To have reached the age of 40 without ever handling a brush, to have regarded the painting of pictures as a mystery, and then suddenly to find oneself plunged in the middle of a new interest with paints and palettes and canvases, and not to be discouraged by results, is an astonishing and enriching experience. I hope it may be shared by others.
For to be really happy and to avoid worry and mental overstrain we ought all to have hobbies, and they must all be real. Best of all, and easiest to take up, are sketching and painting. They came to my rescue at a most trying time. When I left the Admiralty at the end of May 1915, I still remained a member of the Cabinet and of the War Council. In this position I knew everything and could do nothing; I have vehement convictions and no power to give effect to them; I had enforced leisure at a moment when every fiber of my being was inflamed to action.
And then it was, one Sunday in the country, that the children's paint box came to my aid. My first experiments with their boy water colors led me to secure, next morning, a complete outfit for painting in oils. The next step was to begin. The palette gleamed with beads of color; fair and white rose the canvas; the empty brush hung poised, heavy with destiny, irresolute in the air. Very gingerly I mixed a little blue paint with a very small brush, and then with infinite precaution made a mark about as big as a small bean upon the affronted snow-white shield. At that moment a motorcar was heard on the drive and from it there stepped none other than the gifted wife of Sir John Lavery, the distinguished portrait painter. "Painting! But what are you hesitating about? Let me have a brush, a big one." Splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and white, frantic flourish on my palette, and then several large, fierce strokes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas. The spell was broken. My sickly inhibitions rolled away. I seized the largest brush and fell upon my victim with berserk fury. I have never felt any awe of a canvas since.
This beginning with Audacity is a very great part of the art of painting. We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint box. And for this, Audacity is the only ticket.
I write no word in disparagement of water colors. But there is really nothing like oils. First of all, you can correct mistakes more easily. One sweep of the palette-knife "lifts" the blood and tears of a morning from the canvas; the canvas is all the better for past impressions. Secondly, you can approach your problem from any direction, beginning if you will with a moderate central arrangement of middle tones, and then hurling in the extremes when the psychological moment comes. Lastly, the pigments are so nice to handle. You can build them on layer after layer if you like and can change your plan to meet the exigencies of time and weather. Matching them with what you see is fascinating. Try it, if you have not done so -- before you die.
As one slowly begins to escape from the difficulties of choosing the right colours and laying them on in the right places and in the right way, wider considerations come into view. One is astonished to find out how many things there are in the landscape one never noticed before. And there is a tremendous new pleasure that invests every walk or drive with an added object. So many colours on the hillside, each different in shadow and in sunlight; such brilliant reflections in the pool, each a key lower than what they repeat; such lovely lights gilding or silvering surface or outline. I found myself instinctively as I walked noting the tint and character of a leaf, the dreamy purple shades of mountains, the exquisite lacery of winter branches, the dim, pale silhouettes of far horizons. And I had lived for over 40 years without ever noticing any of them except in a general way, as one might look at a crowd and say, "What a lot of people!"
I think this heightened sense of observation of nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint. And if you do observe accurately and with refinement, and record what you have seen with tolerable correspondence, the result follows on the canvas with startling obedience.
Then, the art galleries take on a new and -- to me at least -- a severely practical interest. You see the difficulty that baffled you yesterday; and you see how easily it has been overcome by a great painter. You look at the masterpieces of art with an analyzing and a comprehending eye.
Chance one day led me to a secluded nook near Marseilles where I fell in with two disciples of Cezanne. They viewed nature as a mass of shimmering light in which forms and surfaces are comparatively unimportant, indeed hardly visible, but which gleams and glows with beautiful harmonies and contrasts of colour. Each of these little points of colour sets up a strong radiation of which the eye is conscious without detecting the cause. Look at the blue of the sea. How can you depict it? Certainly not by any single colour that was ever manufactured. The only way in which that luminous intensity of blue can be simulated is by this multitude of tiny points of varied colour all in true relation to the rest of the scheme, Difficult? Fascinating!
I was shown a picture by Cezanne of a blank wall of a house, which he had made instinct with the most delicate lights and colours. Now I often amuse myself when I am looking at a wall or a flat surface of any kind by trying to distinguish all the different tints which can be discerned upon it, and considering whether these arise from reflections or from natural hue. You would be astonished the first time you tried this to see how many and what beautiful colours there are even in the most commonplace objects.
Obviously, then, armed with a paint box, one cannot be bored or left at a loose end. How much there is to admire and how little time there is to see it in! For the first time one begins to envy Methuselah.
It is interesting to note the part memory plays in painting. When Whistler guided a school in Paris he made his pupils observe their model on the ground floor, and then run upstairs and paint their picture on the floor above. As they became more proficient he put their easels up a story higher, till at last the elite were scampering up six flights into attic.
All the greatest landscapes have been painted indoors, and often long after the first impressions were gathered. In a dim cellar the Dutch or Italian master recreated the gleaming ice of a Netherlands carnival or the lustrous sunshine of Venice. Here, then, is required a formidable memory of the visual kind. So painting may be a very useful exercise for the development of a trained, accurate, retentive memory.
Again, there is really nothing like painting as a spur to travel. Every day is provided with its expedition and its occupation--cheap, attainable, absorbing, recuperative. The vain racket of the tourist gives place to the calm enjoyment of the philosopher. Every country you visit has a theme of its own and even if you cannot portray it as you see it, you know it, you feel it, and you admire it forever. But after all, if only the sun will shine, one does not need to go beyond one's own country. The amateur painter wanders and loiters contentedly from place to place, always on the lookout for some bright butterfly of a picture which can be caught and carried safely home.
Painting is complete as a distraction! I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow there is no room for them on the mental screen. They pass out into shadow and darkness. All one's mental light becomes concentrated on the task. When I have stood up on parade, or even, I regret to say, in church, for half an hour at a time, I have always felt that the erect position is not natural to man and is only with fatigue and difficulty maintained. But no one who is fond of painting finds the slightest inconvenience in standing to paint for three or four hours at a stretch.
Buy a paint box and have a try. It would be a sad pity to shuffle along through one's playtime with golf and bridge, when all the while, if you only knew, there is waiting for you close at hand the wonderful new world of thought and craft, a sunlit garden gleaming with colour. Inexpensive independence, new mental food and exercise, an added interest in every common scene, an occupation for every idle hour, an unceasing voyage of entrancing discovery--these are high prizes. I hope they may be yours.