A Brush With Painting

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For the first time in more than three decades I took on a painting job for pay, agreeing to paint kitchen cabinets for an acquaintance at an hourly rate. Freelance writing is a decidedly hit-or-miss way to make a living, and this was a solid way to pay for Christmas presents. Besides, I actually like to paint, as long as it doesn’t become a full-time, everyday job.

My late dad taught me how to paint as a teen-ager. We must have painted our house on South Twelfth Street in Longview a half-dozen times, or at least it felt that way. Not because of inferior workmanship but because my mom kept changing her mind about what color she preferred — either the exterior or one of the interior rooms. When she did, my dad would dutifully haul out the paintbrushes, and his sons and he would get to work.

In addition, my dad was a sign painter by trade, and an artist by avocation. He would often put me to work prepping the four-by-eight sheets of plywood with coats of primer. I learned how to silk-screen bumper stickers and T-shirts by fifth grade. My dad set up a shop in our enclosed carport where he did modest jobs for political candidates, local businesses and special events such as 5K runs.

He taught me how to properly clean paint brushes, both latex and oil, though thank goodness I no longer have to meddle with the latter. My dad considered it a sin to not clean a brush, to let its bristles stiffen so it couldn’t be used again, and so do I. Since he was an artist, who bought expensive horsehair brushes on a limited income, he knew how to make them last and did the same with prosaic house-painting versions. I now do so as well.

My dad taught me how to hold a paintbrush — more like one holds a pencil, not like a baseball bat. That allows you to control the bristles so the paint goes where it is intended. He taught me how not to make a mess when painting, or at least no more than necessary.

It was only natural when I headed to Stephen F. Austin State University that I fell into painting houses for money, especially when I found a partner. Valla and I were strictly platonic buddies. She and I had co-founded an ultimately unsuccessful bookstore in Nacogdoches while in college. I was 19 and truly clueless about what it took to run a retail business — mainly sufficient capital, it turns out. After that failed, we took up house painting from time to time to help pay the bills, cadging work often from my college professors. Each time I head south and get on the loop in Nacogdoches, I pass a house on the edge of the loop and think, “Yep, I painted that house in the summer of 1975.”

Over the years, I have painted about a dozen houses I have owned, inside and out, including the current dwelling my Beautiful Mystery Companion and I bought earlier this year. There are plenty more surfaces to paint in this house as well.

The greatest technological improvement in painting since my college days is not in the paint, nor in the brushes, rollers or anything else related to the actual painting. It’s the iPod, or in my case, the iPhone’s music app, which is the same thing. I don’t have to worry about disturbing the homeowner with music playing too loudly, and can set it on shuffle so it randomly picks songs out of my library. Away I go, painting while mentally solving the problems of the world, writing a best-solving novel or simply daydreaming away as I paint. After all, this is an activity that does not require a massive amount of brainpower or concentration, unless I’m perched up on a 16-foot ladder. Then I pay greater attention to what I’m doing.

I completed the job-for-pay in time to go Christmas shopping, a bit sore since painting involves muscles I don’t usually use. Now it is back to pounding on a keyboard and staring at a computer screen.

That remains my true vocation, despite the lousy pay.

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