I am a beginner painter. While I consider myself to be a decent artist with pencil, painting — specifically watercolor — is still something I’ve yet to sort out. Oh, sure, I painted plenty of pictures in elementary school, but nothing with any real artistic value. Perhaps if I had been able to take an art class past 6th grade, I would have a head start on this medium, but I was too busy taking French. Priorities.
A little over a year after my husband and I had moved to France, an event occurred that sunk me into despair. The wife of the French pastor at our church noticed and encouraged me to join a painting class at the small art school that she attended in an old mansion. It gave me a reason to get out of bed and leave the apartment, which I desperately needed at that time in my life. She signed me up for the beginner’s watercolor class and introduced me to the instructor, Chantal. I quickly discovered that it wasn’t so much a class as a painting club, full of older women who had lots of time in their day. I was the youngest in the class by a good thirty years, which automatically made me la petite — the little girl. Fine, I could live with that. The next thing I discovered was that all of these women already knew each other and had been in this class (club) for a couple of years. Now I’m really the newbie. Chantal would bring a few items to set up in the middle of the table as a still life and then we were all supposed to set to work. On the first day, I sketched out my picture of the pitcher in the middle of the table. Then I erased a few lines, tweaked the perspective and generally fiddled around with it to put off the inevitable disaster that would happen once I put paintbrush to paper. Chantal noticed that I was stalling and in her loving French way, told me, “You can’t spend all day drawing it! You need to start painting!”
I am no stranger to the color wheel. My dad has sold paint for most of my life and, when I was a child, gave me my very own color wheel with rotating windows. I understand complementary colors and mixing colors; I am familiar with the concepts of shade and hue. I did not know, however, that watercolors do not conform to those rules. I was at a loss. My pitcher was brown and muddy and nothing I did was making it look any better. Subtle cracks on the real life object translated into glaring scars on its painted counterpart. This was going downhill fast! By the end of the session, I felt like crying. Chantal was no help at all. There was no actual instruction, but plenty of critique.
But, I kept attending. It was something to do, after all. Every session was a struggle. I had a horrible time trying to denote the transparency of glass bottles, the composition of my hat picture was pas bonne, the very real irises looked flat and artificial. And still, no real help from Chantal. About three months into this, I was mortified to learn that there was an art show where each student was expected to submit two pieces. My portfolio was severely lacking. Most of my paintings weren’t even finished. Finally, I chose a scene of a Moroccan courtyard and the sad irises. My husband and I attended the show, saw my paintings, and sighed at the much better artwork all around them. Part of me feels like I could get good at this if I had any idea what I was doing.
As of this writing, this particular talent still eludes me. Today is 6 June, which, if you paid attention in history class, you’ll recognize as the anniversary of D-Day. I taught a lesson this morning to my French students on the critical and amazing battle of Pointe du Hoc. It left me feeling rather patriotic and I felt like doing something to commemorate the day, so I pulled out my paints. I always have grandiose visions, but should have toned them down, especially in light of the fact that I haven’t painted a thing (bedroom walls don’t count) in two years. I used our own photos from our time in France. The first two times, I attempted a co-mingling of the French and American flags. Apparently, I am no good at flags. The third time, I opted for a landscape featuring the bullet-perforated Nazi observation post at the tip of the Pointe, topped by the large monument, representing a grappling hook, in honor of the American Army Rangers who fought there. It turned out… fair. I still have a long ways to go before I have any show-worthy pieces!