Working dogs and curious cats

Yesterday afternoon I was fretful and discontented, a state easily labeled as “bored” but which in my case is always more indicative of not-sure-what-to-do than actually having nothing to do. I played iPad games; they all seemed stupid. I groomed my eyebrows, which provided its usual dose of satisfaction but also required looking in the mirror, thereby depressing my spirits still further. I looked tired and, I thought, old.*

Irritated with my own inexcusable lack of vitality, I said, “It is time for a self-portrait,” and made myself clear my desk and set up a mirror. It all seemed futile anyway so I took out the Japanese paper that gave me trouble earlier in the week, and refused to use pencils. I figured the less I bothered with preliminaries, the more chance I had of capturing how I felt, and this was true.

Watercolor self-portrait

The curious thing is, after this sketchy portrait — which took twenty minutes — I felt so much more capable that I decided to give it another shot, this time properly, with a pencil sketch and a paper I like. And this time when I looked in the mirror, I found my reflection so enchanting that I couldn’t help but smile at myself, and I decided to keep that smile in the portrait. I gave myself a deliberately cartoony shirt and background, tried something new with the hair, and used fewer colors than usual for the skin tones.

Watercolor self-portrait with vase of flowers in the background

This is the first self-portrait I’ve done since Boston, and also the first one since doing all those other portraits of family and friends. I notice I’m a lot faster now, and there is a lightness and movement that was missing from the early attempts.**

I thought the self-portraits would cheer me up, but this morning I still had some of that restless feeling. I had some oatmeal and tea and wrote my morning pages and thought about my state of mind. Self-portraits used to take me hours; I did these two in (I think) under an hour and a half. I finished two novels on Friday; there is an unpleasantness to reading too much at once, like eating a whole cake in one sitting. Over the weekend I hosted two get-togethers, which were balm to my extrovert and domestic sensualist heart: I baked chocolate tea cake and scones and cornbread, and assembled lamingtons and egg salad (with homemade mayo) and mock Devonshire cream. And I cleaned up immediately afterward, so the kitchen did not have that partied look (dirty dishes and counters, empty bottles or bakery containers, etc).

This was tea for three, so you can imagine the brunch for six:

Set table with lamingtons, scones, camellias

Breakfast table with lamingtons, scones, camellias, egg salad in lettuce leaves

I couldn’t understand why I felt so fidgety when it’s obvious that I have — as I wrote in my journal — “a beautiful, easy, pleasing, interesting, autonomous, comfortable life.” That’s when I realized what I was feeling: no new worlds to conquer. Aha, I thought. Well, that one is easy to fix! The thought of taking on new challenges just perked me right up. I’d love to make another really big painting…

Some time ago I was talking to my friend Bri, and she said, “You’re a working dog, as am I. If we don’t have something challenging to do we get destructive and eat the rug.” That is true… but I am also a cat. Shortly before this conversation I read online that because cats are such curious creatures, they need something new to explore, every day, even if it’s just an empty box they’ve never seen before. If I don’t get enough challenge, I’ll climb the walls. If I don’t get enough variety and novelty, I’ll lie in a corner and do nothing for hours (months).  A working dog and a curious cat: that about sums me up.

And now to figure out how to make a really, really big painting. 🙂


*I would describe 32 as the year when I started feeling, not my age, but my future age — the nearness of everything after 35. Yes, I know that’s still young. But it’s a bit unsettling to go from “I am young young young!” to recognizing in my reflection that there is a limited number of years in “young.”

**Technical notes-to-self: Usually I use a number of different colors in the skin, but this time I did all the layers in a single blend of yellow and sienna, with some red/pink added at the end. I’m not sure I like this but it simplified the process considerably. I also used only the same colors for the darkest shadows (such as the nostrils), whereas usually I use a really dark color like sepia; this worked much better than I expected and looks more natural. I’m not sure if the same technique would work for eyelashes but I am tired of my portrait-eyes always looking eyelinered. Before my next portrait I want to do more practice with capturing the brilliance of moisture, as in eyes and lips; maybe paint wet things and see how that goes?