20 October 2009

My China Syndrome

One day last month, Wee Lass and I sat at the dining table with paint, paper and brushes under the light of the banker’s lamp. The paints are all watercolors, some tubes of which I bought years ago with the intention of teaching myself to paint.

I know it was because of the beauty of the colors I had seen that I wanted to paint. I was fascinated and enraptured then, and still am now, by the shades and tones and hues I saw in paintings. I bought some books about the subject, for the pictures alone.

I fell in love with Ultramarine. Viridian. Cobalt. Purple Lake. Cadmium Yellow. So pretty…

All this before I realized just how much practice it takes to get good at watercolor painting. A few small starts, and then I was distracted by the rest of the pretty, shiny things that constitute Life. The paints languished in a drawer for a long time, with me occasionally taking them out of the bag and just looking at the labels.

One of the pretty shiny things that came along was my Wee Lass. The care and feeding of such a lovely flower put a lot of leisurely activities on hold, certainly in the case of learning to paint. Still, I could never bring myself to throw or give them away. The tubes of paint and the little plastic trays I bought, along with a small number of brushes just held too much sway over my imagination.

So it has been a great pleasure and wonderful surprise to see that Wee Lass has an interest in drawing and painting. She is fascinated with markers and colored pencils (a big stash I have left from my student days), and loves to scribble and color. She was very excited to find out about the paints. We even have a ritual that must be followed: Both trays on the table, each little bin anointed with a small amount of every color. Multiple pads at the ready, each of which must have at least one page daubed with most, if not all, of the available colors.

That particular day Wee Lass was on a “flower” kick. Me, I was seized with the notion of Chinese calligraphy. Yet another subject I knew almost nothing about, yet felt compelled to try. Not unlike my fascination with Chinese cooking. Are you sensing a theme here? So we set to, her with the bright colors and broad swathes, me trying to play ancient scholar with a bamboo brush and a small puddle of ultramarine paint. Wee Lass dove in with gusto, eventually producing what I found to be a quite fetching little “flowertree”:

Tres bon, oui? For some reason I really liked what she had painted, and she did as well. Simple, unpolished but exuberant and glee-inducing. We both had a big smile once she was finished.

While she was doing that, I was sweating the details on a Chinese character, taken at random from the glossary of a Chinese cookbook on my shelf. It is the character for ‘raw’ (sheng), and I picked it by opening the book and sticking out a finger, and that is where it landed. Good thing, too, as it also appeared to be one of the simpler characters to emulate.

Simple it may have looked, but simple it was not to actually paint. Over and over and over I swiped at the paper trying desperately as elegant as the picture in the book. Wee Lass even looked over and quizzically asked, “Daddy, why are you doing the same thing again? Draw something pretty!” Gee, thanks, kiddo. I told her it was because I liked the shape and the color. It took me quite a few tries to get something approaching what I had seen:

Honestly, I didn’t even realize it was the best of the bunch until I set the pages aside to dry. Professional it may not be, but I gasped in surprise and satisfaction. I double checked the book, and sure enough, it was a reasonable facsimile. I felt that illumination of experience blossom in my head. For a brief instant, I was there.

Making these letters does not make me Chinese, and watching my daughter paint out of sheer joy will not make me five years old again. What those things can do, however, is take me outside of myself, and for a few moments I was able to see the world through a different set of lenses. The view was fresh, new and exciting.

I am Chinese, I am young, if only through paper, paint and the joyful mind of a beautiful little girl. I am blessed.


  1. gotta love art, it's what makes me happy

  2. I love those moments of concentration when one is lost, absorbed, immersed.

    To be fair, when I say 'love' I don't mean I make it happen very often.

    Sounds like a delightful time with your daughter.

  3. I love this post...again.

    And I love the vibrancy of those colors...awesome.

  4. I bought myself a bunch of water color paints and supplies this summer. Thanks for the reminder. When the unbloggable calms down, I'll do something serious with them.

    Doing art with little kids is a sure way to make your days brighter.

  5. I love art and painting though I am no good at it. When I was young I used to love watching (of all people) Bob Ross on PBS. Something about the way he said the names of the colors always made me think I could paint just like he did. Alas, I can not.

    I am fascinated with all things Chinese which fits seeing as my daughter is Han Chinese.

  6. Wee Lass's Flower Tree is lovely!

    My mother was a talented artist, and painted mostly with acrylics. I did some painting when I was much younger but, alas, simply don't have the patience for it any longer. Which is probably why I took up photography.

  7. I used to love drawing as a child and all the way through elementary school. Then I had a bad experience with a creepy art teacher in junior high, and I never wanted to take art again, and lost my feel for it. I was just talking about this with someone else.....I have a huge list of drawing books and art supplies on Amazon that I want, but will probably never buy.

  8. BloggingMamaAndrea mentioned Bob Ross. I used to watch him too.
    The flower tree is wonderful. Needs to be framed.
    Nothing like a little family-art-time together.
    Such fun

  9. I am not sure you should be ending a sentence in 'Kick', and then starting the next with 'Me' :)

    At first glance I thought her pic was a parrot, maybe she is unknowingly training to be a psychologist... and I just failed that test...

    I always loved looking at the clouds with the kids as we were drawing on the patio, and pointing out 'how shapes can take on so many things'... (a line from one of my poems)

  10. :-) The Wee Lass is good to have around when you want to see things anew!


  11. You definitely need to frame that picture for posterity. and get Wee Lass to sign it!

    I have a friend who is a nationally known watercolorist, Claude Bernardin. His work is just lovely! He's also an art teacher at the school my kids attended. Although, if you google him, you'll find the books he's written about Elton John. I wish I had one of his paintings in my house, or even a print!

  12. Trying new things is such a pleasure!

    How wee is Wee Lass?

  13. we are blessed
    and here's why.

    "The paints languished in a drawer for a long time, with me occasionally taking them out of the bag and just looking at the labels."

  14. stepping out of oneself... nice.

  15. I think she's got talent! I hope you did something special with her flower tree.

  16. I love the Oriental concept of "wabi-sabi", imperfect beauty. I tend to apply the values of a draftsman to my artwork and get frustrated. The best stuff I've ever done (outside of a light plot) was when I embraced the imperfections.

    Good stuff Bro!

    And BTW... I get STOOPID! I shoot an arrow like CUPID!

  17. I was never much of an artist but I used an eye for copying and a fondness for superhero murals (and understanding parents who didn't mind me painting three of my four bedroom walls...)

  18. I am a terrible artist, but that never stops me from wanting to be a great one. There is so much joy in playing with colors!

  19. That is really staying in the moment and enjoying what you are doing. I find that when I painted that was the case. Now sailing takes me there. It's a great place to be.


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

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