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For mom and me, mixing paint builds new bonds

As a child, my attempts to learn art from my art-teacher mom usually went something like this: “Mom, I love this card of the mother goose swimming off into the sunset with her baby ducks behind her. Could you help me paint it?”

“I suppose. Are you going to pay attention and listen?”

“What?” I would ask, already distracted by a “Facts of Life” Christmas special. Mom would help me mix the right colors of paints and have me roughly sketch out the placement of the birds, the shoreline and the dock. I would pretend to listen to her instructions on perspective, color theory and light sources. But I was really concentrating on the TV, where Natalie and Tootie had opened a rival pizza shop against Blair and Jo, only to discover the true meaning of Christmas in the end after rescuing Mrs. Garrett from an avalanche and donating their profits to a homeless shelter.

I would return to the easel and begin painting clouds, only to have Mom come over and gently suggest ways in which my clouds could be cloudier. Before long, I would be sitting in the living room, eating ice cream in front of the TV while Mom was in the kitchen, finishing my painting. This pretty much explains how you can live under the same roof as a gifted art teacher and never really learn how to paint yourself.

But since I’ve started dabbling in art as a hobby, I’ve gained a whole new respect for Mom’s skills. I was so used to seeing her beautiful artwork all around that I almost took it for granted. Another grand mountain range? That’s nice. Angry ocean waves against a bleak sky? Meh. A giant canvas that captured my hometown’s main street — complete with people in period dress, cars and signs on the shops? Not bad.

Now that I see all the steps, the technical skill and the knowledge of color that are required to build up to that end result, I have a much better appreciation. Just because someone makes it look easy doesn’t mean it is.

So when I decided to paint a big canvas for my living room, I needed to turn to the expert. Mom has taught hundreds of students in her lifetime, including the very young, the very old and those who insisted they were very untalented. She has worked with students who had severe arthritis or whose hands shook because of Parkinson’s. Always, she sent them home with a painting they could be proud of.

Surely, she could teach me — the most stubborn, contrary and easily distracted person on the planet. Sure, I have some natural art talent and experience — but it was just enough to be dangerous.

I decided to paint something abstract. It would be an ocean scene in blues and grays, but not overly representational. It wouldn’t be easy to see where the clouds ended or the waves began, or whether there was an island off somewhere in the distance. Hopefully, all this obscurity would also obscure my lack of experience and formal training. People could look at it and ask: “Is she just being ironically vague, or blatantly clueless?”

Based on our past art projects together, Mom seemed skeptical. Even so, she was extremely helpful, right from the get-go. She told me things I would have never figured out on my own, like the need to sand my canvas first. She was invaluable when it came to mixing colors: One look, and she could immediately tell if a color needed a bit more green or gray or cobalt blue.

Abstracts are not Mom’s favorite type of art, but she still knew how to improve the process. Even with macular degeneration, she can see things that so many untrained eyes miss. See that dead spot in the sky? It needs more movement there. Don’t overwork that; it will get muddy. Make sure that cloud doesn’t end too abruptly; that’s never how it looks in nature.

She talked me into using a bit of peach to warm up the palette a bit. I smiled. For as long as I can remember, Mom has been telling people that peach makes every picture better. But I did as I was told — and she was right.

I did resist one of her suggestions. She wanted to add a few faraway birds in the sky, and I said, “Nope, it will start looking like one of YOUR paintings. I want this to be me.”

After I was done, I headed to the kitchen for a drink of water. I peeked around the corner and saw that Mom had picked up a brush and was brushing out some clouds that ended too abruptly. Just as she had done for so many art students before me, she was “fixing” it a bit so we could be proud of what we took home.

And you know what? I am. Not because it’s a great piece of art, but because it represents a project I did with my Mom, and it helped me realize what an amazing teacher she is.

Thanks, Mom. Everywhere you go, you add peach.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.

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