Blogging with Parkinson's

A personal perspective on Young Onset Parkinson's

Painting with Parkinson’s

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This post isn’t really about Parkinson’s. It’s about me, and a little bit about how Parkinson’s has given me back my drive to paint. (Not that I drive to paint; I tend to prefer to walk to do it. But that was a very bad pun.) It’s also a little bit about how it feels when I’m painting and how Parkinson’s affects that.

Cannon Heath Down from White Hill, 24 August 2011. Oil on canvas.

Cannon Heath Down from White Hill, 24 August 2011. Oil on canvas (14 x 18").

I love painting. I have always loved painting. I do have a little natural talent in that direction, but I didn’t go to art school. (I went to university to study science instead. Then I did a few evening classes and half of an Open University degree in Art History. Then I had children.)

I’ve managed, one way or another, to have a few days this year when I could get out and about without the children. Some of those days, I spent walking (as mentioned earlier, I like walking, preferably in the countryside). And while I was walking – often up the biggest hills I could find – I was also, consciously or otherwise, scouting for locations to paint.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the Mervyn Peake award. This is an arts competition open only to people with Parkinson’s. When I heard about it, I thought to myself, “I really must have a go at that”. But there wasn’t much time, and the weather was poor, so I painted some flowers. In acrylic, because it dries quickly and doesn’t imbue the house with a curious smell (I must admit, I quite like the smell of oil paint, but I don’t live here alone, and I don’t have a room that I can dedicate to painting and shut the door on). You can see part of it in the banner for this blog. It was the first “proper” painting that I had done for many a year, not counting the wedding card watercolours of flowers that I always do for my friends.

I sent the painting in to the competition, but I didn’t really have much hope. It wasn’t really very exciting. In fact, the subject was hackneyed and predictable, even if I had only just discovered (after choosing the flowers) that the tulip – specifically a red tulip with white edges – is the international symbol for Parkinson’s. It was technically good, my painting, but lacked that certain je ne sais quois. It was also rather poorly composed. Needless to say, it didn’t win anything.

But then the weather improved, and the idea of sitting and painting en plein aire, as the Impressionists used to say, became a plausible aim.

Bluebell Wood, in it's carrier - the first of these that I made. There's a cardboard sleeve (pre-made - I just 'repurposed' a handy box), not shown.

Bluebell Wood, 24 April 2011. Oil on canvas board (12 x 10").

In April, I painted some bluebells. That’s them over on the right.

In August, I painted a hill (twice, so far – it’s a very picturesque hill, and it’s only about two miles away). You can see the second version above.

I like working in oils, and was determined to use them. Oils take ages to dry (and I mean ages – a week before they’re dry to the touch).  So, before I went on any painting expeditions, I had to solve a fundamental problem: how do you carry a wet painting home again? I’m not entirely sure how the Impressionists managed it, but I had a look around on the Internet and discovered that:

  1. it is possible to buy devices that allow you to carry wet paintings, but they are mostly expensive and heavy (being made, frequently, out of wood), and
  2. it is possible to make your own out of cardboard.

I gathered a few design inspirations from what I saw and read online, and set to work. Such carriers need to fit the support (this is a fancy artist’s word for “the thing that you are paining on”; usually, if painting outdoors in oil, it will be a board or a stretched canvas), so if you use different sizes of board or canvas, you need one for each size. Stupidly, I bought lots of different sizes.

My basic idea is as follows:

  • Make a cardboard box to fit the canvas or board, with extra depth built in. It doesn’t matter (much) if the box is not perfectly rigid, because the board or the canvas has its own rigidity.
  • Use the fact that a painting will spend its decorative life inside a frame to your advantage; those bits right at the edge of the canvas are expendable! So, I build up the very edges of the interior of the box with strips of corrugated cardboard; the support sits in the box face down. Sometimes I use little triangles in the corners, too.
  • Add some bungee cords to keep the box closed and to help keep it on the back of your rucksack, and you’re done!

This approach works quite well if there is enough air between the box and the support. The bigger the support, the more air is required so that the box doesn’t come into contact with the paint.

The next problem was getting the amount of kit right. There is, after all, only so much stuff that you can lug up and down hills, through narrow footpaths and over stiles with overhanging trees. There is also only so much stuff you can manage once you’re set up in the field (or on the hillside, which is potentially worse as the ground is decidedly not flat). Little pots and pans for liquids (i.e. turpentine and linseed oil) aren’t a good idea if you haven’t got a table. So I decided not to bother with liquids. Paintbrushes tend to need cleaning – with turpentine – during and after a painting session. So I decided not to bother with brushes.

Fortunately, I have a very nice painting knife. Painting knives are extra-flexible palette knives, designed for applying paint with. They are quite fun to use.

Impromptu paletteThe first time I went out on a painting expedition, I forgot about a palette (for mixing colours) until the last minute. I couldn’t get at my usual palettes easily, so I improvised: a sheet of greaseproof paper clipped to the inside of the lid of the box I keep my paints in. It worked, but was slightly restrictive, so I bought a pad of tear-off palettes for subsequent excursions. My wooden one would have been awkward to carry home covered in paint.

Painting kit. And map.Then there’s the folding stool, folding easel (a lightweight metal design) and the plastic box with paints in. Throw in lunch, water (to drink), first aid kit (never had to use it apart from treating blisters), and sundry other stuff and my painting kit weighs 5.5kg.

And, of course, there are no bins out there on the hills. So you have to carry your waste home – mustn’t forget the plastic carrier bags! Essential for torn-off palettes and painty bits of kitchen roll, among other things.

So, what is it like, painting on the hills? It’s marvellous. Absolutely bloomin’ marvellous. I revel in the fact that I’m up there, out there, doing something I love and doing it well (most of the time; the beauty of oils is that mistakes are readily corrected!). I’ve enjoyed the walk, the challenge of finding a good spot (one where the view is good and the easel won’t fall down the hill…) I love the fact that I have a limited time to finish the work in – I don’t intend to come back, except for a new painting – and I love that there will be a concrete result at the end of it all. It’s a type of freedom. No housework. No childcare. All that matters is the hill, the paint, and the moment.

The moment extends until I realise that my left arm has seized up (usually, I only notice when I need to open a tube of paint). It’s been holding the palette and the hand, in particular, has got unbearably stiff. Ouch. Time to put the palette down and stretch

Apart from that, the Parkinson’s doesn’t bother me. There are no palette hand tremors (that left hand does shake at other times). And I’m still early enough in my Parkinson’s journey that I can still scramble around on a hill without too much trouble. In fact, it’s quite possible that scrambling around on the hill is helping in itself – it’s all exercise, isn’t it?


One thought on “Painting with Parkinson’s

  1. I’ve made a couple more expeditions to my favourite hillside, and can report that choosing a day when it isn’t very windy is very important, because the canvasses like to pretend that they’re actually the sails on a boat and have a tendency to blow around most inconveniently. It can also get pretty chilly when the wind is blowing (and you’re not moving around very much) – and that, I have discovered, only serves to encourage the Parkinson’s symptoms. I’m not sure which comes first, the shivers from being cold or the tremors from lack of dopamine, but they seem to feed upon each other. It still only affects my left side, though.

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