A discreet greatness

There are several sentences I've always wished I could say. One is, ''I speak fluent French.'' Another is, ''I'd love to dance.'' I'm not, of course, in a position to say either - as you would know if you asked ''parlez-vous francais?'' or watched me stumble about a ballroom. Nor can I say the one I'd really love to say: ''I am a painter.''

I've always wanted to be one of those who could shape, on an awesome blankness of white canvas, a head or a house that looked like the real thing. More than that, I particularly appreciate those who in doing so can capture in paints - mere two-dimensional daubs - the ambiance, the essence, of a place or a person. But I most admire the painter who can so order his colors and masses and lines that the recognizability of his subject takes second place behind the carefully structured balancings of his composition.

I suppose the problem with painting, nowadays, is that its art gets all confused with its craft - as though a knowledge of brushes and pigments were enough to make one an artist. Even the word ''painter'' raises immediate uncertainty so that one asks, ''of pictures, or of houses?''

In the latter sense, I suppose I am a painter.Like many people, I've done my time with a brush in hand. It began, I recall, at an early age, when my father converted a ramshackle ''summer house'' (nothing more than four cedar posts, a roof, and a riot of runaway grape vines) into a garage for our little trailer. Having done the carpentry with his usual straightforward accuracy, he then proceeded to make a glaring error: he let me help paint it.

It was, in fact, an error thrice compounded - in that I was six, short, and working with black stain. Now, stain looks to be a good deal thinner than milk, and does not stay in a brush a moment longer than it has to. Short painters in tall buildings, of course, are constantly painting above their heads. And six-year-olds in that position don't realize that stain runs backwards down the brush-handle, the arm, and the shirt, dribbles all over the legs, and splatters into the hair. By the time we finished that garage I must have looked like the proverbial tar baby; and I certainly smelled like it as, with great patience, my mother set after me with rags and turpentine for what seemed like hours.

No doubt that experience stood me in good stead, though, for in high school years I hired out to paint other people's houses about town. I learned how to clean brushes (and myself), mix paint, and tie back close-growing brambles. And I learned how to ''draw sash'' - to paint, with specially tapered brush, those strips of wood that divide up the endless panes of New England windows.It requires a certain skill to lap the paint ever so slightly onto the glass (to form a tight seal) and yet produce a perfectly straight line. I didn't always succeed; but I progressed.

I was thinking of these things the other day when, as I was once again painting windows, my hand slipped. The resulting blob of paint, to my eyes at least, fairly screamed out to the onlooker. How unfair, I thought. Had I labored over a roomful of windows and got them all perfect, no one would have noticed. They would merely have seen sashes painted the way sashes are supposed to be painted. But one slop, and all eyes would be upon it - ignoring hours of excellence to focus on one flaw.

It set me thinking about how much the skill in house painting - and in so many things - resides less in what you do than in what you avoid doing. The perfectly-done job is standard and unexceptional. The measure of success is not occasional brilliance but unblemished consistency. So it is, too, in an ice-skater's school figures or a pianist's scales. And what struck me, as I gazed past the blob into the trees beyond, was that it is precisely that characteristic that distinguishes craft from art.

For craft, it would seem, sets up a standard and demands the technical perfection to match it. The aria sung with perfect pitch and diction, the pirouette executed with exact balance and rhythm, the drawing of a building according to all the laws of perspective - those, valuable as they are, are mere craft. Real art cannot exist without such craft. Yet art goes further, setting its own standards as it goes and stretching technique to meet the demands it creates. To be flawless, in a singer or dancer or painter, is not enough. The performance must carry beyond external consistency into its own unique integrity.

Which is why, in the end, house painting is no art. Nor, usually, is the making of shoes or tables or meals.Those things which are best when they call least attention to themselves - letting you think of other things when, for example, you walk or write or eat - are crafts. They are never to be spurned. To make such things well - to draw a fine sash - is a noble endeavor. I'm happy to be a craftsman.

But as I say, I'd like to be a painter.

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