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Lessons at the point of a paint brush

About a month ago, after a hiatus of several years, I began painting. I hadn't meant to give it up for so long. I missed the feel of the wooden brush between my fingers. I love to grab globs of oil paint and smear the paint onto stretched canvas. I like the sound the brush makes, the soft sweep. I like the smell of turpentine. It is thrilling to watch the first lines form into recognizable shapes and objects.

Sondra Ashton

When I am painting, something magical happens. The process takes me over and will not let me go. The clock quits ticking. I forget to comb my hair. I miss meetings. I forget to eat. With three brushes in my hand, I scratch my nose and give a whole new meaning to face painting. I reach out with my finger to smooth a line. Absently, I wipe my finger on my shirt. Later I see that I have ruined my second best shirt.

Are you any good, a friend asked. It doesn't matter. It's not important whether I'm good or not. I paint because it's fun. Every canvas is my teacher and that's a bonus.

Let me explain. Sometime in the last century I realized I had missed a lot in life. For years, I was hesitant to join in any activity unless I knew I would excel or at least do a tolerably good job. I sat on the sidelines and made excuses. I'm busy. I don't enjoy that kind of thing. I don't have time. I've got too much on my plate. Maybe later, I'd mumble. I thought that to try and not do well revealed some sort of character flaw. I would find myself almost paralyzed thinking about the risk. It was excruciating. So I didn't try.

I suffered from a twisted flaw in my thinking. I felt no competitive need to be the best. But I was afraid to fail. I admired others for getting out there and doing, regardless. Until one day I had a light bulb moment. Someone's first. Someone's second. Someone's last. It is a mathematical certainty.

That simple understanding freed me. Now I could try new things. I gathered my courage, said to myself, remember, somebody has to be last. I'm willing to be last in this new thing.

And that enabled me to paint. I don't have to be invested in the outcome. I took a few lessons several years ago. But life kept interfering. You know how that is. I painted maybe a dozen pictures over four or five years. Some were hopeless and landed in the landfill. But when I finished one that showed promise, I framed it.

So last week I took two paintings for framing to the High Plains Gallery and Frame Shop. One is an arrangement of jelly jars and the other an interior scene with a balcony overlooking the sea. I had another painting, a still life I wanted critiqued. I had gone as far as I could go with it. I liked the individual parts, but as a whole, the painting didn't work. I needed help. I took a deep breath and showed it. Do you know how hard that was? This was my creation, my baby. And I was asking that my work be judged. I was willing to risk the possibility that an expert would say it's no good, that she would trash it, and by extension, trash me. But I remembered, it is okay to finish the race dead last. Even when I lose, I win.

I could tell Kellie was hesitant. "You can tell me if I should just throw it away," I told her. "Be honest. I can take it."

She pulled out an easel and set my canvas on it. "I like this and this and this," she said.

"Me too. So, tell me why the whole thing doesn't work."

"Well, the wall in the background needs to have a corner about here. And you might want to make the walls darker, so the foreground pieces aren't lost. You need to bring the light around from the other side. And make the shadows deeper." She said some other stuff too, but that was all I could retain. As I left the shop Kellie called out, "Keep painting."

So I took my baby back home and repainted the background. I brought the light around from the opposite side and added a corner. Which meant I had to repaint the figures in the foreground; in other words, I changed everything. Kellie was right. Now it works.

As soon at the paint dries, I'll take it in to be framed. Next I'd like to do a winter landscape of my cabin in the snow-filled yard. I'll keep painting. This is fun.

(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High School in 1963 and left for good. She finds, upon her return, that things are a little diffeent. Keep in touch with her at


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