Painting as a Pastime


Painting came to my rescue at a most trying time … a friend who makes no undue demands, excites to no exhausting pursuits, keeps faithful pace even with feeble steps, and holds her canvas as a screen between us and the envious eyes of Time or the surly advance of Decrepitude.

Winston Churchill


Today I discovered Churchill’s book Painting as a Pastime. In its depth of feeling, profound eloquence, and absurd, violent joy (or Joy, as Churchill would have it) it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, perhaps ever. Certainly nothing I’ve read in recent memory has moved me so much.

It’s really an essay, in fact — a delight to read, and it can be devoured in full in less than twenty minutes. You can find an HTML version here. I have an old paperback with a selection of his paintings at the end and I already adore it.

In compiling these quotes I struggled to avoid simply highlighting the whole book. Here are some of the best bits:

On the Muse and painting itself

And then it was that the Muse of Painting came to my rescue — out of charity and out of chivalry, because after all she had nothing to do with me — and said, ‘Are these toys any good to you? They amuse some people.’

Painting, an entrance to the ‘sunlit garden’:

… a sunlit garden gleaming with light and colour of which you have the key in your waistcoat-pocket. Inexpensive independence, a mobile and perennial pleasure apparatus, new mental food and exercise, the old harmonies and symmetries in an entirely different language, an added interest to every common scene, an occupation for every idle hour, an unceasing voyage of entrancing discovery — these are high prizes.

And again — reminds me of CS Lewis:

Plant a garden in which you can sit when digging days are done. It may be only a small garden, but you will see it grow. Year by year it will bloom and ripen. Year by year it will be better cultivated. The weeds will be cast out. The fruit-trees will be pruned and trained. The flowers will bloom in more beautiful combinations. There will be sunshine there even in the winter-time, and cool shade, and the play of shadow on the pathway in the shining days of June.

On the technical aspects of painting

This made me laugh, on painter’s block:

… the next step was to begin. But what a step to take! The palette gleamed with beads of colour; fair and white rose the canvas; the empty brush hung poised, heavy with destiny, irresolute in the air. My hand seemed arrested by a silent veto. But after all the sky on this occasion was unquestionably blue, and a pale blue at that. There could be no doubt that blue paint mixed with white should be put on the top part of the canvas. One really does not need to have had an artist’s training to see that. It is a starting-point open to all.

So did this:

I must say I like bright colours … I cannot pretend to feel impartial about the colours. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns. When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject. But then I shall require a still gayer palette than I get here below. I expect orange and vermilion will be the darkest, dullest colours upon it, and beyond them there will be a whole range of wonderful new colours which will delight the celestial eye.

On painting an ocean. It’s rare to find the mechanics of anything described so well!

Each of these little points of colour is now playing his part in the general effect. Individually invisible, he sets up a strong radiation, of which the eye is conscious without detecting the cause. Look also at the blue of the Mediterranean. How can you depict and record 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!

On mental effort required (and how you can only really get this after failing a few times):

It is wonderful—after one has tried and failed often—to see how easily and surely the true artist is able to produce every effect of light and shade, of sunshine and shadow, of distance or nearness, simply by expressing justly the relations between the different planes and surfaces with which he is dealing. We think that this is founded upon a sense of proportion, trained no doubt by practice, but which in its essence is a frigid manifestation of mental power and size.

On the memory required to paint well, and what the painter adds to a scene:

The canvas receives a message dispatched usually a few seconds before from the natural object. But it has come through a post-office en route. It has been transmitted in code. It has been turned from light into paint. It reaches the canvas a cryptogram. Not until it has been placed in its correct relation to everything else that is on the canvas can it be deciphered, is its meaning apparent, is it translated once again from mere pigment into light. And the light this time is not of Nature but of Art.

Painting as a warfare

(this is Churchill, so everything is warfare)

One begins to see, for instance, that painting a picture is like fighting a battle; and trying to paint a picture is, I suppose, like trying to fight a battle.

But it is in the use and withholding of their reserves that the great Commanders have generally excelled … In painting, the reserves consist in Proportion or Relation. And it is here that the art of the painter marches along the road which is traversed by all the greatest harmonies in thought.

A few choice phrases:

One sweep of the palette-knife ‘lifts’ the blood and tears of a morning from the canvas and enables a fresh start to be made; indeed the canvas is all the better for past impressions.

… hurling in the extremes when the psychological moment comes …

… the pigment itself is such nice stuff to handle (if it does not retaliate) …

This is just spectacular — on crushing painter’s block with ‘jaunty violence’:

Splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and the white, frantic flourish on the palette—clean no longer—and then several large, fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas. Anyone could see that it could not hit back. No evil fate avenged the jaunty violence. The canvas grinned in helplessness before me. The spell was broken. The 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.

On the side effects of learning

Heightened perception of the physical world

… nothing will make one observe more quickly or more thoroughly than having to face the difficulty of representing the thing observed.

One is quite astonished to find how many things there are in the landscape, and in every object in it, one never noticed before. And, this is a tremendous new pleasure and interest which 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, all tinted exquisitely with pale colour, rose, orange, green or violet. 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 forty 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!’

Once you begin to study it, all Nature is equally interesting and equally charged with beauty … 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 colours and tints which can be discerned upon it, and considering whether these arise from reflections or from natural hue.

Getting obsessed

Read this and try not to smile:

All one’s mental light, such as it is, becomes concentrated on the task. Time stands respectfully aside, and it is only after many hesitations that luncheon knocks gruffly at the door. When I have had to stand 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, has only been painfully acquired, and is only with fatigue and difficulty maintained. But no one who is fond of painting finds the slightest inconvenience, as long as the interest holds, in standing to paint for three or four hours at a stretch.

2019-10-22

P.S. The full list of things I underlined in the book is here.