Last time I painted a canvas, I was 14 years old. At times, I wonder if I missed my calling. It was not that I come from an artistic family, or I was exposed to art from childhood. Growing up in New Delhi I had one hobby—drawing-and-painting. I scored average marks in high-school because I never studied. I used to spend all my time in the art-room of my high-school. My escapades in drawing are a long story for another lengthy post. I knew to paint with poster colors; I wanted to use oil paints and paint canvases. One summer I had my wish.
My younger sister was in 3rd grade and I was in 9th grade. It was our two-month summer vacation. My mother didn’t want me home during summer. She wanted me to leave home in morning and return late afternoon as though I was returning from school. I didn’t question her because in our home we did whatever my mother demanded. But her ask didn’t have a solution. At 14, where was I supposed to gallivant? My first cousin suggested a vocation school that was ten minutes’ walk from my parents’ home.
The South Delhi Polytechnic for Women had one art class that summer. God had granted my wish. That art class was an oil painting class from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm. But the cost of painting class and paint supplies were high. My father did a cost-benefit analysis of expenditure vs my mother’s wrath. My father agreed to spend his money.
My painting class had eleven women. There was one man—the painting teacher. I don’t remember his name. He was old and had curly salt-pepper hair. At that time he was the second person I knew who didn’t color his hair black. My painting teacher wasn’t mean to me; he just didn’t like me asking too many questions. He preferred teaching an older female in our class. I want to believe her name was Anu, but I am not sure. But even now I can see her; she was fair, thin, and tall around 5’8”. She was ambidextrous.
I had anonymity in the painting class. Others knew my name, but they didn’t know about my abusive parents. Nobody chatted with me. I think that was because everyone else was in their mid-twenties. Also, because they saw me as a weird-child attending an adult painting class.
Our painting teacher had a set of books. These looked like magazines, but they were landscape-painting books. Each of us was given one page in each book to paint. We looked at the picture in our respective book and painted the replica. Even though we had different pictures, the setting was similar. All scenes had houses with sloping roof, white picket fence front yard, lake or pond in the foreground, and snowy or green mountains in the background. I painted settings that I hadn’t seen. I was drawing trees that I still can’t identify. Unfamiliar landscapes made it easier for me to live within my head. For those four hours, I was a normal child.
I recall some technical details. We used hard bristle paintbrushes, full strength turpentine, linseed oil, and 18 x 24 canvases. Paintbrushes would become shorter with use, turpentine smelled like kerosene, and I never dirtied my cloths. At my parents’ home, I used to finish my paintings in the balcony. I had a rudimentary setup. I would stack books on my study-table (that was in the balcony) to elevate the canvas; I would lean the canvas against the wall. I never dripped a drop of paint on me or on the floor or on my study-table.
My mother would watch me paint. She would say that it was so easy to paint that she could paint in her sleep. At that time, I believed that my mother was right. Today I feel different. I pained a lot of canvases. My mother decided to hang them all around their house. She said, “We pay for it.” I didn’t have a problem. My parents always reinforced that I have no right in their house. They were clear that they let me live there. When I saw my paintings with my signature hanging in every room, I felt accepted. That is the only happy memory of my childhood.
I never painted again after that summer. At the end of my 10th grade, my parents’ threw me out their home. Following high-school, I studied architecture. Those 5 years, I sketched a lot and once used watercolor-papers. I graduated and started working in Bombay. Living was expensive that I didn’t have any money left after rent and food. Subsequently, I was earning enough to pursue extra interest but I didn’t have time. I don’t know about today, but seventeen years ago, there was no concept of adult education in India. All hobby classes were late in the afternoon. Only rich people could afford to learn pottery at 4:30 pm. Rest of us had to work.
Years later, I moved to US to complete a master’s degree. Those three years I rarely drew as primarily I worked on Photoshop and AutoCAD. For years whenever I looked at paintings in museums, I longed to paint again. One day, my husband gave me a community college brochure, which he saw in our local-mall’s kiosk. I registered in an evening painting class at Oholne College.
This time everything was different. On my first day of class, I was mistaken for an instructor. I was the second oldest student in the class. All other students were more than half my age. They were collecting credits for their undergrad. I heard their stories, advised them on their portfolios, and learned about technology from them.
Initially I had difficulty understanding the painting-terminology in America. Here paintbrushes are made of pig or sable hair. They have different colors, styles, and shapes. As my painting class was for a semester, I navigated a six-page syllabus. I needed to buy a color wheel and a sketchbook.
We didn’t directly jump to painting colorful scenes. There was a system. I learned that one paints a study canvas before the actual canvas; there were three different sizes of study canvases. Our instructor Christian Fagerlund explained the proper technique of painting, importance of study canvases, and difference between light and shadow. I had difficulty with all the learning. I was impatient; I wanted to immediately paint a landscape from a book.
Despite my slow adaptability, things were easy. This time I had a bored-husband giving me moral support while I navigated my way in art supply stores. My learning was surrounded with love and support; my husband said ‘very good baby’ to everything I painted. I don’t worry about his reasons; I accept his support.
My first painting in class was a study canvas. I spend the first quarter of the class mixing for different tones of grey on my paint-palette. As I put the first brush stroke on the 3 x 5 canvas, my eyes filled with tears. I continued painting; I kept wiping my tears. I didn’t want my young classmates to think that I am a crazy woman. My strong emotional reaction was unexpected to me.
I completed one semester of the painting class. I didn’t paint a colorful landscape, instead I painted a partial-reproduction of Gustav Klimt’s painting. I want to continue painting. I still don’t have the courage to look at a real life landscape and just paint it. As I write this, I promise myself I would not wait another twenty-five years to paint again.