“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.
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.
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?
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.