Thursday, May 1, 2008

Worth a Look, Painting as a Pastime

Every now and then I stumble onto a piece of writing that does more than simply inform or entertain; it speaks directly, in agreeable language, to my own interests. This is certainly the case with the slender book Painting as a Pastime, by Winston Churchill.

I was fourteen when Churchill died in 1965, and aside from President Kennedy's assassination, Churchill's death was one of the first in my life that made a big impression. My parents and grandparents, who admired the man from his role in British politics and World War II, talked at length about his character, his military and political accomplishments. But I don't remember them ever mentioning his love of painting, and his artistic side didn't make it into my history lessons.

I came to reading
Painting as a Pastime when I mentioned John Ruskin's book The Elements of Drawing, to an artist friend. She recommended Churchill's extended essay, so I ordered in inter-library loan from our excellent Hedberg Library. It's short, only 25 pages of text, and my edition has 18 color plates of his oil paintings in the back. I'm not an art critic. I have no qualifications to decide if Churchill's work would stand the test of time if he weren't a former Prime Minister. That said, I think his paintings are charming, full of life and color, and reflective of what he loved, landscapes, florals, and his beautiful home, Chartwell. What I will remember longer is his joyous voice, speaking to me in 2008 from 1921, when he wrote his essay on the power of painting to refresh and mind and soul.

Here are a few representative passages which I hope inspire to read the essay in its entirety.

"Many remedies are suggested for the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain by persons who, over prolonged periods, have to bear exceptional responsibilities and discharge duties on a very large scale. Some advise exercise, others repose. Some counsel travel and others retreat... But the element which is constant and common in all of them is Change."

"The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is therefore a policy of first importance to a public man. But this is not a business that can be undertaken in a day or swiftly improvised by a command of will. The growth of alternate mental interests is a long process. The seeds must be carefully chosen; they must fall on good ground; they must be sedulously tended, if the vivifying fruits are to be at hand when needed."

"Broadly speaking, human beings may be divided into three classes: those who are toiled to death, those who are worried to death, and those who are bored to death."

"It may also be said that rational, industrious, useful human beings are divided int two classes: first those whose work is work and whose pleasure is pleasure; and secondly those whose work and pleasure are one. Of these the former are the majority... But fortune's favored children are the second class. Their life is natural harmony... Yet to both classes the need of an alternative outlook, a change of atmosphere, a diversion of effort, is essential."

"It is a great pity to read a book too soon in life. The first impression is the one that counts; and if it is a slight one, it may be all that can be hoped for. A later and second perusal may recoil from a surface already hardened by premature contact. Young people should be careful in their reading as old people in eating their food."

"Painting is a companion with whom one may hope to walk a great part of life's journey.
Age cannot wither her nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.

One by one the more vigorous sports and exacting games fall away. Exceptional exertions are purchased only by a more pronounced and more prolonged fatigue... But painting is a friend that makes no undue demands, excites no exhausting pursuits, keeps faithful pace even with feeble steps, and holds her canvas a a screen between us and the envious eyes of Time or the surly advance of Decrepitude."

"Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost the end, of the day."

"To have reached the age of forty without ever handling a brush or fiddling with a pencil, to have regarded with a mature eye the painting of pictures of any kind as a mystery, to have stood agape before the chalk of a pavement artist, and suddenly to find oneself plunged in the middle of a new and intense form of interest and action with paints and palettes and canvases, and not to be discouraged by results, is an astonishing and enriching experience."

"But are inclined - late in life though it be - to reconnoitre a foreign sphere of limitless extent, then be persuaded that the first quality needed is Audacity. There is really no time for the deliberate approach....We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joyride in a paint-box. And for this Audacity is the only ticket."

"Painting! What are you hesitating about? Let me have a brush --- the big one. Splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and white, frantic flourish on the palette --- clean no longer --- then several large fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas. Anyone could see that it would not hit back... The canvas grinned in helplessness before me. The spell was broken. The sickly inhibitions rolled away. I seized the largest brush and fell upon my victim with Berserk fury. I have never felt in awe of a canvas since."

"I write no word of disparagement of water-colours. But there is really noting like oils. You have a medium at your disposal which offers real power, if only you can find out how to use it."

"Just to paint is great fun. You can keep on experimenting. You can change your plan to meet the exigencies of time or weather. And always remember you can scrape it all away."

"One begins to see... that painting a picture is like fighting a battle; trying to paint a picture is, I suppose, like trying to fight a battle. It is, if anything, more exciting than fighting it successfully. But the principle is the same. It is the same kind of problem as unfolding a long, sustained, interlocking argument. It is a proposition which, whether of few of numberless parts, is commanded by a single unity of conception."

"I think this heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint."

"When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so to get to the bottom of the subject."

"Painting is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind."

"Lastly, let me say a word on painting as a spur to travel. There is really nothing like it. Every day and all day is provided with its expedition and its occupation -- cheap, attainable, innocent, absorbing, recuperative."


Alison said...

This is a lovely post - thank you - I wonder if the essay is on the Net. I must have a look

Michael said...

Frost, Churchill and beautiful pictures all in one visit to your blog, Sherry--what a good way this was to start a stressful day for me. The "surly advance of Decrepitude" has been slowed for a while, at least!

Rayne said...

"It is a great pity to read a book too soon in life."
This is so true. There are books that need to be read at certain times in your life and if it is read too soon the wisdom is lost.
I keep meaning to get Churchill's book every time I see a note about it and then it just slips my mind. Maybe it isn't time for me to read it yet? Or maybe, more likely, I'm totally scatter brained.

Sharon said...

This is interesting. I will see if I can get this at my local library...

Anonymous said...

What words... super, excellent idea