To Paint is to Love Again, Part 1: Maybe You, Too, Can Paint?
A few months ago, I came across a magnificent text by Henry Miller, “To Paint is to Love Again”. It was originally published in 1960 by Cambria Books, but unfortunately the book seems to have been out of print for a while now, and besides a handful of copies available in selected libraries, there are even fewer copies for sale on Amazon at rather hefty prices. There is, however, a recording on YouTube of Miller reading the book himself in his wonderfully distinct voice, “blending honey and rezina” as one journalist put it, and a heavy Brooklyn accent. Having listened to the recording a few times, I decided that I must transcribe some of the text and put it on my blog, because I believe it’s a literary feast for both artists as well as art aficionados and enthusiasts. Therefore, it should not be hidden between the covers of the few remaining copies only a wealthy collector can afford.
Henry Miller was 37 years old when he picked up watercolour painting in 1928. As an unpublished writer struggling to make ends meet, whose “domestic life was a shambles”, he turned to painting as a means of rescue. “It seems to me”, he wrote later in the book, “that if I had not discovered this outlet, I would have gone insane.” But for Henry painting was more than a desperate attempt to take his mind off the daily hardships. He approached it with real excitement: the excitement of a child who first gets his hands on crayons, without coyness or fear, undaunted by a lack of experience or technical ability. His spontaneity was often praised by other painters who envied him the “courage” to paint the way he did, when instead of adhering to the rules of perspective (which he was unfamiliar with), he would depict buildings’ roofs as seen from a side (“When I explained that it was because of sheer ignorance, sheer inability, that I made the houses as I did, the answer usually is: No matter, you had fun. It makes a picture just the same.”). This joyful improvisation is what many professional artists struggle with. Having been taught the correct way of drawing and painting at school, they find it hard to break away from the set of rules that had been imposed on them by their professors. I’ve heard many a story of artists whose work was interesting before they started formal art education. But Miller didn’t have that. In fact, he was, like many children (myself included) highly discouraged from pursuing art in the early school years, and the thought of studying it formally later on never crossed his mind. Deemed hopeless and talent-less by his “dried-up spinster” of a teacher, he had no pressure to perform in any certain way when he finally picked up a brush several years later.
There’s a lot I can relate to in Miller’s text. My own primary school art education was disheartening too, with uninspiring exercises and a similarly unappealing teacher who gave me nothing but low grades and a belief that I wasn’t any good. But she didn’t discourage me from trying to express myself on paper. I would often spend an evening making pastel drawings which gave me the kind of rescue Miller needed in his messy and unstable adult life: an escape from my daily sorrows. Fast forward two decades and the feeling he describes whilst painting, when the mind goes on “humming like a wheel that continues to spin after the hand is let go” is just as powerful as it was when I first started drawing and painting. To paint is to love again, it engages our heart just the same.
I believe that many of you will too find inspiration and parallels between your own experience and Henry Miller’s. And maybe some of you will find the courage to start painting?
Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 1: Maybe You, Too, Can Paint?
How, where, when did it all begin? I often ask myself that. Was it really the night, as I like to think, that I came upon Turner’s prints in the show window of a Brooklyn department store, or did it start farther back in more enigmatic fashion? It may well have begun a John Imhof’s home in Glendale, where I spent so many happy vacations with his sons, Joey and Tony. John Imhof was the first painter I ever met in the flesh. He was a German emigré who had made stained glass windows for the neighborhood churches and at night, under a student’s lamp, painted watercolors which he gave to his friends. I still have one of the first he made when he gave my parents when I was a boy of seven or eight. And I still marvel each time I look at it that the human hand could have accomplished such wonders. It must have been done under a magnifying glass with a fine brush.
But perhaps the real impetus, then unsuspected, was given me in the art class at high school. My ineptitude was so flagrant that I was soon informed not to bother attending class. In those days, and I suppose the practice still continues, we were given plastic cast to copy usually of ancient eyeless Greeks and headless vestals with flowing drapes or else still lives of vases, sometimes with flowers, sometimes not. Nothing could be less inspiring, I then thought, and I still think so. I was incapable of drawing a vase, let alone a leaf or a flower. As for the table on which the vase stood, well, not even an acrobat could have kept his footing on the ones I made. Yes, as the teacher rightly said, it was hopeless to expect anything of me. I was an aesthetic leper, so to speak. To clinch it, I positively loathed the crabby bitch who reigned over us, a dried up spinster who talked of nothing but planes, shadows, perspective and such nonsense. I say that this experience with its accompanying sense of failure or inadequacy probably saved me in good stead. Sometimes the wrong thing turns out to be the right thing. Sometimes a setback is as good or better than a push. We seldom realize how much the negative serves to induce the positive, the bad – the good.
Then came a period which I frequently referred to in my writings. When I walked each day from the subway station at Delancey Street to Fifth Avenue and Thirty First Street, where my father kept his tailing establishment, I walked to and from his shop each day, partly to keep in trim, because I was then a physical culture fiend, and partly to rid my mind of the chagrin induced by being a tailor’s apprentice. On the corner of Twenty Seventh or Twenty Eight Street and Fifth Avenue, there was an art shop which I never passed without stopping to examine the prints in the show window. One day it would be Cimabue, the next Giotto or Uccello. Each week, it seemed, I found a new idol to worship, the Japanese above all: Hokusai, Utamaro, Hiroshige, Renoir, Whistler, Monet, Van Gogh, Botticelli, Marc Chagall, Holbain, Utrillo, Léon Bakst, Memling, Seurat, Modigliani, Rousseau, Breughel, Bosch, Van Eyck, Paul Klee, Kandinsky and so on. Ad infinitum. Now and then, I bought a print and hung it in some conspicuous place. A sure way to kill an idol. I also wrote long letters to my cronies about my discovery of this genius or that. I was then an inveterate letter writer and my eulogies were not confined to painters, writers and musicians, but to wrestlers, boxers, six day bike riders, political agitators such as Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Jim Larkin, Giovannitti, Carlo Tresca and suchlike.
A little later I rediscovered an old schoolmate, the lad who used to draw Santa Claus and his reindeers in colored chalk on the blackboard at Christmas time. Emil Schnellock was his name. From the day of this chance meeting on a street corner, we became lifelong friends. Thanks to him, I became a devoted lover of art. As disciple, I was ever ready to sit at his feet and listen to him discourse on the Masters, and he could do it well. Long before I dreamed of taking brush to hand, we talked paint, painting, painters, dug up precious albums to show one another, visited the galleries and museums, made each other drunk with our enthusiasm. Often we passed the whole night poring over the works of the artists we admired and revered. It was a golden period, this interim of adoration. I can still see myself, standing as it were, in the vestibule of art with hat in hand.
To draw or paint was still something it never occurred to me to attempt. That was for people like my friend Damon, who had a natural talent for it. Me, I was just a writer and not too sure of that either. I was convinced that I should never be able to draw even such a simple thing as a rectangle. It was during this period that my wife, who had been to Paris, retained with a copy of that sensational album of George Grosz, “Ecce Homo”. What a revelation it was! Such unmitigated savagery, such sublime desperation, such remorseless excoriation. An enlightened madman, I thought. A Goya come to life, a more ferocious Goya than ever Goya was. And what magistral, devastating use of the watercolor medium.
Comes the evening when I find myself before the show window of the department store. The prints of Turner lit up by a soft floodlight from above. My pal O’Reagan is beside me, my comforter. We had been walking for hours and hours in search of a friendly face, a handout in other words. No luck. We were returning home emptier than when we had started.
Suddenly the Turners. As often as I had looked at his watercolors in the past, always enchanted and bewitched, I had never seen them in their true light. They seemed to be speaking to us: “Try it!”, they whispered, “Maybe you, too, can paint”. Naturally, we weren’t crazy enough to think we could do it, Turner all at once. But we did feel that given a brush and some pigments, we could make pictures. Why? Was it because we were so famished, so forlorn, so lost to the world?
The following day we managed to get some nourishment and with the extra coins we had right in we bought two brushes, the poorest kind, and a box of child’s watercolors. That night I sat down to copy the self-portrait of Grosz that embellished the cover of “Ecce Homo”. To my amazement, I succeeded in obtaining a real likeness. I was dumbfounded. I could draw then! – or at least I could copy what I saw. Emboldened by this unexpected success, I drew a chair, a teapot, a chest of drawers. The odd thing was that what I drew resembled a chair, a pot, whatever it happened to be. They were recognizable.
It was then I suddenly recollected the art class in school and that dried-up spinsterhood dismissed me as hopeless. Blessing her name, I murmured to myself: “Good. Good for you, you old battle-axe. You never knew, did you, what a service you rendered me”, meaning thereby that had the venom failed to take, I might now be painting bananas and pineapples for the ladies’ home companion.
To be honest, I never have learned to draw. The very modest, almost non-existent talent I have, serves my purpose. When I need to draw better, I will, no doubt about it. What’s important about drawing is drawing, the doing it right or wrong, good or bad, finished or unfinished. The effort, in other words. Them as once perfect crosses, perfect nudes, perfect architecture, let them go to those as makes them. There are thousands of masters in each department. Some for horses, some for apples, some for cows and sheep, some for snow and mountains, some for odalisques, some for battle scenes, some for sailboats, some for still lives, some for stormy weather, and some just for chiaroscuro or what have you. Nearly every painter I have known, who had a skill in some particular direction, has confessed to me that he later came to regard this skill as a weakness, a danger that he had to unlearn what he knew or thought he knew. I remember so well how in the beginning, when I had this desire to draw everything in sight, I would arrive at my parents’ home, which was always an ordeal, equipped with pens, charcoal, pen and ink, and make them sit for their portraits. And when I saw that I could get a likeness if I really wanted to, I said to myself: “Why continue? Any fool can do it. Do something you can’t do”.
Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 2: What is a Picture?