“The Sorry-in-the-Vale library was one of the ugliest buildings in town. It was a squat brown-brick building that did an amazing impression of a bungalow from the outside and had three stories inside. The roof tiles were crumbly and a strange apricot shade. Inside, the worst part was the carpets. They were weirdly mottled orange and brown, as if someone had skinned a vast diseased orangutan.
“The best part was a computer with an Internet connection that Kami did not have to share with two brothers, one intent on watching every funny cat video the Web had to offer, and the other having a star-crossed love affair with Wikipedia.”
--Sarah Rees Brennan, Unspoken, the Lyburn Legacy, Book One
When I was a kid, I loved garage sales. I would go poking around other people’s castoffs, and carry home trophies: porcelain figurines, vinyl records, old clothes. Weird souvenir ashtrays from places I’d never been. Antique Christmas decorations. Scarves. Old stationery. Paperback books. A mishmosh of mismatched stuff. Other people’s trash; my childhood treasure.
Once I got an envelope of posters, a set of Maxfield Parrish’s calendar illustrations. I had never heard of Maxfield Parrish or the Edison Mazda Lamp Works, but kneeling there in Inez Bosco’s driveway, a suburban mile from my house, bike flung down in the grass, I fell in love. The pictures were perfectly tuned to my taste, as a teenage girl: beautiful, fanciful, just a little mysterious. I wasn’t equipped to unpack the iffy Orientalism of the Arabian Nights illustration, or question the extremely-pale-and-skinny appearance of the models, but I sat in the driveway and marveled at Parrish blue. How did he do that? The sky was glowing. How?
Years later, once the Internet was invented, I spent hours reading about his technique. Maxfield Parrish worked at the same time that the color separation process was being invented for machine printing, and he basically used it, or a manual version of it, for his paintings. A layer of blue; a layer of green; a layer of red. He said, “One does not paint long out of doors before it becomes apparent that a green tree has a lot of red in it. You may not see the red because your eye is blinded by the strong green, but it is there nevertheless. So if you mix a red with the green you get a sort of mud, each color killing the other. But by the other method, when the green is dry and a rose madder glazed over it, you are apt to get what is wanted, and have a richness and glow of one color shining through the other, not to be had by mixing.” You can see his process in his painting Dreaming, also called October, which he finished and reworked in 1928.
I carried that envelope of posters around for years. I hung them in dorm rooms, at church camp, in my first office for my first job. Sure, I had a couple of other posters, bought from the art sale held on campus each October, but I was faithful to that set. They made me feel good. Norman Rockwell loved Maxfield Parrish; so could I. I didn’t think of myself as an artist, or even someone with sophisticated taste in art; I just loved his blue. As it turns out, his first innovation was simply not mixing the factory-made blue paint with anything. “Parrish blue” is just stock “blue.” His second innovation was layering thin coats of Damar glaze and varnish. The light seems to shine through his paintings because it actually is shining through his paintings, through layer after layer of translucent varnish and paint.
This knowledge, acquired in my off hours in college, seemingly useless, not relevant to anything, has come in handy in my own recent work. I use layers of nail polish, which is technically a lacquer glaze, to give depth and richness to my upcycled objects. This water dish, for example, has several coats of different shades of brown, and this swimming pool is blue over blue over blue, ornamented with polka dots and the rune Laguz, for “lake.” I knew how to do it because of time “wasted,” reading Wikipedia articles about Maxfield Parrish in 2002.
No time is wasted; no learning is wasted. I’m making art out of discarded nail polish and found objects, out of the trash, and out of knowledge gained while wasting time. That bike trip over to Bosco’s in 1996? Wasted time. My lifetime of garage sales and thrift stores? Wasted money. My star-crossed love affair with Wikipedia? Wasted effort. And I couldn’t be happier with the result.
Further reading, should you wish to waste some time: