A brush, with silence and solitude

imageI really enjoy painting. Not the sort of thing one might frame and hang on a wall, but the actual walls one might hang them on. The larger the better. And I’m trying to work out why I like it so much.

The rather dark and now somewhat battered walls of our hallway, stairs and upper landing need re-decorating. This time the normally angst-ridden process of choosing a colour was reduced to a simple choice: brilliant white. None of that, “oh, but should it be a ‘cool white’ or a’warm white’ or one with hint of blue/green/yellow/pink?”. Preparation consisted of looking at the walls and deciding that the paint could go straight on, requiring at least two coats. So, with paint, brushes and roller, at the ready, I changed in to my painting clothes (old T-shirt and jeans) and started.

The house is very quiet. My partner is away for the week, so it’s just me, the dog, who is old and sleeps most of the day, and the cat who comes and goes as he pleases. I’m tempted to put on some music, but can’t decide what I want to listen to, so I don’t bother. I turn on the radio instead. Again it doesn’t feel right, so I turn it off.

I am left with silence, except, of course, there’s no such thing. The distant sound of traffic, the odd creaks of an old house, the excited chatter of the kids next door as they arrive home. But gradually, as I start to paint, my face no more than a couple of feet from the wall, I sense everything focusing down to exclude everything except me, the paint tin, the brush and the wall.

One of things I remember particularly from my theatre education and teaching was Stanislavski’s ‘Circle of Concentration’. As an actor you can choose where to draw the circle. You can draw it so closely around yourself that you are aware of nothing except your own mind and body (not that useful for an actor). You can choose to widen it to include the actors on the stage but not the audience. You can choose to include just the (expensive) front rows of the audience or you can choose the include the whole audience. In the case of my painting, the circle is drawn tightly around me, and I immerse myself in the rhythms of the job at hand. Being so close to the wall I notice the small differences in the surface: a hairline crack here, a slight pitting there, a small bubble in the lining paper. The paint is quite thick, and I watch as the rather obvious brushmarks disappear as gravity (I’m supposing) allows the paint to settle in the micro-troughs and render the surface smooth. I have a steady hand and can hold a line, so I don’t use masking tape but I use a narrow brush that I’ve had for many years. I know precisely how this brush works, how much paint to use, how much pressure, in order to achieve a solid, accurate straight line. I’ve tried using another, similar brush, but it’s not the same. I have a relationship with this brush.

And so the hours pass, and the white colour field extends before my eyes. Eventually I stop. I have no idea whether it’s been one hour or five until I look at my watch, which has been on my wrist the whole time, but I haven’t looked at it since I started painting. I’m aware that my body feels tired, and a few muscles are complaining that they haven’t been used in a while. But my mind feels particularly clear and not filled with the usual fog of too many things to do.

There is one of those zen things about the benefits of ‘sitting quietly, doing nothing’. I’d certainly recommend ‘standing quietly, doing painting’.

ā€œIt is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.ā€ ā€• Mark Rothko