Lessons from Canvases

In one corner of my living room is an easel holding a blank canvas. It has been there for a couple of weeks. I keep meaning to get out my paints and brushes to actually create something on it, but my lack of imagination holds me back. I have no idea what I want to paint.

There was a time when I easily came up with ideas for paintings and drawings, but now the ideas and skills have abandoned me. All the equipment is ready and waiting in my guest room, but looking at it now makes me a little sad. No, sad is not the right word. Wistful, maybe. It’s a kind of homesickness for a lost ability.

As I was looking around my living room today, I looked again at some paintings my Dad did before he passed away. During his retirement years he didn’t allow himself to become idle. He continued to maintain his garden, he learned yoga, he travelled with Mum to see the family, and he painted. He was particularly fond of copying paintings by established artists with subjects that included families and children. After my parents moved into a retirement home, Dad’s paintings were shared between my siblings, and one of my brothers brought two of them to me in Canada when he came to visit.

Painting copy by Ernest Bray. Original artist unknown

Once, when talking about Dad’s paintings, someone in my family commented that he was very good at landscapes, buildings, and animals, but no so good at painting people’s faces. This is true, and I’m sure Dad was aware of this, too.

What is significant to me now, though, is that the awareness of this shortcoming didn’t stop him. He enjoyed choosing images of paintings from reference books, using tracing paper to create a squared grid, and copying the images on to his canvases. Actually, they weren’t made of canvas. They were quarter-inch hardboard to which he gave a coat of white paint. He may have actually stretched a few canvases, but I only remember the hardboard. He was very frugal.

Copy by Ernest Bray. Original by Normal Rockwell

Thinking back, I can’t remember what he did with his paintings when they were finished. I don’t think he had any framed, and I don’t remember him giving them away as gifts. As a guess, I’d say he just stacked them up somewhere, perhaps in the roof space.

I realized today that I’m glad I have two of my Dad’s paintings in which the faces of the people are less than perfect. It gives me the sense that my Dad is reminding me it is OK to be less than perfect. It doesn’t matter if I am not good at painting; it only matters that I get satisfaction from doing it. It doesn’t matter how other people view what I do, so long as I see myself making progress. And, I don’t have to have a purpose for painting, such as selling the work or gifting it. The purpose can be simply the activity. Then, when I have finished, I can just store the results in the roof space, if I can get up there!


  1. I remember dad’s paintings and worrying what to do with them when he passed them on. I shouldn’t have worried after reading your piece. I used to produce the u3a newsletter and got the same satisfaction but also took pride in that it was ephemeral not like most other art. What do you do with an embroidery or sculpture. Cooking gives similar satisfaction.

  2. Good for your dad. I’m sure he got a lot of satisfaction from his painting. That horse is really well done, and I would think a horse would be very difficult. He should have displayed his paintings. I did one portrait of an old man around 100 who modeled for us at the senior’s centre. I gave it to him when done. It looked like him- but was a bit primitive looking. Older faces are more interesting. When this is over I plan to take a course in portrait painting.

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