I've been really into watercolors lately. That's significant because if you had asked me when I was thirteen if I would ever be into watercolors, I would look at you like you had just asked me if I believed the Backstreet Boys were ever going to break up. That is to say, I would have thought it was extremely unlikely.
But the Backstreet Boys did break up, and lately I've been working in watercolors every day. I discovered painting when I was sixteen, and I needed it. I was a particularly moody teenager. I felt desperately alone and unappreciated, and I spent most of my days sighing and looking out windows, daydreaming about the color black and stuff they sold at Hot Topic. Also, notably, I was suffering from some post traumatic stress from some sexual violence that I found impossible to shake. I was certifiably depressed and had no idea how to ask for help or deal with my emotions. Ennui set in.
Then I started painting scrap wood I found in the dumpster of the children's theater where I worked. I have no idea what propelled me to do this in the first place. I vaguely remember seeing the scrap wood and feeling an impulse to take it -- maybe because I have some secret kleptomaniacal tendencies. Except that I am terrified of being caught doing anything wrong, so the only theft I had any follow-through with was one where I wasn't technically stealing. I was just rooting through the trash.
I had some cheap acrylic-based paints my mom had purchased for a bird house project we'd done when I was in the eighth grade. (Rendered in shades of chartreuse and magenta, my mom ultimately decided that the house would be terrifying for birds and she stuck it in the attic. It seems my mom only wants conservative, law-abiding birds to live in her yard. Which is a pity, because she is neither of those things.) One night, accosted by insomnia, I spontaneously took out all the paints and sat down with the scrap wood, like a person possessed.
I couldn't think of what to paint (I'd never painted, and had previously had no interest whatsoever in painting), so I tore a page out of a magazine. It was an advertisement for soap. The ad featured a smiling model holding a piece of a cucumber and looking very giggly about it; like the cucumber was a flirty boy telling her she has a super-nice body or something. I could relate to nothing about this picture. I had no memory of ever feeling the way this girl was feeling. She appeared light-hearted and fancy-free, and she was utterly clean and really into cucumbers. I hated her. But I recognized that that was just because I was insanely jealous of her.
So I painted her.
The painting was not very good, and it took me hours upon hours to finish. I stayed up all night painting the soap girl. I became transfixed with the project: I felt this deep, holy peace I had never quite experienced bin studying her face with a sort of intimacy I felt no one else ever had. Not even her boyfriend had so obsessed over the lines around her eyes, I figured. There was something very safe in it.
And so I was hooked. Every night I'd tear a page out of a magazine, and paint a copy on a slice of scrap wood. I usually used just two colors: a primary color and white. My favorite thing about acrylic paint was how you could use white to make highlights and implicate shadows. After a month or so of not sleeping and painting models from magazines, I was very tired and bad at thinking clearly. But I was also very good at painting models from magazines.
The process became an exercise in studying something so closely, so completely, and with such softness that you felt you could understand everything about it. It was an act of simplification in a world where everything was complicated and hard. For all our differences, humans have exceptional commonalities. Our eyes all have these little squishy flesh circles in the inner corners. Our cheeks are all sculpted on triangular bone scaffolds. Our lips all part along the same deep, ancient crease.
As I got older, I got busier, and I stopped needing painting. The portraits on scrap wood fill two full cardboard boxes in the attic's abyss, somewhere near the old birdhouse.
But then recently I was given a large stack of watercolor paper as a gift. I was a little dumbfounded about what to do with it. It'd been almost a decade since I'd painted anything. In my twenties, I used the strategies I taught myself through late night portraiture only to draw simple line drawings in order to give my otherwise tedious writing a visual element. To this day, I am a useless illustrator without lots of photographic source material. I can't draw anything I can't get my face very close to. I need to look at every line carefully, deeply, like I'm doing science with it. (Obviously I know nothing about science, because when I talk about what scientists do I refer to it as "doing science.")
One day, a friend told me to try out a watercolor set on the nice paper. I did. It was a disaster. I was terrible with the watercolor set. I made a painting of a bridge that looked like someone threw up a casserole into a polluted lake.
But. I felt the same gentle sway of calm that flooded me the day I painted the soap girl. Maybe it wasn't just the examination. Maybe it was the flow of it. Maybe it was the color. Maybe it was something deeper in painting that you can't get making line drawings out of perceived necessity.
I cannot explain. But the process of learning, and learning loudly, in bright colors on irrational, thick paper is an exceptional rarity. My hope is that I will not lose it again.