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Painting as a Pastime: Part III

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | February 02, 2013

“Painting is a complete distraction.”
Winston Churchill

I had only planned on writing two essays on Winston Churchill’s book "Painting as Pastime," which was first written as two essays in 1932 and later published in 1948. But I couldn’t resist capturing a few more of his thoughts on why painting was so important to him even though he didn’t start until he was 40.   

For several reasons, Churchill preferred oil painting over water colours. “First of all, you can correct mistakes much more easily. … Secondly, you can approach your problem from any direction. You need not build downwards awkwardly from white paper to your darkest dark. … Lastly, the pigment itself is nice stuff to handle (if it does not retaliate). You can build it on layer after layer if you like. You can keep on experimenting. You can change your plan to meet exigencies of time or weather. And, always remember you can scrape it all away.”

Perhaps the greatest window into the soul of Churchill, the painter, can be seen in his simple declaration, “Just to paint is great fun. The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out. Matching them, however crudely, with what you see is fascinating and absolutely absorbing. Try it if you have not done so — before you die.”

It is obvious that Churchill was passionate about his pastime. He immersed himself in his painting and it really produced the change he wanted and needed. Painting also affected his capacity to see. “I think this heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint.”  

It is one thing to love art but, as he says, "Expect that nothing will make one observe more quickly or more thoroughly than having to face the difficulty of representing the thing observed.” And, unless you record what you see without “accuracy and refinement, the result follows on the canvas with startling obedience.”

There are far too many things to see than one could ever paint. Listen to Churchill’s capacity to see. “The whole world is open with all its treasures. The simplest objects have their beauty. Every garden presents innumerable fascinating problems. Every land, every parish, has its own tale to tell. … Good gracious! What there is to admire and how little time there is to see it in! For the first time one begins to envy Methuselah.”

He even found himself looking closely as he walked by a wall or flat surface just trying to distinguish all of the different colors and tints that he could see. As I read those words I was reminded of the way Robert Henri’s book "The Art Spirit" did that for me. I cannot help but see things differently and for me, it has helped me every time I take a picture.

Churchill also cites the role of memory in painting. Evidently a teacher of painting in Paris made his pupils observe their model on the ground floor and then run upstairs and paint their picture piece by piece on the floor above. As they became more proficient, he put their easels up one floor higher and later higher until they had to go up six flights into the attic “praying it would not evaporate on the way.”

“There is no better exercise for the would-be artist than to study and devour a picture, and then, without looking at it again, to attempt the next day to reproduce it,” said Churchill. “Nothing can more exactly measure the progress both of observation and memory.”

For Churchill, his painting encouraged him to travel to find new places to paint. “The painter wanders contentedly from place to place, always on the lookout for some brilliant butterfly of a picture which can be caught and set up and carried safely home.”

After reading this book, I almost want to learn to paint at 67 years of age.  

Think about it.


Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu 
Official page: Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer