‘Painting is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind.’
Unicorn|1 July 2013|Hardcover|96 pages|a gift|5*
I was delighted on Sunday when my son gave me Painting as a Pastime by Winston Churchill as a Mother’s Day present. I read it straight away and loved it. The cover shows Churchill’s painting of his home, Chartwell. Churchill was forty when he first started to paint at ‘a most trying time‘ in his life and art became his passion and an ‘astonishing and enriching experience‘.
It was in 1915, when he had left the Admiralty and although he was still a member of the Cabinet and of the War Council he knew everything but could do nothing. He had great anxiety and no means of relieving it, left with many hours ‘of utterly unwanted leisure in which to contemplate the frightful unfolding of the War‘. So, he began painting.
I was amused to find out that he took the same hesitant steps that I took – using a very small brush, mixed a little paint and then ‘made a mark about as big as a bean’ on his canvas.’ A friend arrived and told him to stop hesitating and showed him how to use a big brush and splash on the paint, which he did with ‘Berserk fury‘.
But Churchill begins, not by writing about painting, but about the need for a change to rest and strengthen the mind:
… the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts. … It is no use saying to the tired ‘mental muscles’ – if one may coin such an expression – ‘I will give you a good rest,’ ‘I will go for a long walk’, or ‘I will lie down and think of nothing.’ The mind keeps busy just the same.
What is needed are hobbies. And then he goes on to write about reading, and about handling books:
Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are.
But he considers that reading doesn’t provide enough change to rest the mind and that what is needed is something that needs both the eye and the hand – a handicraft. In his case painting fulfils that role. He talks about the fun of painting, the colours and the pleasure he found in not only in painting a picture, but also the pleasure he discovered in a heightened sense of observation, finding objects in the landscape, he had never noticed before:
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 agree that painting does relax the mind, but I love reading and can be thoroughly absorbed in a book so that I am unaware of the passing of time, just as I also know how quickly time passes when painting (or in my case in trying to paint). As Churchill wrote:
Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen. They pass out into shadow and darkness. 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.
Reading this book was pure pleasure and has encouraged me to pick up my paints again.
One final extract:
Just to paint is great fun. The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out. Matching them, however crudely, with what you see is fascinating and absolutely absorbing. Try it if you have not done so — before you die.
Painting as a Pastime was originally published in 1932, one of the twenty three essays in Thoughts and Adventures (whose American title is Amid These Storms).