Picasso, Dali, Renoir, Degas, Monet and Manet — I have gazed in awe at all of them. Reflections of moonlight dappling across a river, mist-like tutus of nubile ballerinas, ants crawling across melting faces held up by sticks — it hardly matters whether the artist was going blind, a bit of a pervert or made elaborate jokes about vaginas with lobsters and telephones, they left behind masterpieces of amazing dexterity.
On a good day, with fair seas and a following wind, I can make a decent fist of a stick figure. For all the hours spent wandering galleries gawking at the greats and sneering at Warhol’s soup cans, the most success I’d had with a blank canvas was wrapping a black tie around one with an off-kilter Windsor knot and calling it The Suburban Noose. Jeff Koons has nothing to fear.
For someone so inept, a visit to Paintbar in Thong Lor was going to be interesting, but help was at hand. First, the challenge was to paint a tote bag with a fairly simple design and bold primary colours: ice-cream, sunglasses, fruit and a bottle of beer. A tad less intricate than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but daunting in its own way.
Second, I was in the company of a more skilful painter, Jai, who could both demonstrate hand-eye coordination and serve as a translator when the teacher’s instructions went in one ear and out the other. (The instructions were all delivered in Thai, but an assistant was on hand to help with techniques and the multicultural clientele.)
Last, and not least, it was one of the venue’s semi-regular events with free-flow imported beer and cider.
The first task was obvious. Drinks organised, we donned aprons and pumped acrylic paint onto disposable plates. The bags were taped up and waiting; pencil lines had divided them into quarters. Palates and palettes were primed.
“First, wash your brushes. Make sure you squash them in the bottom, that way you’ll get all the paint out. Don’t just shake them around. Leave them in the water when you’re not using them.”
It was an anticlimactic way to start, but it was worth getting everything into position. A left-hander, I am ambidextrous only in matters drinking: paint and pint glasses could be kept apart. I no more wanted to accidentally take a swig of watered-down acrylic than dunk a muddy brush in strawberry cider.
Panel one, drink one. The very first brushstroke proved to be a mistake. Start from the bottom right, using yellow, we were told. Find the right place, about a third of the way from the edge. Draw a line, I thought I heard. It seemed wrong, since this was supposed to be the bottom of the sunglasses, and of course, it was.
Fortunately, yellow is light enough to paint over. The second mistake proved more troublesome. When the instructor painted outlines to help the back of the room see what they should be painting, I pre-emptively followed suit and smeared black into the damp yellow. The result was messy — the Pollock-like droppings on the table were more appealing at this point. The sunglasses would end up with unusual shades.
Looking around, no one else had touched another colour but yellow. They were deftly drafting their second panel, concentrating on the proportions of pears and apples. This reminded me of the cider. Wash the brushes with the glass to the left, drink from the one from the right: this would be the rule for the night.
Panel two, drink two: a “punk” IPA. This time I listened to the instructions. The apple is a love heart with a wide bottom. The pear is a teardrop with a flat head. These were a success, if a long way from the mastery of Van Hoytl the Younger.
Panel three, still on drink two. The beer bottle was stubby and out of proportion, even with one beside me to take inspiration from, but not beyond salvation. It turns out bottles are hard. No wonder Warhol stuck with cans — I take back some of what I thought about him being a talentless one-trick pony.
“Lucien Freud,” I declared to Jai. “He messed around with proportions. This is just an homage.” She rightly gave me the brush-off and moved along to the dessert course.
Panel four, time to refill the brush glass and hunt for drink three: toffee apple cider. Looking around, it was impressive to see two dozen colourful canvas bags being created where an hour before there were only blank spaces. Mine was far from the best, but did not seem obviously inferior when viewed from across the room with a couple under the belt.
The ice-cream cone in the demonstration version appeared askew, but was at least straight. That’s more than could be said for mine, which developed a weird curve through nobody’s fault but my own. Getting the black paint out in a vain attempt to rectify the matter only ensured it would remain misshapen.
The ice-cream itself was fluffy, and with a cherry on top it felt like the hard parts were over. Jai, who had barely put a brushstroke wrong in her sobriety, had chosen to make her ice-cream chocolate. She burst into laughter when she realised what it looked like. “Even with the cone?” she asked. “It looks like crap on a cone,” I said.
Time plus alcohol equals more confidence, if not more skill. Bold backgrounds became boring to fill in, so extra touches were added with abandon. The bottle I labelled “Logo” because of Naomi Klein; if I’d had more space and more of my wits about me I would have written “this is not a beer” for all the Magritte fans out there.
There would be no fixing the ice-cream cone, but the overall result was better than expected. When I realised I was adding paint for its own sake rather than making improvements, it was time to put the brush down and look around at everyone else’s work. Others had different flourishes: beer bottles became minions or fish tanks, and worms crawled out of apples. Several people clearly had real skill and were repeat customers — their work seemed amazing to someone who struggled to keep the blue and red backgrounds in the right sections.
From first brush to finished tote bag took two-and-a-half hours. Writing “this is not a bag” would have taken a fraction of the time, but would not have been nearly as entertaining or satisfying. Besides, now I have a bag I can take to the shops whenever I need to stock up on cans of soup.
Originally published in Brunch magazine, August 2015.