Saga, June 2016

A friend at my art class asked the other day, “What do you do with your pictures afterwards?” This is a very good question to ask someone who is learning to draw and paint portraits, and making little observable progress. When you are a beginner like me, what is the right thing to do with your feeble efforts? Put them straight into the recycling? Shove them in a box under the bed, to be dealt with, at some later date, by the house-clearers? Make a bonfire? “Ooh,” I said, happy to talk about it. “Do you know, I gaze at my pictures in total admiration. I have no critical distance at all. I think they are all absolutely marvellous.” She didn’t know what to say. After all, she had seen some of my pictures with her own eyes. But it was, for me, a liberating confession: all my life I have been self-critical, and brutally dismissive of compliments. But when it comes to my art, I simply glow with pride. “Well done, Lynne,” I say to myself, standing back from an inexplicably lopsided pencil drawing of James McNeill Whistler with holes in the paper from all the rubbing out. “Bloody, bloody, bloody well done.”

Perhaps we all have one skill we can allow ourselves to be pleased with. My friends are slightly confused that mine turned out to be art. I cook them a meal and they say, “This is good” and I say, “No it isn’t.” They say I look nice; I declare that, on the contrary, I look terrible. I suppose I’m pretty happy with my house, but since I didn’t build it myself, I can hardly take much credit. But when I proudly show them my pictures of (say) Joni Mitchell or Anton Chekhov or Timothy Spall, they are often lost for words (and not in a good way). “Are the eyes a bit big?” they say, at last, and I say, “They might be, yes. And I can’t do ears. I also find hair and mouths quite difficult. But I think that nose is really him, don’t you?”

What I have to guard against is the impulse to give my art as gifts to people. Last autumn, I attempted a drawing of the actor Bill Paterson, based on an excellent photograph of him in his Waiting for Godot costume, complete with bowler hat. I was half-way through the drawing when it occurred to me that some great friends of mine were also chums with Bill Paterson and would therefore love to have this portrait as a Christmas gift! In the run-up to Christmas, I was laid low by a cold, which meant that most of the normal Christmas preparation (cards, for example), just went by the board – but not the Great Bill Paterson Portrait Surprise. No, no. Despite feeling deathly, I soldiered on with that, and even got it framed. On Christmas Day, my friends thanked me warmly (by text) for their gifts, but a month later, I suddenly thought to ask if they had especially liked the portrait of Bill. There was a stunned silence, and some noticeable eye-swivelling. “That was Bill?” they said.

I wasn’t hurt at all. I thought it was hilarious. The thing is, I do know I’m not very good. I know that I need to explain, “Actually, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch, but you have to look at it sort-of from the side and with your eyes almost closed. Try starting with the nose and then pulling out.” Back at the art class, I asked my friend what she did with her own pictures, which are considerably better than mine. She said she put them in a drawer. Shrugging, I returned to the extraordinarily brilliant Tom Hardy I was doing. “Are the eyes a bit big?” she said, gently. And I said, cheerfully, “Yes, probably. But I’ve really got his lovely eyebrows, haven’t I?”

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