing I discovered as I labored was that the piece took on a life of its own after a while and I had to learn to cooperate with it. I have my one oil painting on display at my blog under the heading "Early Snow". It is in my November, 2005 archive in case you are interested.

Nice story. So well written as usual.

22/1/07 11:38 PM  
Blogger J_G said...

I also had a chance to try the paint by numbers thing and I suppose that's what make me appreciate the great artists so much today. Even with the numbers I dicovered have absolutely no talent for painting.

I used to watch an TV artist a few years back, he had Red curly hair in sort of the afro style of the 60's and 70's. The man's name I cannot remember but he was very good and he could dab some paint here and there, smear a little here and there and there you have it, a mountain or forest scene that was unbelievable.

Winslow Homer is one of artists that is of great interest to me. The covers of Harper's Weekly that he did told many a story of the US Civil War. That is a time period that I have great interest in.

You mentioned chemistry sets though and that reminds me of a very close friend that took control of the chemistry set her brother got for Christmas and now she is Chemistry Professor at a major east coast University.

Very nice story, it even reminded me of the very distinctive smell of those paints.

23/1/07 5:40 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I looked at your "Early Snow." It's very nice. Reminds me of a creek my brothers and I used to ice skate on.

Ah, yes, our old friend Bob Ross. I used to watch him, too. He's the only person I knew who could make watching someone ELSE paint almost as rewarding as actually painting. Bob died in 1995, a few months after my father. Hard to believe it's been that long. You'd be interested to know that he served 20 years in teh Air Force. You can watch him here like old times.


23/1/07 6:34 PM  
Blogger J_G said...

Oh my, I went and watched the link to Bob Ross and a flood of memories came back to me. I used to watch that man on Sunday mornings on a PBS station that came out of Wilmington Delaware, WHYY and I would be totally engrossed watching him. I thought that it was the most amazing thing to watch someone take such a casual and freewheeling attitude about painting and paint something so wonderful. Thanks ever so much, you have no idea how much that meant to me. It's funny how those things work huh? I still can't paint anything to save my life either :-)

23/1/07 11:43 PM  

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