Lesson #7 – Stockholm Syndrome

One-point perspective…that’s my challenge today. We are given a choice between a quaint weather-boarded alleyway in a Kent village or a lugubrious street scene in Stockholm.  I grab the Swedish street scene – I need to escape, if only through a photograph. Having figured out my vanishing point, I then lose myself in the Sunday morning indolence of this scene. A middle-aged lady stands at a doorway. No other signs of life except the casually abandoned ‘sit up and beg’ bikes that are strewn along the side. There’s something so stylish about Scandies – even forsaken bikes have a feeling of ‘shaggy chique.’

I seem to spend the first hour just sketching windows. There are so many of them. I’m rather hoping that my sketch will appeal to a double glazing salesman… or perhaps some other niche fan base. Sticking to the rules of one-point perspective, I seem to be drawing lines at the most unlikely of angles. But it creates the desired illusion.

I’ve truly escaped just for one hour into this landscape. It takes me there… I’m hearing the dog barking and the beer sign ‘Spendrups’ gently swinging. If I’ve got my painting right, I’ll also do the same for the viewer.

Stockholm syndrome… a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors. Is that happening to me? … now ensconced in the Brexit for which there is no exit. Keep your voice down… believe in the humanity of your captors. If we’re not with them, we’re against them. It’s just like rugby isn’t it… we all need to push together?? When a victim holds the same values as the aggressor, they cease to be perceived as a threat.

That’s me done. I haven’t included the lady in the doorway or the bicycles. Can I leave that to your imagination. I’m afraid my draughtsmanship fails me at this point.

Lesson #6 – Putting it in perspective

Today it’s perspective. I need more of that. I’m working from a photograph. It’s supposed to be one of those quaint picket fenced houses on the West coast of the US. Unfortunately, the house has decided to have its photo taken edge on. That means that I need to know something about two-point perspective. We can either work in charcoal or watercolour. The art teacher shows how you can make a street scene that radiates from two points on the horizon. Maybe this will take me out of ‘postman Pat’ land where everything is uncomplicated: where nothing has depth.

I’ve chosen watercolour – I always like to work outside of my comfort zone. Big mistake. Only later do I realise that I’ve been using regular paper instead of that forgiving watercolour paper that can make anything look organic and misty. My colour palette refuses to yield that intense lemon colour on the porch. And the blue of the eaves is elusive to my brush. I’m still looking for the colour white in my palette.

I struggle on. I’m not a quitter. But I’m eventually saved by the bell. This one’s definitely for the bottom drawer, to remain undiscovered until a new art movement has emerged –

But I’ll not be deterred. Perhaps I’ll venture out attired with my smock and cravat – getting ideas from Maidstone High Street. Let’s hope it will reveal more than a one-dimensional postman Pat land.

Lesson #5 – One for sorrow…

There’s nothing more liberating than starting with a clean page. Yet at the same time it’s daunting. So many misadventures and calamities waiting to happen. Still, a march of a thousand miles begins with the first step … as Confucius said (or some other geezer).  I’ve got a vast piece of virgin cartridge paper awaiting my clumsy imprints. It looks like its A0 size or maybe bigger… whatever size comes after ‘0’? Everything seems colossal when you’re stretching across in a wheelchair. It’s tan coloured paper so hopefully that’s half my job already done… Hopefully I have to do a painting of a Charolais bull in a wheat field.

We’ve been asked to bring a can of hairspray today. It doesn’t have to be the expensive type. That’s good, I can leave my Hanz de Fuko Style hair spray at home. In its place I’ve brought Wilko’s own brand at just 95p. I compare my acquisition with Pete whose busy setting up.

Me: “How much did you pay for your hairspray Pete?” –

Pete: “Hmm…£2.95”

Me: “I only paid a quid”

Yes, it was one of those schadenfreude moments. It brought much pleasure to me but not sure Mike was enjoying my company.

All is revealed by our teacher. We are working in charcoal today and the subject is a ‘magpie’. Why a magpie I don’t know. I wonder whether I can do two of them together: I’m suspicious that way.

It’s going to get messy I know. My willow charcoal stick seems a bit bent. To make things worse, our teacher breaks our sticks in half. This is not going well.

Drawing magpies is not so bad. I wonder whether I should confine my artistic repertoire to variant of the jay. I scour with sweeping abandon across the page using my diminutive charcoal stick.

Then I’m introduced to something quite novel – it’s a ‘putty rubber’. It removes all the unwanted smears as if by magic. And there are plenty of smears. In fact, I think I’ll have to use the putty rubber on my face. I’m convinced that I’ve smudged on my left cheek. Perhaps I look like a chimney sweep, but is anyone in my art class about to enlighten me?

There, done. It’s surprising what a few touches with a piece of white chalk can do. Miss, I’ve finished!

Lesson #4 – Splattering

I’ve arrived late and in a fluster. My fellow creatives are already nested among their tools. As for me, I’m digging deep in my satchel, looking for long lost implements. I really should have washed those brushes. My palette is long dried out and has fossilised last week’s mishaps of browns and mucky greys. It seems that you can’t escape your past mistakes. I guess they become a part of you – your signature.

We are doing layering in today’s class. The idea is to put paint on top of paint. We’ve moved from the watery oblivion of last week to the considered brushstrokes of today. Maybe you can recover from past misdemeanours. I’m working on last week’s painting again now it’s all dried out. But I’ve discovered this layering is not quite so forgiving. It seems that you can only make things darker. But there’s an elaborate bloom around the petals that are irrevocably dark. I want to make them brilliant white again.

Yes, my social prescriber did tell me to concentrate on the process and not the product. Trouble is, I keep on seeing life lessons as I paint. After all, I’m not kidding myself about being a painter. My lesson has appeared too late and seems to mock me. If you make things too dark to start with, it’s there to stay. There’s no going back to the lighter hues. This layering process allows you to recompense for the follies of youth. But things just keep getting darker and more convoluted. Let me get back to where I was, so I can make all the same mistakes again.

Now we are moving onto splattering… that’s more like it.

Lesson #3 -Wet on wet

I arrived early for this week’s lesson. The prospect of doing ‘wet on wet’; ‘taking off’ and ‘feathering’ was a great incentive – they do all sorts in Kent.

I reach for my watercolour set – I was hoping to get money off from the craft shop because there doesn’t seem to be a black or white in my colours. How do I get pink or ebony? My art teacher pushes on… explaining that watercolour artists don’t need those colours – they simply mix from the colour wheel. Hmmm… I still think maybe the craft shop was trying to sell me a duffer.

My orangey red

We then have to fill in our colour wheel… no cheating… just using yellow, blue and red. Now it seems that I didn’t even need the other nine colours. I could have saved myself a few bob.

Getting busy flooding my blocks of colour with water. It comes to nothing. I really have to work this geezer… my yellow. Now it comes to mixing yellow and blue to get… what should be green. But the mixing palette doesn’t seem to play ball. The brush seems reluctant to part with the insipid lime colour. What little does remain on the palette seems to be unhappy to be there. It coalesces into a minuscule blob. It seems that my palette behaves like the ‘water off a ducks ar#e’.  In fact, I’m sure that it has the precise molecular structure of a ‘ducks a#se’.

My challenging colour palette

First we start with ‘wet on wet’ and it’s nothing to do with body art it seems. Teacher demonstrates with a painting using just water? I can’t see it but I guess I have to go with the flow. Everyone else seems to see it… Is this the emperor’s new clothes?

Then we move on to ‘taking off’ which again doesn’t involve any kind of clothing. It’s about removing paint where it shouldn’t have been in the first place? This is really challenging my creative mind.

Finally, we discover the world of ‘feathering’. It involves using a stubbly old brush to push out what wet paint we have been able to smudge on the paper. The effect is quite a dramatic firework display. For me it’s quite an experience. I would have got a ‘wally topspin’from the art teacher at school if I had been found to be abusing the brushes in this way.

My creation and the real thing

And then last of all, there’s the watercolour paper. It soaks up my dithering gestures and quite unexpectedly seems to create something all of its own. That’s great, you set it on its way and it does its own unique thing. Is that cheating? I’m sure I didn’t do that… this paper seems to have a way of creating depth and texture. Is that what artists do? Do they just start things on their way and let the materials do their magic? Well it seems to work with me… I’m more of a fatalist than a believer in agency theory. Remember Steinbeck  – in East of Eden, the main character extolled the ability of folks to act independently and exercise free will. But it seems sometimes that politics and health have taken that luxury away… and so has my paint palette. Yet on this occasion, losing control has let me discover the artistic talents of the paper itself. On this occasion, fatalism has taken a beautiful path.  

Lesson #2 – Scumbling in the dark

My attempt at scumbling (right) which looks disturbingly like my MRI scan

Okay, I hear you say… ‘don’t give up the day job’.  It’s not a masterpiece, but an experimentation with pencil shading. Besides, I’ve already given up my day job. And of course it’s the process that’s important rather than the product (well that will be my excuse for a crap drawing).

No, I haven’t misspelt stumbling… although I’ve done quite a lot of stumbling recently. The word is ‘scumbling’. I’ve never heard the word before. I had to ask the understanding art teacher to spell it out. What a great undiscovered word from me. Just imagine, I’ve been on this planet earth for 55 years and I’ve never come across it. It sounds like a ‘down and out’ kind of word – some kind of activity a street urchin might engage in. Let’s check it in the dictionary…

  • soften the colors or outlines of a drawing by rubbing.

Yes, teacher is right. I should never have doubted her. Well, in fact the picture that you see has crosshatching on the left and scumbling on the right. But I’m still fascinated by the word. I guess I’m a pedant without the knowledge to be pedantic. Words fascinate me… how could this incongruous word have escaped my clutches.

Class continues… we all have a chat and a laugh. I thought I was doing well coping with my disability. But now it seems we are being asked to introduce new ‘disabilities.’ Sketching with our ‘non-dominant’ hand and holding the pencil at the very end. This is going to end badly I know.

Wow, I’m mistaken. And I’m not alone. What is appearing before our eyes is almost decent. It’s out of control and has escaped the grasp of my right brain. This is the way to go. No more analysis; just hand to paper. What a relief – it’s left-hand all the way for me.

I see there’s another second meaning for scumbling

… to blur the outlines of….  e.g. a writer who scumbled the line that divides history and fiction.

It seems to be appertain to the world we now live in. Aren’t they all just playing at scumbling with facts… those politicians.

Lesson #1: I forgot to buy my pencils

There’s a small gathering I can see on the other side of the door. These are my new classmates. I wave from my jalopy to catch their attention. It’s cold out here – eventually my new able-bodied friends see my predicament. With a warm blast of air I’m inside and amongst strangers huddling outside the art room.

Soon we are arranging ourselves around the large art table that stretches the length of the room in a carbuncle building with refreshingly high ceilings. But despite the large welcoming windows, the setting sun will surely deprive us of natural light as the wintry afternoon expires.

We start off with ‘icebreakers’ – little games designed to engage one another. But it seems that we are all more than happy to present some truths about ourselves.

Forgive me for not telling you more about my art group or the teacher. Let’s say that everything looks promising and we are all set for jolly japes. I’m not a narcissist choosing only to talk about myself, but not everyone wants to be in my story I guess.

It quickly becomes apparent that we are not five newbies – in fact, I thought by choosing the ‘beginners’ class everyone would be as rough and ready me. It turns out that there was an ‘absolute beginners’ course in the autumn so I’ve got some catching up to do.

I’ve come unprepared – not even a quill or piece of vellum. Today we need pencils – soft ones and hard ones. To my rescue comes Carrol who lends me a gamut of pencils that I never knew existed. 2B – the mildly footloose one; 4B – the maverick one; 2H – the controlled and empathetic one. Each of these would have to become my friends. After a small shading exercise I realise that they are all like untamed horses – It’s my job to break them in gently or perhaps harshly.

Carol’s Pencils – with smudger

Sorry Carol, I can return your pencils but I’m afraid I’ve liberally dispersed the graphite on my recently purloined piece of paper. It was a shading exercise that made us think about ‘pressure’. I naturally succumbed to using the ‘writing grip’ – I didn’t know there was any other way of making marks on paper. My kindly teacher then introduced me to the ‘underhand’ grip for making longer and straighter lines.

That’s the grip for me – the underhand grip. I hope it doesn’t reflect my nature. Perhaps it’s called the underhand grip because it’s a little bit like tricksters, trying to conceal some sort of magic.

Well there we are – my first step in my quest to become a creative: to unlearn all of the habitual behaviours that I learnt in school. I guess that’s my main revelation in Lesson #1. – realising that there are other ways of doing things… even if it’s in a rather underhand way.

Crippled Inside

Well, I’ve got the form.  I’m one of the ‘socially prescribed’. And guess what… its an art class that might be the answer. More precisely, it’s a painting and drawing class. The medication might help me to stay good as the outside world sees it. But as John Lennon says, ‘one thing you can’t hide, is when you’re crippled inside.’ That’s what has been going on with me… and folks like me. We’ve fallen off the track. Somehow we are no longer in sync with the world. I think they call it being ‘socially isolated’ or perhaps just lonely. A social prescription is something your GP or occupational therapist might ‘prescribe’ – a smorgasbord of different community activities to address health, social needs and other stuff not found in your local pharmacy. And it’s true, my problem is not just the physical ailment – it’s the consequences… losing your mojo.

I feel sorry for the healthy folk. Every day, there’s some news item telling people how they should interact with us immobile citizens. Through your equality training you’ve been told not to mention medical conditions; to avoid using able-bodied as the opposite to disabled; avoid wheelchair bound or suffering from…  Others get upset with phrases like ‘heroic’ as its disempowering. Heck, I don’t really care as long as people feel free to talk with me. Perhaps then I can have the opportunity to set things right. But please, let’s keep the conversation going. Make the mistakes on the way to seeing the person.

Anyway, this painting class is my chance to become socially included. I’ve always wanted to be a creative. That’s what they say isn’t it – If you’re not a creative, you’re some sort of emotional outcast. Hampered at birth by a left-sided brain that means you will only ever be a scientist or a health and safety officer. I’m waiting outside the gates of the adult education building reflecting on my artistic glories from the past. There aren’t many of them – one in fact. I was in Miss Hope’s class at the age of seven. I had hit on something – a night-time skyscraper painting – the intense yellow dots of the office lights creating a magical contrast with the panoramic night sky. Only trouble was, my friend Nicola sitting next to me, had decided to do the same. I was outraged and inconsolable. But Miss Hope said sympathetically that “imitation is the greatest form of flattery”. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant at the time but it stopped me blabbering.

I’m still peering through the cast-iron gates with a feeling of foreboding. I feel like Jude the Obscure standing at the walls of Christminster.

“Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shared a common mental life; men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Only a wall – but what a wall!”

Part Two, Chapter 2, Jude the Obscure

Perhaps I’ll never cut it as a creative: never belong to the club. I’ve lived too long in the Cartesian world of certainty and scientific fact.  Let me enter into the world of Epicurianism, the world of the senses and spontaneity. If not, let me just peer through the gates and see how it’s done.