One of the most pleasant memories of my childhood is attending art classes after school. I must have been no more than 9 years old when I started my first painting lesson. It was discovered that I had a gift that needed nurturing. Most art instruction offered in my area at that time was in oil painting, and so it was that I followed suit. I remember wishing class would last much longer. Time flew by and before I knew it, we were cleaning up to leave. My painting would remain wet until my return the following week. I attended these classes for most of my youth up through high school. The smell of oil paint still pleasantly stirs my creative muse to this day, even though I rarely paint with it anymore.
It was early 1971. I had since attended my weekly painting class for several years now. Acrylic was just starting to surface as a new medium consisting of a very limited palette. It was used mainly to paint houses at that time. Even its chemical makeup was somewhat different than it is today. More and more artists were beginning to explore its possibilities. It was still in the early stage of experimenting. Acrylic paint wasn't taken seriously, and was not yet widely accepted as a medium in most art circles. So I hadn't heard of it at my young age. I was still painting with the toxic pigments in oil paint; a safety issue my teacher appeared not aware of or too concerned about.
I loved to paint and draw, and so I practiced by copying sections of paintings that I was attracted to. My subjects were usually cute little fuzzy animals or bright colorful flowers. I developed a talent for mixing color to achieve what I wanted to copy. A talent that would some day come in handy for more than just painting on canvas. As a matter of fact it saved me from what probably would have been marked a grave day in the beginning of my artful journey.
It was spring, a few days before Easter, and I was much older now; twelve and a half. The half was a big deal for me. After all I was so close to being thirteen and qualifying for more benefits in addition to the traditional allowance increase. I could stay up later and enjoy a larger ice cream sundae while watching the previously forbidden Saturday Night At The Movies. I could be trusted to be left alone for longer periods of time, and those older than me may take notice and finally realize that I was just as smart. After all, I was now having bright ideas that I had yet to share. Besides who could possibly understand what I had discovered.
Little did I know that with more freedom also came increased responsibility. It also meant the consequences of hiding a secret from someone who trusted me, and the guilt that haunted me for fifteen years.
I was trusted to be left on my own for several hours while Nanny attended her last minute Easter shopping. This always included her baskets full of goodies for the younger tikes, and giant chocolate covered Easter eggs beautifully decorated and available in various flavors in which she gifted to older love ones. This year I knew I would receive a large egg now being so close to thirteen. And besides my brother was only one year older than me and he received a large egg the Easter before. And now here I am being left alone to paint for several hours at Nanny's cherished dinning table once belonging to her great grandparents.
There would be much to learn that day, as I would eventually come to cherish my lesson, even as I share it with you. My day would involve some fundamentals of oil painting, as in its makeup and a few things that can and cannot be accomplished with it. Unlike acrylic, oil paint doesn't dry fast and can't be diluted or simply wash away with water. Turpentine is used instead to thin or lift it from a surface. I soon found that a highly saturated pigment as in cadmium red will not fully lift from a canvas, nor from a delicate family heirloom.
Cadmium red oil paint smeared across a crochet tablecloth from early 19th century will definitely show off its color power by leaving behind a noticeable bright red stain. When thinned with turpentine, it only struts its strength further as it widens and gains territory by absorbing into a loosely woven surface. A surface like that of a large formal tablecloth for eight to ten guests. I can't imagine the look on my face that one could have captured with Nanny's polaroid camera if given the opportunity.
Lesson one: You were warned not to get paint on the antique mahogany table and the tablecloth that so delicately draped it from the same era. You eagerly agreed as you accepted the stack of old newspaper to cover the table, but only after promising to neatly fold back the tablecloth to a safe distance. You had been assisted with this task many times before as this was not your first time at the table painting. Once left alone, you instead placed the newspaper over the table cloth without folding it back. After all, you thought you knew what you were doing, and besides you're almost a teen with discoveries and bright ideas not yet understood by others. You know things like how to take short cuts that adults around you never seemed to take advantage of.
Lesson two: You better stop setting there in a sweaty panic and think about what you're going to say to save yourself from this one, but only after you have first apologized several times. A small tear or two would not hurt either. "A little paint may have been on my hands that I didn't notice so when I went to put the tablecloth back, some paint got on it somehow." No wait, that won't go over, after all, you were also reminded to wash your hands after carefully removing all of your art project. "The paintbrush rolled off the newspaper and across the table and I didn't notice until it was too late." Both well rehearsed excuses had been pondered over with little time to spare. After all the fact still remained that the permanent stain would have devastating results for both me and the special person who so lovingly trusted me with her adored treasure.
Lesson Three: Get creative! Think fast! Use your talent for color mixing! Lay newspaper to protect the table this time. Use a forbidden hand towel that you will throw away after absorbing as much turpentine and paint as possible from the tablecloth. Wash the area with soapy water and again absorb as much of the disaster as possible. Mix a color to best match the soft warm beige tablecloth. Paint both sides of the stained heirloom with the mixture, then gently pat to lift excess paint. Repeat with another layer. Let the paint settle while you pray that Nanny takes longer than usual to shop. When the car comes up the driveway, quickly cover the freshly painted area with a piece of clear wrap so that it doesn't stick together as it dries. Now gently fold back the still wet tablecloth so the plastic isn't visible. Display your painting on the table with the small easel Nanny gave you for Christmas. Take some comfort in knowing the table will not be used until Sunday late afternoon, giving both the tablecloth and your painting three days to dry.
Lesson Four: Volunteer to set the table while covering the painted area with a plate, and making sure to seat yourself at that setting. Also volunteer to clear the table when everyone has finished Easter dinner. Your brother will wonder why you're being so nice and doing his chore, but what the heck, he'll just owe you later. Now gently fold back the tablecloth and once again display your painting, allowing both even more time to dry until the following Sunday.
I examined my handy work too many times to remember. As it slowly dried it became harder for even me to spot my misdeed. I prayed that I wasn't over looking it, after all Nanny never missed a beat. I was only one of many she had cared for and she had seen a lot. With every visit to Nanny's home as an adult now with a child of my own, I would search for my masterpiece, still without a hint of it ever happening. So many years and so many gatherings had passed, yet not a trace remained of my day alone, except in my secret memory. Once while visiting and in the midst of looking it over closely; still in disbelief that my bright idea had somehow worked, and yet feeling too guilty to appreciate it, to my surprise I discovered her quietly observing me. When asked what I was doing, I sincerely apologized for my past misdeed and dishonesty. There I was 15 years later standing before that same tablecloth and still feeling ashamed and guilty; only to hear her giggle in disbelief. "Oh, I always thought you were studying it in hopes of putting those crocheting lessons I gave you to some use" she said. The subject was never mentioned again. Thank you Nanny. You are missed.
Wishing you a day full of inspiration and creative visions!
Caroline Jernigan "C. J."
Your Host & Art Instructor
Hello and Welcome to Acrylic & Mixed Media Painting's blog; a special place for creatives to share and learn through art related topics that connects us. Your comments are always welcomed and appreciated. So join in and share your thoughts and experiences.
Now a wee bit about your host: I have been teaching various mediums for over 28 years through live workshops and online, as well as authoring several art instruction books and many tutorials.