Busman’s holiday

Good technique means laying off the weird experiments, and pouring your creativity into the narrow area that matters—the content itself.

My current canvas.

“Has anyone ever bought a house and not thought the previous owner was nuts?” my daughter Laura asked me. Our current home is the exception to that rule, but we bought it from friends who are meticulous. In general, she’s right.

We’re in Troy, New York, helping our third daughter work on her first house—a classic fixer-upper starter home. It was an accretion of bad style choices over solid bones and a dry basement; in other words, it was a good buy.

A 220 line and water line snaking up through an old cast-iron grate. Up to code? Possibly not.

They’ve already removed the shag carpeting, hideous wallpaper, paneling, and five layers of flooring in the kitchen, including ceramic tile that someone nailed hardwood over. (I wouldn’t have believed it was possible.) But they stopped cold when they discovered that the stove’s 220 power line and the refrigerator’s water line both snaked through an old cast-iron heating grate in the kitchen, which was then covered with all those layers of flooring. My husband spent yesterday sorting that mess out.

Artists have an affinity for these quixotic projects. Yes, it’s cheaper to do it ourselves, but the same impulse that makes us create works on canvas also propels us into building projects. I love nothing more than a project that involves a brad nailer, miter saw, clamps, and a lot of swearing.

My son-in-law spent hours yesterday trimming these drawers to accept new faces.

My part in this kitchen project is cosmetic. I’ve spent two days sanding and prepping the cabinet frames. Today, if all goes well, I’ll spray everything with primer. Mind you, I’ve never used an airless sprayer in my life.

“I admire that our kids are not afraid to try new things,” my husband said. I reminded him that we were building our first house at their age. “And we did lots of things flat-out wrong,” he countered. For example, we backfilled the foundation with crusher-run gravel and then had to dig it back out, laboriously, by hand. DIY is always a learn-as-you-go proposition.

My parents helped up with those building projects thirty-five years ago, and we’re helping our kids. I guess you could say we’re paying it forward.

“I think of my dad every time I do this stuff,” my wise student Mark Gale said. “Your kids will think of you when they pass down the same knowledge thirty or forty years from now.”

The old doors appeared to have been assaulted by a wildcat which needed its claws trimmed, so new doors it is.

My bête noire in renovation is the use of whackin’ big nails to hang trim. They make no difference in the trim while it’s in place but they create an awful mess for the renovator. I inevitably spend a lot of time filling divots in plaster and raining invective down on the heads of my predecessors. Somewhere, someone is probably saying the same things about jobs I did.

That has its parallels, of course, in painting. Practically speaking, there’s no real reason you can’t paint on cardboard—it has good tooth and it’s cheap and plentiful. But if you happen to create a masterpiece, your ideas will really annoy the archivist who must stabilize it sometime down the road.

Good technique means laying off the 2” nails and the experiments with substrates, and pouring your creativity into the narrow area that matters—the content itself.

Have a wonderful time painting, and I’ll let you know how the airless sprayer works.

A paean to painting with a 2” sash brush

As in all painting, the quality
of the brush matters. And, no,
this isn’t a 2″ sash brush.

Our Christmastide project was to rebuild and refinish our kitchen cabinets and rehang the doors, a task that has stubbornly remained undone for nine years. As with all such tasks, it’s taken longer than I budgeted, the unconscious expectation of which is why I let it ride that long in the first place.
My studio, overrun (these are the insides of the doors).
I like applying finishes, whether it’s on woodwork or painting on a canvas. The actual process is the same—you start with a sticky, gelatinous fluid, and your object is to overcome its innate desire to drip, to puddle, to build up in ridges, to wick where it isn’t wanted, to separate into its constituent parts—in short, you lay it down as elegantly and economically as is possible, in the places you planned for it to go.
Painting on a canvas and painting in a room are both essays in trompe-l’œil, whether it’s a question of creating a face or a forest on linen, or fooling the eye with putty and painter’s caulk.
And, regardless, you still have to clean the brush.
Top cabinets, sans doors. Still more
to do on the window frame.
It’s no accident that one of the most skilled landscape painters I know—Brad Marshall—earns his daily crust as a sign-painter (featured here, in the New York Times). It’s no surprise that the best painters in my household are Sandy, Mary and me, because we’re the three most likely to be found painting on canvases. You develop a steady hand from using it.
This kitchen has the original cabinets from 1928, and a soda-fountain-style banquette, and the game is to update them wittily without overriding them stylistically. That means respecting their weird little corners and worn hardware. Of course this has been far more work than tearing them out and replacing them would ever have been, but that wouldn’t have been very respectful of the house. They were never intended to be unpainted, but after 90 years of repainting, they required stripping, and the birch-and-poplar cabinetry is finish-grade by modern standards, so I decided to stain the upper cabinets and all the doors and paint the bottom ones, which were originally built from a lower grade of pine (and have been substantially rebuilt by my engineer spouse).

Meanwhile, my current landscape languishes on its easel. I can’t get to it past all these doors.

Bottom cabinet, with a drawer inserted
(sans hardware) for illustration purposes.
The dog food is real.