Photo by William Felker on Unsplash

The joy of (house) painting

I once had the opportunity to meet the famous British film director Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone, Angel Heart, etc.) when I was a student. During that encounter he recalled how many journalists curious to know about his upbringing asked him what his father did for a living, to which he replied ‘painter’. The amusing (to him) assumption they made was that his father was also a member of the creative class until he added ‘house’ to the beginning of the word.

I recall this anecdote because lately I have been working the pot and brush, not in any commercial sense but to put the final touches to a recent house renovation, which as ever, reveals the tired-looking walls and doors that usually defy closer inspection. Having lived in older houses all my life, this activity has become second nature to me.

And if any of you are familiar with painting houses as an activity, you will be familiar with the curious state of mind it induces. First of all you have the inertia phase where you reluctantly gather up your materials — old paint pots (and new) that defy opening only to reveal an impenetrable crust, brushes imperfectly cleaned the last time, stiff as Hitler’s moustache and masking tape that tears inconveniently or curls maddeningly into Mobius strips.

Any professional will tell you that good preparation is key to a successful painting outcome and these revelations already demonstrate that the game has been rigged (by yourself) from the start. But once you have pushed past the gravitational pull of the inertia phase, you bring your assembled materials to the work space and make ready.

Now, as a seasoned painting winger, I tend to think myself skilled and clever enough to skip past the masking tape, yesterday’s paper phase and even the ‘better put on my old painting clothes’ phase and get to it. This is a cardinal error. This has resulted in multiple post painting Jackson Pollock clean ups, the addition of many new clothes to the old painting clothes collection and various frayed discussions with the ‘government’ that ordered the painting in the first place.

Oftentimes the government (aka wife unit)will now cut these worst practices off at the pass by a pre-painting intervention armed with yesterday’s papers, masking tape and a fresh pack of cleaning wet wipes, which in our parlance have come to be known as ‘poison wipes’ due to their effect on prolonged exposure to the skin. This last addition, I might add is a very useful one for anyone embarking on a painting job — believe me, I have some experience in this.

Now the painting phase itself is a curious one because it has certain distinct phases in my observation. The first is obviously hope tinged with despair — hope that the job will go well and quickly and the despair that it inevitably takes longer than you hoped and doesn’t look that great either. Despair can also be aggravated by the choice of paints (too runny, too thick, wrong colour, etc.) and the choice of implement (would a roller have been better than a brush or vice versa, should I have used a wider brush to save time etc. etc.)

Latex-based paints in my experience are the most forgiving, oil paints the least. Also, working with oil paints, the fumes induce a certain dissociative state of mind which can be helpful with the despair natural to larger, more complicated surfaces but ultimately can be classified as substance abuse.

During the dissociative phase, yesterday’s papers take on a new significance and pictures of politicians, celebrities and particularly lurid headlines draw the eye more keenly than a misplaced splodge of paint. On many occasions I have been tempted to deface a politician or celebrity’s face with my paintbrush and have enjoyed the results.

Music is very helpful in keeping one’s mind distracted from the sheer repetitive boredom of dousing the brush or roller, twisting or rolling to remove the excess and applying to the surface in question — one word of advice: choose a playlist that has enough good not to distract you from the job in hand — otherwise you will spend more time selecting than painting — never a good look.

Still on the subject of music, beware the dreaded earworm. If you have embarked on your paint journey without a playlist, one will be provided for you and put on repeat. It must be something to do with the repetitive nature of painting that lends itself to the creation of this monstrous phenomenon and the misery it causes but anyway, it’s real. Firm painting favourites playing often in my head include ‘I want to break free’ by Queen, ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen (with accompanying vocals by Bowie) and most lately, ‘Don’t give up’ the duet sung by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. The horror of the earworm of course is that it is the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve even learned to weaponize the earworm with my wife. Just after Christmas, I only had to sing the solitary line ‘pa rapa pam pam’ and she was infected for hours.

But as to the joy of painting, despite the various pitfalls I have described along the way, there is a certain satisfaction derived from a job well done and the larger and more complex the job, the bigger obviously the satisfaction. And despite the repetitive nature of the act itself, there is a level of artistry that comes with wielding a brush or a roller.

I’ve figured out that the reason, at least for me, is that painting induces a flow state which is just as absorbing in its way as any creative hobby. I find the same pleasure in cooking at a leisurely pace (as opposed to a frenetic one), which at one level can be as mundane but also can result in a meal that can be exalted and shared.

If you’ve been looking at the same scuffed, faded or wrong-coloured wall for too long, allow me to recommend the joy of painting as a soothing balm for your soul. The accent wall as it is known in interior design circles is a good place to start — but watch out for those paint splodges on favourite clothes and floors and beware — there be earworms!



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Making piece with absurdity and cognitive dissonance