I Dreamed a Dream of Painting

by Alec Clayton
Written for The Weekly Volcano's blog, SPEW July 2012.

Champagne Summer

Last night I dreamed a dream of painting. I had laid a large canvas on the floor, and I was down on my hands and knees drawing a jagged slash of vivid red across the canvas with a cattle marker. Cattle markers are a kind of oil stick (oil paint mixed with wax in a crayon form) that’s approximately the size and shape of a cucumber. Before I retired from painting these were my primary drawing/painting tools. I use the term “drawing/painting” because my method, quite often, was more like drawing than painting —slashing, scumbling, pushing the paint about with oil sticks and those cattle markers on canvas that was stapled to the wall or to a board on an easel or laid out on the floor. It had to be on a hard surface because stretched canvas is too springy and flexible and I pushed into the canvas with great force.

So that was what I was doing in my dream last night, pushing the waxy paint around on the canvas while I crawled about it on my hands and knees, worried about getting paint on my newly laid linoleum floor. Over and over I worked on this one section trying to get the texture and the edges of the jagged red stripe just right. At one point I decided that I needed a sharp, straight edge in one part of the stripe, so I got some masking tape and taped off a line about two feet long. Then I decide I needed to swipe the red across one area with a trowel. That’s something I used to do quite often when I was painting. I would squeeze out globs of oil paint from a tube or pour it from a can and then using a piece of wood or some kind of scraper as a trowel I would drag a swath of paint across an area of canvas. That created a look I could get no other way. In my dream I could not find a trowel because I had cleaned out my studio and gotten rid of all my painting tools (which, in fact, I have). But I went out into my garage and found an old triangular scraper of the type used to spread concrete, and that worked quite well on my painting.

And then I woke up, and I was exhausted but stimulated, slightly out of breath with a hint of angina. It was a little after four in the morning. I lay in bed for another hour or so unable to go back to sleep, thinking about my dream-painting experience.

I know why I had that dream. I had spent much of the day before looking through all of my old paintings, hundreds of them, some framed and hanging on my walls throughout the house and many more stacked against the wall in the large room that used to be my studio, and even more on unstretched canvases rolled up and stacked in a corner of our laundry room. I was taking inventory in preparation for a planned studio sale to get rid of paintings for which I no longer have storage space. Looking through all of the old pieces, many of which I had not seen in years, brought back memories of some 40 to 50 years as a working artist, and most vividly of the last 15 or so years in which I worked primarily in the manner described above.

I loved painting. I was obsessive about it. But the work was hard and it left me exhausted, as I was reminded when I awoke from a dream of painting and was worn out and overly stimulated.

Ten years ago I had triple-bypass surgery. For a long time after that I was physically unable to work in my studio. For a while I tried doing digital art instead, but that did not satisfy my artistic urges. Four years later I tried to get back into painting because I had been offered a couple of one-person shows (2006 at Art on Center Gallery in Tacoma and 2007 at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia) and I felt like I should have a few new paintings. So during those two years I made about five new paintings. I used to do that many in a week. Among the new paintings were a large painting called “Champagne Summer” and a smaller oe called “Parents of Narnia,” both of which represented a somewhat new approach to painting combining elements of the figure painting I had done back in the ‘80s with elements of my more recent abstract paintings.


Parents of Narnia

Then for two years I didn’t make any more new paintings until I was asked to be in a four-person show at the Convention Center in Seattle, so I did one last painting to include in that show. It was little painting called “Lioness,” and it was the last painting I ever did. That was in 2009.

People ask me why I quit painting. They can’t conceive of a man who spent his whole life making art just giving it up. Well, there were many reasons. The physical strain, which I have already mentioned, was paramount. And then there was the mess. My god what I mess. My studio walls and floor were covered with paint. My clothes were covered in paint. Bits of the oil sticks I used would break off and if I wasn’t careful I’d step on them and then track them throughout the rest of the house. God! How hard it was to clean up that mess! I couldn’t even take a break and sit down on the couch without changing clothes. I had long since started using rubber gloves to protect my hands, but in the process of working on a single painting I would wear holes in the fingers and my fingers would then be paint-smeared and almost impossible to clean. Painting was just too much of a big production. Plus, I was spending much more of my time writing and writing satisfies whatever it is that drives me to create.

My studio, the biggest room in the house, was unusable other than as a place to stack old paintings against the wall. In order to make it livable we had to replace all four walls and put in a new floor. So here I am now, almost 70 years old with a big, beautiful but empty room at home; still alive and healthy 10 years after open-heart surgery, a retired painter and now freelance writer and novelist who paints only in my dreams and that extremely rarely.

copyright © Alec Clayton 2012

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