Monthly Archives: June 2016

The surprising trickiness of seemingly simple tasks

The cry of, “Oh, it’s easy when you know how!” no longer quite rings true.  Certain simple, everyday tasks now require considerably increased concentration to complete, which can be somewhat frustrating.  This also effectively demonstrates to all those people who blithely comment, “At least you have your other eye!” that there’s a very good reason for the fact that we have two eyes.  Relying on one ‘good’ or ‘better’ eye messes with our depth perception, and having unbalanced vision (for example, visual acuity of 6/5 in the left eye and 6/60 in the right eye in my case) can cause considerable difficulty in focussing on things at times.  If you don’t believe me, try closing one eye whilst performing some of the simple tasks listed below…

  1. Putting a key in a lock, particularly in lower lighting conditions.
  2. Pouring a drink.  Fortunately, I have pretty much got the hang on this now – it’s been a while since I’ve completely missed the edge of the mug and poured boiling water over the work surface.
  3. Walking up or down steps.  The number of times I’ve misjudged the edge or stumbled has made me particularly careful and considerably slower when navigating steps.  Plus, the advice of my second surgeon, “Don’t get a head trauma” still rings in my ears, amidst the fear of tripping and falling.
  4. Pressing the ‘hush’ button on the smoke alarm when it goes off.  This has the additional difficulty of having to look up and focus on the darn thing.
  5. Walking down the corridor at work when the sun is shining through the window right at the end of it.  My colleagues might be forgiven for thinking I’d had a heavy night, as I shield my eyes from the unbearable brightness and lurch towards the left-hand wall.
  6. Navigating through glass doors.  Or worse – revolving glass doors.
  7. Threading a needle.  I recently contemplated taking the needle and thread and banging on one of my neighbours’ doors to ask them to do it for me.  The fact that both neighbours are young guys, whom I strongly suspect may find this task equally difficult due to lack of practice, deterred me.
  8. Wrapping a present.  Although famed in my family for my neat and thorough (i.e. it can take the recipient a while to break into it) gift-wrapping, I now find myself carefully smoothing down the sellotape whilst entirely missing the edge of paper it was supposed to attach.
  9. Pruning plants in the garden.  On a regular basis, I find myself either carefully cutting through a portion of fresh air, or chopping off the wrong piece of branch.  (Shhhh… don’t tell my mum – she’s a keen gardener).
  10. Hunting for geocaches.  Several recent geocaching trips have highlighted the fact that certain caches can be quite difficult to hunt for with waffy eyes.  Generally the sort that involve putting my head in different positions in order to look for them, which tends to make the oil slosh about and floaters appear.

Fortunately, my eyesight issues didn’t cause any problems for me in managing to vote on 23 June, and I happily entered my cross decisively in the correct box.  It saddens me that so many other voters clearly had difficulties in performing this simple task, and I’m considering starting a petition that all those voters who haven’t had an eyesight test within the last two years should do so immediately and then cast their votes again…

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Oil on canvas

“Your son told me you’re a painter, so I suppose -”
“I used to be.  Not any more.  Now I put oil on canvas.  But anyone can do that.”

Charlotte Gray’ by Sebastian Faulks

Unlike Monsieur Levade in Charlotte Gray, I hadn’t even been putting oil on canvas since surgery number five, back in May 2015.  I thought about painting a lot, and sometimes saw things I wanted to paint; but when it came down to actually setting up my easel and getting my brushes out, I procrastinated.  My eminently practical arty work colleague tried to encourage me by suggesting, “Maybe you just need to find a new way of painting?”.  She told me stories of various art classes she’d attended where the participants were encouraged to engage in wild and wacky behaviour like creating a painting using only red paint; or drawing a circle on the canvas first, which then had to be incorporated into the painting; or (horror of horrors) do life drawings spending only ten minutes on each pose.  I’ve always been a bit of a stickler for detail and accuracy in my paintings, being criticised in my university studio sessions for spending too long measuring things out, and so I listened to these ideas with a mixture of awe and discomfort.

Considering that one of the first thoughts which went through my head after retinal detachment number one was, “Oh my God, what if I can’t paint again?!”, it seems a bit weird that I’ve spent over a year without having painted a single thing.  Then again, I guess it also provides a pretty good indicator of the extent to which my eye problems have affected my confidence in certain aspects of my life.  My reluctance to lift my brushes hasn’t always been quite this bad.  There wasn’t any time to even attempt getting back to painting between surgeries one and two.  However, a few months after surgery number two, I determinedly had the usual fight with my easel (it’s a bit tricky getting it set up) and, amidst much swearing, I produced ‘Silicone Oil Tinted Rose’ (see below).  At  50 x 51cm, this was larger than I usually tend to paint as I thought that this might make it easier.  It didn’t.  ‘Silicone Oil Tinted Rose’ narrowly missed being stabbed with my palette knife in sheer frustration on more than a handful of occasions.  However, I was reasonably satisfied with the final result and it now hangs safely out of reach on my sister’s dining room wall.

'Silicone Oil Tinted Rose'

‘Silicone Oil Tinted Rose’

My next bash at picking up my paintbrushes occurred in April 2015, after surgery number three, and was an attempt to illustrate how the vision in my right eye had changed.  I set up exactly the same still life as I’d painted a few years previously, and attempted to reproduce it using only my RD eye.  When I say using ‘only’ my RD eye, I quickly realised that I couldn’t entirely pull this off.  For starters, when holding the paintbrush at arm’s length to measure the bottles, I found that I couldn’t actually see the end of the brush, let alone where to place it in order to measure the bottles.  Obviously, I had to use my ‘good’ eye in mixing the colours, but I mixed them to try to match what I could see out of my RD eye.  So it was all a bit experimental, but I felt that the end result (below) was a fairly accurate representation of my vision at that time.

Bottles paintings comparison - a visual experiment

Bottles paintings comparison – a visual experiment

I did a couple more bottle paintings after this one, and then came surgeries four and five, followed by the long artistic drought.  My arty work colleague once again offered words of encouragement: “Why don’t you just put some paint on canvas?  It doesn’t matter what you paint, but just mix some colours and see what happens.”  I thought about this for far longer than was necessary.  (“Procrastination is the thief of time”, I heard my Grandad telling me in my head, and pictured him shaking his own whilst raising a shaggy eyebrow and jokingly telling me in a growly voice to “just get on with it!”.)  I dug out a canvas and divided it up into 6cm squares.  This wasn’t done in reference to my much mourned for 6/6 ‘normal’ vision, but in retrospect the number seems somewhat symbolic.  I’ve always been primarily a still life painter, so I decided to select various objects around the house and mix two colours for each object.  One would be as I saw the colour through my ‘good’ eye; the other would be as I saw the same colour through my RD eye.  I then painted each colour on the canvas in a square, side by side.  With each pair of squares, the one on the left shows the colour as I see it through my left (‘good’) eye, and the one on the right shows exactly the same colour as I see it through my right (RD) eye.

I painted the colours of all kinds of everyday objects: the spines of folders and books on the shelves in front of me; the yellow of the toolbox in which I keep my paints; the blue bottle of bleach in the bathroom and its red top; the warm earthy hue of a jar of cinnamon from the kitchen; the bright orange of a drinks coaster given me by a friend; the pale blue of my glasses case…  It felt good just to mix paints again and put the results on canvas (even though I discovered that I had to close my RD eye in order to be able to paint in a straight line).  I realised that I’d missed the smell of oil paint and white spirit wafting through the house, and even managed to laugh rather than swear when I made the familiar mistake of dipping my elbow into my palette and smearing oil paint up my arm.  I was surprised at some of the results of my visual experiment – I had thought that colours containing red were more distorted through my RD eye, but this isn’t actually the case.  There doesn’t seem to be any pattern, other than that colours seen through my RD eye generally appear far less saturated.  Some colours look fairly similar through each eye, but others are dramatically different.  Although I’m sure no-one will want to hang my latest painting on their wall, I’m oddly pleased with it.  It represents not only my current colour vision, but also the jumping of an emotional hurdle in getting back to painting and refusing to be beaten by my ruddy retina.  Now for the difficult question of the next painting… any suggestions, anyone?

'Eye Chart'

‘Eye Chart’

Note:  If I ever appear in danger of another painting drought, would someone please remind me that it took ALMOST AN HOUR to unscrew all the welded-on lids of my tubes of oil paint.  To do this, I had to hold them under a hot tap and then use a rubber glove to prise them undone.  This exercise is not conducive to artistic endeavour.

“Double, double toil and trouble”

The gas bubble always reminded me of the song of the three witches in ‘Macbeth’, so I thought I’d borrow from the Bard and have a bash at turning it into the song of the RD patient…

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Vitrectomy and large* gas bubble.

Stinging drops in open eye;
Lying flat, afraid to cry.
Holding breath and keeping still
In a mighty act of will.
Bright lights dim to dusky dark;
Tight clenched fists and beating heart.
Waiting for the surgeon’s hand;
Wishing to escape this land.

Double double, toil and trouble;
Vitrectomy and large gas bubble.

Instruments dive in and out;
Causing urge to scream and shout.
Listening to voices low;
“Cutter please”, (do take it slow!).
“Laser” next, then “Gas now, please”;
Clearly not the time to sneeze!
Stitches last then almost done;
Head and roof of mouth feel numb.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Vitrectomy and large gas bubble.

Now more torture, lying flat;
Face down only, not on back.
Aching neck and shoulders tight;
Difficult to sleep at night.
Eye drops in ten-minute break;
“Hold head still, try not to shake!”
Gritting teeth and ploughing on,
Wishing it would all be gone.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Vitrectomy and large gas bubble.

Finally the gas breaks down,
Upright now, so lost the frown.
Magically, above the line
Vision, though ’tis strange this time.
Colours dim and lines not sharp;
Lava lamps and flickers dart.
Bubble waves and disappears;
Left lonely, facing sightless fears.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Vitrectomy and large gas bubble.

* Try as I might, I simply couldn’t get ‘intraocular gas bubble’ to fit with Shakespeare’s metre and rhyme scheme, so I had to go for ‘large gas bubble’ instead.