A Walk in the Woods
A couple of weeks ago I unpacked a box that I thought was full of journals and found that there was a layer of old sketchbooks at the bottom. They were more than 10 years old. I had to flip through them all, and what pleased me, a little poignantly, was how much time I had devoted to drawing and painting. The sketches were of the most ordinary subjects: flowers, landscapes, fruit, various still lifes, people’s heads, and lots of drawings of the late lamented Linus. I missed myself doing all that drawing. I still try to get some in, as you know, but not nearly as much as I did then when I was teaching and had more free time.
I spent a decent part of this weekend plotting and scheming how to get out to do a bit of painting. At first I puzzled myself with ambitious plans -- like take the oil paints (which I haven't used in years), all the gear, and the dog, and go to a park that I haven’t explored yet. I realized that if I wanted to court failure, disappointment, and bitterness that would be the way to go about it.
In Sebastopol the private and paramount pleasure of my life, other than my excellent friends Patti, Barry, and Gail, was going out painting landscape. We managed, Sweetie and I, to make quite a routine thing of it. Because I worked for the local paper, I found all these great places, mostly on the edge of town, where I could hang out for hours. There was an old ruined farmhouse that belonged to this foundation that looked after the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and there was a big expanse of the Laguna that belonged to the state Fish and Game Department, backing onto some small farms. These places had the type of California landscape for which I feel special affection; meadows with oak trees. I could set up my easel, Sweetie would sniff about a bit, maybe find something disgusting to roll in, and then she’d settle down for a long session of blissful basking, stretched out on the grass and occasionally looking at me and thumping her tail. At first it was hard to get myself started; I’d spend an hour just wandering around, working up to a small anxiety attack, it was awful. But after a few weeks the anxiety stopped and I could begin as soon as I was set up. The best part was how quickly I was getting better at it, too. By this point in life the office was more home than home was, and I tacked the paintings up on the wall around my desk. I stuck with watercolor because I was beginning to get it. I had abundance of places to paint – the old cemeteries that dot the rural parts of the county, the unused railroad tracks in Fulton and Healdsburg, and little odd corners of Santa Rosa that hadn’t yet been “redeveloped,” like the old walnut and pecan orchard over on the east side of town. As far as my personal pleasure was concerned I would have been content to spend every weekend working my way through these places.
But I moved here, instead. First it was winter. Then I had to learn my way around. I found a group to go painting with but they go out on Mondays and right when I found them I got a job after months of agonizing unemployment. Then there were car problems. So in the nearly 18 months since I’ve moved here I’ve only gone out half a dozen times, and at such long intervals that I haven’t built up the routine by which you actually make any progress. I go to the life class but who wants to be in a room full of oddballs drawing an uninspiring model when spring is blooming outside? I’m working and writing and the days are long, and I have no more car troubles. So I’m determined to get out.
The biggest problem remaining is the dog. Since she has moved to Maryland she has become a different animal from the one I brought from St. Kitts. At home she is still an excellent house dog; without any training she has perfect in-house dog manners, which, I may have said before, comes from her having spent a good year as part of a pack of basically wild street dogs. To explain Sweetie’s general bearing before we moved to Maryland, it is perhaps enough to say, “Sweetie has been chased by a sheep.” Also by donkeys and cats.
But when we got to Maryland, well, first it was the squirrels, then it was the groundhogs, then, most momentous of all, the deer. Now, when she’s out in nature she is a total hunting dog, she’s mad with it, she has this strange glow in her eyes. Well, I want to paint and I feel guilty leaving her home in the lovely weather after she’s had to spend so much of the week cooped up in the apartment.
Along with puzzling this out, I indulge in thinking about the Ideal Small Painting Kit. A smaller kit means more modest expectations somehow. It also enables me to indulge in a pleasure that is not really related to actually making anything: the pleasure of being a Tool Fool. I like to think I am a fairly discriminating tool fool. I don’t like gimmicky things (except those pens that hold water are way cool) like the gadgets all those TV artists sell. But I do like nice things. I like nice paint, and I really love good paper, and I think the French easel is one of the greatest inventions ever. I seek the perfect watercolor kit. And I want to find a hidden trove of the old Fabriano watercolor paper, the one they don’t make any more that was infinitely nicer than the new one.
Various watercolor kits. I had a black metal one that had the tiniest little pans you ever saw, a wee brush, a built in reservoir for water, and a little metal cup. All folded up, it was like a little metal half-cylinder about 6 inches long. I think I lost that one. It was cute, but it was really too small. Still, I got a lot of pleasure out of it. In the UK you can get these really nice heavy-duty enameled empty palettes that hold half-pans or full pans. These paintboxes are different from the cheap aluminum or tin ones that seem to come out of Germany or somewhere, which tend to get dented. I finally replaced my battered old one of these with one of the really sturdy ones, and we get along great. Still, I can’t resist those flat aluminum palettes from Korea or Japan, they’re incredibly cheap, but they get bent out of shape if you look at them sideways. I use one of those for gouache. For hiking I got this really cheap Cotman kit that had the water bottle and the palettes and brush all built in, and the whole thing fits in a fanny pack. (Yes, I use a fanny pack; it holds my iPod and a lot of poop bags OK?) And last of all I got one of those two-dollar plastic folding palettes and squirted some tube paint in it. It's cheap and it weighs nothing. I try these things out, you see, in hopes that they might enable some expansion in the routine. But none of them have really done that, though each has been serviceable in its way. I still feel most comfortable with that nice heavy enameled English palette.
An old b/f who is an artist used to make fun of my preoccupation with materials; I am even more nutty about writing materials, believe me. But I’ve made peace with it, it’s a source of pleasure mostly, though I’m still not over the way Waterman discontinued the brown fountain pen ink cartridges. Years of being a writer who was terrified to write gave me personal acquaintance with every single specious dodge, especially the “things you do that are not writing but that make you feel like you’ve been writing,” like spending an hour browsing office supplies. Or sharpening all your pencils. Or tidying your desk. I have no illusions about this sort of thing any more, mercifully, but along the way I did learn that enjoying the materials I work with increases the pleasure of actually working. But in order to get that pleasure out of the materials I have to work: because I like things to be a bit lived-in, worn in by use and habit.
My appetite for art supplies extends now into the realm of Things to Keep Them In. I hit the thrift shops and discount stores for jars and baskets. It is one of my ambitions in life to reduce my use of ugly plastic storage containers to an absolute minimum. By a nice piece of luck, there is a cigar store across the street from me, and on a weekend afternoon I will go in and pick out something nice. There are people who make pochade boxes out of cigar boxes, which is an excellent idea that I, I can assure you, will never execute.
Once I watched a crow as it tried to cope with a foil teabag wrapper. The teabag wrapper was so bright and shiny, apple- or lime-green on foil, that the crow was really quite taken with it. He would pick it up in his beak and walk about with it along the edge of the fountain, but then, what do you do with a foil teabag wrapper if you're a crow? So then he would put it down and walk away from it but it would catch his eye and he'd hop back and pick it up. He couldn't think what to do with it, but he couldn't part with this nice thing either.
I feel exactly the same way about Altoids tins. I cannot dispose of an Altoids tin without regret. Mostly I end up storing bits of charcoal and crayon in them that I almost never use either. So the other day I was looking for some of that old Fabriano paper, and I tried looking in UK art shops, and somehow instead I came across all these people who make watercolor palettes out of Altoid tins.
Oh, laugh at me all you want, but the Altoid tin watercolor box is such a perfect marriage of packrattitude, the time-wasting gimcrackery, the love of everything connected with this activity, clever use of an Altoid tin, and looniness, that it made me want to make one. Except I don’t have any Altoid tins at the moment. Because I don’t really like Altoids. I used to, but they don’t seem to agree with me.
But I wasn’t going to blow a weekend making an Altoid tin watercolor kit and then have no time to paint.
So I decided to go in the woods near the house, where there's this lovely trail that winds along next to Little Seneca Creek, and then the creek empties into a lake. I knew I liked it there. I decided to take the dog, too, and see whether we could make any progress in the task of learning how to sit quietly in Maryland’s deer-haunted woods. I took a sketchbook and the smallest watercolor kit and a camera.
I was all set to go, and then my dad’s dog Misha decided she had to go too. I have been trying to communicate to my father – without words, as words would be wasted – that just as I want a bit of quality time to work on my relationship with my dog, he should give a little quality time to his. Misha had somehow got wind that a ride in the car was in the offing. So I ended up traveling with Sweetie in my car while my dad followed with Misha in his. (We had to take both cars because he had to get ready for work and couldn’t stay in the woods for hours.) I had a revelation: my dad rather likes to take a walk in the woods with me. It would never occur to him to ask, he probably doesn't quite know he likes it, he would not think of doing it on his own, but if I get him to come he gives distinct signs of enjoying himself. Even when I am shouting things at him like, "Oh for God's sake why are you talking on the cell phone while the dog is dragging you down a slippery bank? Drop the leash, just drop the leash!" He walked beyond the usual distance at which he usually starts to grumble, even, and didn’t grumble. He's not really a land animal, my dad. He's a marine mammal, totally at home on and in the water. I’m not sure he thinks walking is a natural activity. Then, per our plan, when Misha had had enough of Nature the two of them made their way back to the car and Sweetie and I went on with our adventure.
It became clear that drawing was quite out of the question. Sweetie couldn’t sit still, there was just too much stimulation all around. Among who knows what other things, the white-tailed deer, which move through there constantly and leave, of course, their scent everywhere. I took pictures of things I would like to paint sometime or just because I wanted to come out of there with something. It wasn't a total bust. At a certain point it just became about wandering along these trails and liking so much of what I was seeing. The wildflowers, the creek winding under all those tall trees, the light gleaming off the lake, the ruin of an old mill with ferns and moss growing on the stones, and the surprise of little critters showing up like this ugly little toad. The next plan is to go find some slightly less deer-haunted place. If she can’t get the hang of hanging out, she may have to stay home for a few hours, but the days are long and I can make it up to her. But if I don’t try to teach her, you see, she definitely won’t learn.
No, well, you’re right, it isn’t much of a life I’m describing. In fact it has a certain eerie repetitive quality like The Blair Witch Project where those filmmakers can't get out of that one spot in the woods. I suppose I could get out of the woods. Why am I not chasing the fleshpots of that nearby Big City? Why am I not trying harder to go out on dates? The answer? I have no idea.