Mel Brooks used to say that filling a blank page with words is hard work. Clearly, Brooks had not encountered a primed canvas propped on an easel. Neither had I until I was about 40.
At my High School, art class was considered the preserve of the dunderheads. I definitely could not draw and my experience of painting was limited to shelves, walls and trim (with the Jackson Pollack effect reserved for floorboards). It wasn’t until about a dozen years ago, after happening upon an article Winston Churchill had written in the 1920s, Painting as a Pastime, that I made my first trip to the art store. Churchill describes how, without any prior training or any demonstrable proclivity, he took up painting at the age of 41. This hobby became an all-consuming passion that (with the exception of World War II during which he only painted one picture) accompanied him into his dotage. Churchill’s article, later transformed into a book, must have stirred some of my latent, midlife longings.
Most people say they cannot paint but, as with most things, we can. Anyone who can write can by definition draw. Painting is no different from any other pursuit – playing music, coding software, acting, translating, designing physics experiments – we just don’t do it as well as the experts and at some point a natural gift separates Michael Phelps from the early morning swimmer or Goya, Velasquez and Picasso from the everyday dabbler. As with so many things painting is about overcoming inhibitions. The consequences of an unsatisfactory painting are only frustration and disappointment – nothing worse. The canvas will not punch you in the eye or bruise anything beyond your ego.
In our zany digital age when every waking moment is a working moment it is hard for us to rejuvenate the spirit by doing something completely unrelated to work. Most of us exercise because we know we feel better if we do so. But the busy executive, beyond tending to family, probably does little else. Painting is certainly not something I contemplated when I was getting a little company off the ground or using every spare minute to write books. A pastime seemed too self-indulgent and sybaritic. Now, with children gone from the house and a little more time on my hands, I only wish that I had carved out a portion of each day – or certainly each week – to, at a minimum, draw. The diversion and the tactile sensation of making something that hasn’t existed before buoys the spirits.
Like all duffers, I made my share of early mistakes when I started. At the art store, I bought almost every different shade of oil paint – little realizing that half a dozen tubes are sufficient to generate almost every hue and intensity imaginable. When I first heard about mediums – the art vernacular for liquids used to thin paint – I assumed they were arcane devices that channeled the artistic spirit. It’s easy to become enamored with the lingo of painting – especially the names of paints such as cadmium yellow medium, prussian blue, alizarin, viridian and paynes grey – and develop fondness for favorite brushes. I played around with watercolors but as soon as I discovered that oils offered more room for error, I switched. My first attempt at a completed picture was to copy – on a canvas that was intimidatingly large – a painting by R.B. Kitaj, one of the more talented artists to emerge during the 1960s. Looking at it recently, I noticed that my crude rendering was even worse than I remembered.
I didn’t make much progress until I tripped across Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards, a reassuring guide to the art of drawing (and painting is little more than drawing with brushes) first published about 40 years ago. I worked through the exercises in the book and found they helped because drawing is the vocabulary for all art. Lessons (though I have taken less than ten formal ones) accelerated my progress. They helped me master the mechanical rudiments – such as paint mixing and fiddling around with hues and intensity but, more importantly, how to develop a painting in layers and, odd though it sounds, apply more paint.
The best education comes from persistence, practice, experience and observation. Every painting you make teaches you something even if, for the most part, you don’t like what you painted. Painterly companionship is also a godsend. Last summer I spent a wintry week in the west of Scotland with thirty students – some just one-third my age - from the Princes Drawing School – now the best school of its kind in the United Kingdom. Not only did it rain every day but, even worse, there were only two colors in the surrounds: grey and green. We worked for seven days from 9 in the morning to 6 in the evening and watching people’s different interpretations of the same views and listening to the nightly critiques was educational.
Painting sharpens your gaze. Every view and person becomes an object of scrutiny. Painting makes you look at things more intently and, best of all, conjures up a time and memory far better than a photograph, postcard or Instagram snap. If you look at a painting you made, you will remember the time, the place, the weather, the people you were with and the mood of the moment. That’s something the smartphone does not do. Painting also shuts out the world. If you are painting outdoors, the passage of time is marked by the changing length of the shadows. I’ve been late for many lunches and dinners because I lost track of the hour.
There is little better than rising long before breakfast and disappearing with an easel. It’s deeply satisfying to stand in a hotel room – while others race around tourist sights – and quietly paint a view. There is also nothing that beats the sense of fulfillment that comes from completing a picture where everything seems to go right. This sensation overwhelms all the frustrating outings when all goes wrong, the easel topples in the wind, or the painting falls short. It’s oddly akin to hitting a ball: get the timing right and it seems effortless. Miscue the timing and it’s painful.
Leafing through magazines, I’ve discovered any number of fellow travelers who have gained solace from this solitary pursuit. It turns out that Bob Dylan and Ron Wood are both avid artists. Morley Safer of 60 Minutes fame has painted for a long time, as has Tony Bennett. More surprisingly, painting has also attracted some hard-boiled politicos. Don Regan, Ronald Reagan’s Treasury Secretary and longtime CEO of Merrill Lynch, discovered painting in his retirement and ruefully admitted that if had done so as a younger man he would have played far less golf and consumed less whiskey. More recently, I noticed a photograph of another retiree proudly standing beside his easel – George W. Bush.
If you paint outdoors your skin thickens - not because of the elements but because passersby becomes curious. I like to paint early on weekend mornings in a little Northern California coastal town where my easel seems to attract cigarette smokers out for a lung-cleansing stroll, dog-walkers and better still, a couple of local fishermen who kindly give me fresh abalone or salmon. Everyone has a comment. Most will stare at the canvas and ask, “What are you painting?” One lady told me, “My aunt left me her palette. Yours looks just like hers." Occasionally, a child will saunter along and it’s always fun to let them dab some paint on the canvas.
I try and take paints whenever I travel and this just invites comments and behavior of a foreign nature. A hotelier surveyed one canvas and my paint spattered clothes before observing, “Your shorts make a great piece of abstract art. I could sell those." A couple of years ago on Ile de Re, a bucolic island slightly north of La Rochelle, I was painting in a harbor town when I got jostled away from my easel by French tourists eager to inspect and voice their views (which were less charitable than Californians). Last summer, I was offered my first commission – a German who owned an apartment on a small Greek island and must have had one or two bottles of retsina with lunch, asked me to make a painting of his home. It’s little wonder that the British artist Stanley Spencer, known for his imaginary biblical paintings conjured up in Cookham, a village about 25 miles from London, used to dangle a sign politely asking people not to distract him from his work.
Procrastinating while painting can be costly. Last Fall I began painting the shapes and shadows of a ramshackle concrete-making plant, which, for many decades, had been a permanent fixture beside a road in rural Marin County (California). I’d made the early morning outing five or six times, felt the painting was one step away from completion but had failed to finish it. A few weeks ago, I was cycling along the road – eager to catch a glimpse of the plant – only to discover to my horror that it had been torn down. Now this unfinished painting stands propped against a wall and my painful tale prompted one of my sons to say, “Keep this up and one day you could be the world’s most famous unknown artist."
An abridged version of this article originally appeared in Fortune. Paintings from the author, from top: "Two Lighthouses," "Cattle Trough," "Boots and Chairs," and "Uptown."