A blank canvas

Jack didn’t know what to paint. He’d applied the magic white undercoat like the man in the video suggested. Ideas usually flowed with the paint but not this time. The blank canvas seemed to be mocking him; reflecting back his empty life.

After twenty minutes he gave up, went to the kitchen and made a cup of tea. Maybe he’d do something else. It wasn’t like there were any rules. Painting was supposed to be therapy. Supposed to help him cope. Supposed to fill his time.

It had worked. For months he’d painted almost every day. He had a pile of paint covered canvases to prove it. They weren’t very good, but that wasn’t the point. He wasn’t an artist he was just a man struggling to cope with the loneliness of lockdown. A man on furlough who had discovered that life without work was even more pointless than he’d imagined.

He headed back to the spare bedroom hoping that he’d rediscover the joy of painting, and like the instructor, be able to put happy little trees exactly where they wanted to go. If he was honest most of his trees looked depressed with their drooping branches.

As he came into the spare bedroom the sun reflected off the side-table mirror and lit the empty canvas from behind. For a moment he thought he saw an image painted in shadows seeping through. He kept staring and could just distinguish hints of light and shade. He guessed it must be where he had applied different thicknesses of his base coat.

Jack moved his easel so that the sun struck the back of the canvas. The strong backlight revealed the shadows. As he didn’t have any other ideas he decided to capture them in paint.

He loaded his brush with yellow ochre and made his first mark. Immediately the shadows shifted as each dab of paint blocked the light and created something new. Some shadows seemed darker, some lighter. Carbon black made no extra shadows at all and he soon stopped using it. Cadmium red was weak, cobalt teal much stronger.

His forgotten tea went cold as colour after colour flew from his brush. Jack didn’t stop until he heard his daughter call up to him.

“I’ve brought lasagne. I’ll pop it in the oven. It’s already cooked so will only take a couple of minutes.”

He was surprised to discover the day had gone. The sun had long since shifted out of view around the back of the house. It must have been hours since it stopped hitting the canvas. Jack cleaned his brush. He’d only used one. He’d kept piling new paint on top of old.

He stepped back and almost collided with his daughter as she came into the room.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s a bit abstract for you isn’t it.”

“It’s just a stupid mess.”

It looked like a child had been let loose with a painting set. He picked up a new canvas and used it to cover up his painting.

All through tea he tried to work out whether or not he’d wasted his day. The end result was even worse than his paintings of mountains and streams. At least they looked like something.

“Dad, you alright?”

“Um. Yeah. Just thinking.”

“You want to be careful with that,” said his daughter.

He managed to smile at her joke.

“Yeah. Who knows what mad ideas I might come up with. Or mad paintings for that matter.”

While brushing his teeth he decided to look at the painting again. Maybe it would look different this time.

He lifted the empty canvas off and was confronted by a riot of colour. He tried turning the painting around but no matter which way he held it up it still didn’t make sense. Maybe in the morning.

The sunshine made no difference. The light couldn’t penetrate the thick layers of paint. There were no more shadows to chase and the painting looked as bad as it had the night before.

He decided to try one more thing. He moved the easel so that he’d be able to see it from the corridor outside the room. He hoped the extra distance might make a difference. He stepped out and went as far away as he could. When he looked back the doorway acted like a picture frame. In the picture were two canvases. The colourful mess and the blank canvas he’d been using to cover it up.

He felt like both of them were talking to him about his life – an empty mess. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. The scene hadn’t changed. The painting hadn’t magically improved. But his perception had shifted and he now saw a different story.

On the left was the blank sheet of possibilities; waiting to be filled. On the right was a painting full of colour. Every colour, because the empty space could be filled with infinite variety. It didn’t have to be happy little trees living in the shadow of a snow covered mountain – but it could be. It didn’t need to be clear stream reflecting autumn trees. It could be anything.

Jack was sick of waiting for life to get back to normal.

He grabbed his coat and hat and walked out. He wasn’t sure where he was going but that didn’t matter. He’d figure that out later, maybe. For now he was just going to walk. If he saw a bus he’d catch it. If he saw an open shop he’d go in. If he passed a stranger he’d nod and say hello. Hopefully by the time his daughter arrived with food he’d have done something worth talking about.

When Jack saw the supermarket he knew how he wanted to fill his day. He bought what he needed and texted his daughter. He’d have to move quickly to get it all cooked on time.

After his daughter left he picked up a brush and carefully painted a tiny table laid for dinner. It was almost impossible to see amongst the tangled colours. The next day he added another detail. By the time his furlough ended, images piled on top of each other fighting for space and almost entirely blotting out the background.

He hung it on the wall alongside a blank canvas. Each morning it reminded him that there were endless possibilities and because he was looking out for them he found many interesting ones.

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