Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Painting Mistakes

Some months ago after a busy Saturday morning and a rushed lunch, my husband and youngest son, Kiefer, settled in for a quiet, long afternoon nap.  I took the opportunity to take my oldest child, Lorelei, and oldest son, Ben, to the library.  Without Kiefer we would be able to stay at the library for longer than 12 minutes.  I could sit with them. I could read with them.  I could browse for books for them, and for myself.  I could actually have a conversation with a librarian.

A trip to the library without a 2 year old (no offense, Kiefer) was something to savor.

So we set off for our own quiet afternoon.  We spent a blessed hour at the library, taking our time and enjoying taking our time.  On the way out, Lorelei pointed to a white board with an arrow pointing to the large meeting room in the back of the building. "Live Artist Today" (hmmm...that sounds sort of exhibit-y but the message was something like that) read the sign.  They asked to check it out.  Free of wiggle-y Kiefer, it didn't take me long to reply: "Sure! Let's go check it out."

Lorelei gasped with delight when we walked in.

At the front of the big room were two teenage girls dressed as ballerinas.  One had a black leotard and tutu; she was sitting with her legs dangling over the arm of the chair.  The other, dressed all in pink, was sitting on the floor, stretching over her legs and pink pointe shoes.

They were posing for an artist--a real live artist!  She had black unkempt hair and cool dark-rimmed glasses.  She had full cheeks and plenty of laugh lines.  She had on over her baggy pants a large smock that buttoned up in front.  The smock was wonderfully messy--clearly it was well-used and well-loved. The artist was painting the two girls on a small canvas.  She held a palate of colors in her left hand and a paintbrush in the right.  She looked and dabbed, looked and dabbed, talked a little, made the audience at home and at ease, then looked and dabbed some more.

Lorelei and Ben were enthralled.  And the artist association that had put this one was thrilled to see them: kids!  They had prepared thoughtfully for kids, though mine were the only ones in the room.  Lorelei and Ben happily accepted the clip board and white piece of paper; one chose crayons and one chose a pencil and each chose a seat (next to each other) in the audience.  They were encouraged to draw the ballerinas, too.  They were happy to, and jumped right in.

So they did. And I simply watched.  As the artist looked, dabbed, and gabbed in an unintimidating, inviting way, I just savored the quiet moment.  What a serendipitous thing, to just stumble across something as cool as this.

At the end, during the question and answer period, Ben whispered to me:  "I have a question.  What does the artist do when she makes a mistake?"  I loved the question and, though he didn't want me to ask the artist, we chatted on the way home:

Me: "Did you see an eraser at the end of her paintbrush?"

Ben: "Of course not, Mommy!  Paintbrushes don't have erasers."

Me: "Then what do you think she did?"

Ben: "Kept painting?"

Me: "Yup.  If she doesn't like one stroke of her brush, I bet she lets it dry for a bit and then paints over it."

He was uncharacteristically quiet on the way home; I think I could see his brain at work on this short discussion of ours.

I think about that artist and Ben's question all the time.  It taught me so much!  As a perfectionist with a daughter who has perfectionist tendencies, I try hard to point out my mistakes so that she and her brothers realize that mistakes are part of life.  Last summer on our kitchen white board I wrote "Mistake = the best way to learn something" for months.  "On to new mistakes!" my friends hear me say all the time.  I say, "Nothing is perfect in nature or in life!" all the time when there is frustration over a misshaped letter or artwork gone awry or...well, pretty much anything.

But the painting over mistakes...  That image was most helpful to me--I'm older and still making them and sure am hard on myself about the whole thing.  Those mistakes are part of the painting. Some are more hidden than others, but some become part of the painting in unexpected ways.  Just like in life.  I sure can't go back and face the mistakes I've made in the past few years.  There were a lot of them--lots of daily mistakes that I'd like to erase.  But I can't.  I've got to let time let them settle and then slowly, maybe a little delicately at first to test if the paint is truly dry, I've got to paint over to make something better out of them.

I believe I can.


  1. That was one of my favorite lessons when I was teaching. We drew together, and I told them there were no mistakes. Whatever they made, they needed to work with somehow. They couldn't have a new paper. Couldn't turn it over. Couldn't erase - we used permanent markers for the drawing part. Wow! We had fun, AND they all created fantastic drawings. You would think it would not be a freeing as it was, but being confined to using what was there really did free up the creativity in them.

  2. What a beautiful life lesson! I love that Ben thought long and hard about it too. What an impact this trip to the library will have on your family -- for years to come you will talk about that artist and that thought provoking question.