My son and I have been painting a house. It has been a blessing to find something to do indoors in the midst of one of the coldest winters in our lives. It has been over a month since we’ve seen the thermometer rise above single digits and the nights have consistently been in the below zero range, cold enough to keep fuel in a slushy state. Every week an additional foot of snow falls until our roads and trails around the farm resemble the trenches of 1917 France. There is no place left to put the snow, no way to move it if there were. And so we have left the farm every morning after chores to prepare a home for it’s new owners.
Every summer of my childhood was spent, in large part, with my grandparents. My grandfather was overly fond of maintaining his home and insisted in having me help him as he made his way around and around, year after year, the small Cape Cod in a perpetual state of painting it to perfection. When I was small my contribution was nominal at best; we would walk to the lumber yard together and wait while they shook the paint in that fascinating — to a five year old — device. The gallon can would tip back and forth a thousand times a minute until the paint was thoroughly mixed and the man would set it on the counter and talk with my grandfather for a few minutes about baseball. My grandfather would carry the metal can by it’s wire bail and hand me the flat wooden mixing sticks and we would make our way back out of town and across the fields to the house to work. To my grandfather every task was of supreme importance, now matter how trivial it seemed. He took great care to spread out his drop cloth along the foundation of the house, around the pachysandra and forsythia, stained by myriad spills in a variety of colors. He’d lay out his tools; paint scrapers and caulking gun, sanding blocks and steel wool and then set to work with me watching by his side. He was insistent on doing a good job preparing the surfaces and told me often enough so that I have never forgotten that the key to a good paint job was done before you picked up a brush. And so we would attack one side of the house each year with wire brushes, working together in the sun and shade to the sound of baseball on an AM radio.
The house we are painting is set on a hillside overlooking a meadow that ends at the edge of Little Lake. Across the frozen surface there are the lake houses, empty now, and beyond them across the miles of maple, white oak and pine you can clearly see the mountain rising in the distance, scarred by ski slopes on it’s face. It is hard not to be taken up in the view as you work and that, coupled with the warmth of being inside, is intoxicating. The days rather than becoming monotonous from repetition are filled with an ever changing quality of light and color. Great, glowing squares of sunlight slide across the floor from left to right as the day passes, slowly turning diamond shaped as the sun falls lower on the horizon. You could paint this scene a thousand times over and never repeat yourself. My son is rolling out walls with a smooth nap roller, the sound echoing through the hallway. He is getting very good at this. Sometimes we listen to the radio while we work; talk, classical, jazz, or his playlist depending on the day. One afternoon we listened to a Bach piece that my father was fond of back in the day and as I cut in along the ceiling with a brush it seemed to me that all four generations were together in that light filled space, working on something across the years.
To properly prepare the room for paint requires a few steps in specific order. I usually place a task light on the floor facing up against each wall to highlight the flaws. I look for blemishes, dings, random pieces of long ago detritus painted into the surface and remove them with a putty knife. If there are cracks,depressions or holes left from picture hooks I fill them with a light weight spackle and return later to sand them flat. Once the surfaces have been properly prepped I wipe down the baseboards, windowsills and trim with a rag soaked in vinegar and water to remove any stains or spills and allow them to fully dry. The next step is to carefully caulk all areas where the trim meets the wall or where individual trim has separated from it’s adjoining surface. Caulking requires a steady hand and a fluid movement to lay a proper bead. I prefer to cut the tip at a slight angle and draw the gun at a tilt from one corner to the end. With a moistened finger, also drawn at an angle, you retrace the caulk bead from one end to the other in a single motion in order to properly blend the wall and trim leaving a seemless border that allows for both a clean line and soft transition from the plane of the wall or ceiling to the curve of the trim. With the room prepared in this way, a coat or two of paint- depending upon the color- is easily transformed into a blank slate for whatever follows.
In the summer of 1975 a friend and I, capitalizing on the popularity of the blockbuster Jaws, defaced a mural on the wall of our community swim club by painting a large fin coming out of the pool. We then sprayed red paint in splatters across the smiling faces of the cartoon children in the pool and left our prints everywhere. We were, of course, caught red handed. The police as well as the staff who ran the public pool were amenable to our parents and allowed us to restore the mural in exchange for leniency. I don’t remember how long it took us to complete the work, but I vividly recall a police officer stopping by to watch one afternoon as we repainted swimming children and aqua waves across the poolhouse wall. “Not bad.” he said. “Not bad at all.” Whether he meant us or the mural I never asked, but it stuck in my head. And despite my deep embarrassment at being forced to fix what we had ruined in full public view, there was a part of me that enjoyed it and I was sorry when we finally finished it. That wasn’t the only punishment for me, however. My mother ordered me in the car one afternoon that summer and drove me to a local farm where a large building had been rented out to the arts council. “You like painting so much,” she said, “you can spend the rest of your vacation doing it.” The class she had signed me up for consisted of a dozen elderly local ladies and an even older teacher, all of whom were busily painting flowers. I was given an easel and a canvas, a container of brushes and two tubes of oil paint, raw umber and titanium white. There was a wooden pallette and some turpentine in glass jar and a room filled with sunlight. I burned with humiliation at being forced to spend my summer vacation with a room full of blue haired preppy grandmothers, but the alternative of angering my mother scared me more. The only thing I said was that I wasn’t going to paint flowers. “Paint whatever you want.” said the teacher. And so I did.
Cutting in can either be done before you roll the walls out or after they have been completed. The trick is to be able to blend the texture of a roller nap finish with the subtle marks left by a brush. Since my son has become competent on the rolling I send him ahead of me to cover as many fields as possible while I follow along in his wake. Usually he is a room ahead of me and by the time he rolls it out twice I can cut in the entire ceiling and baseboard as well. I usually use a 2” brush loading it about a third of the way up the bristles with paint. The loaded brush is drawn flat on its side along the length of the section being painted allowing the paint to be left behind in a layer thicker than required, usually about 18 inches long. Then the brush is brought back and the tip edge is drawn once more at a slight angle so that the bristles leave a razor straight line at the union of ceiling and wall or trim and plane, pulling the previously deposited. The extra paint that is left on the open side of the wall is then blended into the rolled finish until it becomes impossible to tell where the brush and roller have met.
Once I began to paint on canvas I slowly realized that all the years I had spent during my boyhood roaming the fields and woods had been a study of color and space. There was an instictive method to blending the right amount of Prussian blue into sap green to approximate the look of a treeline from a distance, that when the sunlight fell on a field of soybeans in late spring it was more yellow than green. The instructor at the arts council was a locally renowned artist who had studied at the Academy in Philadelphia under the disciples of Eakins. Her style was part of the New Hope School of American impressionism and both her portraits and still life paintings brought her a fair degree of renown as well as a comfortable living doing exactly what she wanted in life. Despite our half century difference in age, we quickly became good friends and she not only showed me a great deal about the skills associated with painting, but took me to museums to view the works of great artists. What began in protest became a passion that I pursued with a focus I had never experienced before. By the time summer was over, I thought of myself as an artist.
When all the walls and ceilings have been completed we start on the trim. The doors are removed and painted horizontally on saw horses. I begin at the top of the room with the crown mouldings and dentil work and drop down to windows and door frames, with baseboards last, this time using a semi gloss. I tend to work from left to right and circle the room twice in order to complete both coats in one shot. An avaerage room of 12’x12’ will allow the paint to dry sufficiently so that the following coat can be applied without pause. Under no circumstances should fresh paint be laid down on a previous coat that hasn’t fully dried as it will mar the finished surface. We use latex water based paints without exception and in between coats I wash the brush thoroughly and switch to a second brush in order to allow the first to dry. This is one step that most painters never take and you can easily see the result in the completed job with small flaws and bumps of dried paint and stray bristles trapped forever in the finish. What looks good on a masters canvas is egregious in a well painted room.
After high school I went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York to study painting. By that time I had pretty well established a style and a focus that relied heavily on both what I had been taught and by what I was drawn to. Unfortunately for me the popular art style of the time was post modernist, deconstructionist, abstract expressionist works. My instructors discouraged me realistic work focused on trite subject matter and encouraged me to use “ugly colors and discordant shapes” rather than paint pastoral landscapes in using traditional methods. There were a lot of students whose work focused on happenings, found art, environmental pieces and the kind of thing that would have been better suited to the theater than the studio, but I remained fixated on the one thing I did well and after a semester and a half I realized that the city and I were not a good fit and that my money was better spent elsewhere. As I packed my belongings, the few that I had, I bid farewell to art school and headed back to the country. For the next decade I earned a living in a variety of ways but I continued to paint what I loved; the landscape.
As we near the end of the job we install the hardware on the doors and windows, careful to polish each piece first. We replace the switch plate covers carefully to insure that every screw is set with the slot at a perfect 6 o’clock-12 o’clock position, a small detail that is perhaps never noticed, but one that signals to me a job that has been completed correctly. We walk through the house in our socks on the newly installed carpet and inspect every corner, every surface for mars or flaws and mark them with a piece of blue masking tape to indicate where a correction must be made. Occasionally as caulk dries an air bubble will emerge in a seam and we must go back to cover and touch up so that nothing is left to catch the eye. If you paint a room well the job is invisible; only the carpentry and the color emerge, not the hand of the painter or his work. We always take time to clean up behind us, scrubbing out the sinks where we cleaned our brushes, wiping down the surfaces of any dust, making sure the window locks are set, the drawer pulls tight, shelves seated, windows sparkling to catch the full light streaming through. If a home is situated as perfectly as the one we are working on the view through the glass should be as beautiful as any painting ever done by a master.
I stopped painting on canvas twenty five years ago. Occasionally I would draw or stop at a mall and pick up a set of watercolors and knock out a few in my hotel room after a gig, but my heart wasn’t into it anymore. Other things happened, my life went in another direction and I stored everything I hadn’t sold in the attic of my grandparent’s home. Years after that, when we bought the farm, I moved them all with us and on occasion I’d bring out a portfolio and show them to the children. A few of my favorites still hang framed on our walls and every once in awhile I get an itch to try and pick it up again, but life is awfully busy these days with another kind of landscape. Sometimes when I am out in the pasture and the light is just right, or when the leaves drop on a breeze in a flurry of wild color I absolutely crave the scent of linseed oil and turpentine and dream of a pallette filled with colors; alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, cerulean blue. I can see in my mind’s eye what I’d paint and can almost feel the movement of the brushes in my hands, but then I pick up whatever tool I’m using at the moment and get back to what I am doing and realize that what I was painting all those years ago is the world I now live in, that as a family we are always creating. Our life is the painting now and through it, all the tools and the tricks, I am able to work with my son, to feel the presence of my grandfather, to awe the person standing in a freshly painted room with a view better than any museum could ever afford.