`You can draw that'

IN an unguarded moment I had promised to give Sunday painting a whirl. This was in response to Bob's plea for stimulating companionship on his next field trip. (Half his pleasure was the anticipation of sharing with a fellow appreciator of nature.) So, though I never could navigate that proverbial ``shortest distance between two points,'' I'd not renege when the day came. Soon enough, I thought, he'd acknowledge my ineptitude and let me settle back with a book. The sky was morning-glory cloudless. Red was a living force. It tinged maples, contrasted against still-green pastures. It daubed woodbine over tumbled walls. Red accented hay-stuffed barns drowsing in bright sun. Rose-hips and dogberries were hung out for birds. Jack-in-the-pulpit thrust up fat spires of scarlet seeds. Bob drove toward Woodbury and pulled to the side of the road near an abandoned shed. Flanked by gangly arborvitae, and with broken windows boarded up, that old nursery building was total ly uninspiring.

My husband, however, saw something worthwhile in it. He handed me a pad and pencil, casually suggesting: ``You should be able to draw that. Keep it simple -- earth, sky, fence.'' He speculated on the view of open field to the right, though -- wagon tracks and another red barn on the horizon. Neither view had much to say to me. Foremost was my self-consciousness at being stuck there, just off busy Route 6, with all that Sunday traffic whizzing by. No telling who might pass and recognize us -- then hoot a t my presumption. And the sun glared on my white pad. Dancing rainbow motes made me giddy.

``Suit yourself,'' Bob shrugged, moving a few yards off, and taking the campstool with him. (If I wanted to sit, there was the old Indian blanket.) His whistling as he set up did nothing for my confidence. I turned my attention to the bank across the highway. It climbed steeply to a dilapidated wire fence. There was a compact little juniper to the left. Sweeping beyond, other scrub trees. Behind the fence was a pile of logs, cut sides facing me, exposing rubbery fungi and interesting grain. ``Before you

get too absorbed,'' I called, ``where are my paints?''

With a barely tolerant sigh, Bob delivered a small black tin of watercolors -- worn out years ago by our daughter, Nancy. I bit my tongue. He'd have only exhumed the old bromide: ``A poor workman blames his tools.'' Still, my forbearance must have put him on the defensive. ``When are you going to start? Right off, everybody wants to paint. Everybody's a genius, and nobody can draw.''

``I'm meditating. Some artists have to analyze what they perceive,'' I haughtily responded. Actually, I hadn't the faintest notion where I should touch down. Here was this vast sheet of paper -- there that limitless view. I tried imitating that hand-tube trick of professionals, hoping to corral a composition. Fine, what I saw in the circle. But when I lowered my hand all the components splayed off the margins again. The entire hillside wanted in.

Bob worked, utterly oblivious to my problems. So I bunched the blanket under me and traced the first bold curve across the middle of the paper. Quickly, then, two more. Then another -- the divided highway foreground. My audacity so exhausted me I had to rest. When I got my second wind I drew an unsteady hilltop line. Maybe -- I certainly had no idea of how to indicate slope. Maybe, with the fence in, it would miraculously fall into shape?

I recalled something vague about a golden mean. That undernourished cedar coerced the viewer's vision. From my association of many years with artists I knew better than to dawdle over one spot. So my tree was promised later detailing, with color. Then came the first oval-topped fence post -- like the rim of a water tumbler. It had a certain flourish.

No eraser. (Blue sky would hide mistakes, I consoled myself.) The fence sagged -- I gave it an extra prop. Lightly I strung barbed wire from pole to jagged pole. (The wind leans each one individually, I perceived.) Following the hill line, planting posts, I snagged on contingencies. Each post had marvelous eyes. Each was of a different shade. (I considered cutting the remaining fifth of sheet off -- but had no scissors.) The last row of wire was lost in weeds. I must work-in ground to anchor that runawa y fence, I realized, wildly reaching for the paintbox.

In alternate waves of confidence and self-doubt, I persevered. When I had to lean around a highway sign to keep my juniper in focus, I knew something must be wrong. ``How're we doing?'' Bob breathed over my shoulder.

Snapping my panting tongue back in, I muttered: ``We cobblers should stick to our last. You stick with pictures. I'll do my thousand words.''

Hunkering like a Little League coach, he held my masterpiece at arm's length. ``It has a primitive quality,'' he murmured. ``Perspective's off some. The farther the object, the smaller it gets, remember?''

I knew how out of proportion things were. That fence, finding a stonewall uphill, snared me in a labyrinth of posts and wires. Behind the stumps was an overwhelming grove. Earth, sky, hill, trees, black road, yellow sign -- who was I putting on, masking all those bloopers with blobs of muddy color? ``Cobbler,'' I imperiously repeated, ``stick to your last!''

At least I'd come to a new appreciation of Sunday painting. Bob returned to his own, whistling: ``I, Don Quixote . . .'' And I eased a paperback masterpiece out of the car, resettling on the old Indian blanket.

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