Paint the Flames

Arin Merrill

             I hurry to my last class of the day; the classroom is located at the complete opposite side of the building from my previous period. I step into a large, softly lit classroom, the sun gently seeping in through the wall of windows. Walking into this foreign land, music is sweetly drifting through the tables and chairs, giving the classroom an air of freedom and a surreal feeling. I scan the room for an empty seat. I spot a lonely table in the back corner of the classroom. As I sit down, I look around; I am by far the youngest student in this class. Being the only fifteen year old in a college course, I automatically feel small and underestimated. “I can’t even draw; what am I doing in a college level painting class?” This is what I keep thinking as the teacher gives a brief overview of the course, her expectations, and our responsibilities as students. I’m not really paying attention; who knows, I might end up dropping this class. Not long after our instructor finishes explaining the course, I have a small canvas and a paint brush in front of me, my first assignment. We are instructed to paint the objects set in front of us: easy enough. “Maybe this class won’t be too bad.” The bell rings, time to go home.

My hand is meant to hold my smooth, wooden paintbrush. It’s as if my skin is meant to be covered in beautiful, unnatural colors. My eyes scan a white canvas but they don’t see emptiness, they see potential. An open book, a story all of my own to write.

            A few weeks go by and I find myself looking forward to this class. We do a few more simple paintings. I can’t wait to paint an idea of my own, not just glass bottles or flowers.
            The smell of freshly cut wood gently greets my nose. Inhaling deeply in order to correctly identify the scent, I stop and think, “Wood? But this is a painting class…” I take my seat in my secluded corner of the classroom, quietly greeting my new found friends. Our professor saunters in with a mischievous smile. She announces our next project. The time has come! Finally we will be working on our own ideas; I can’t wait. Our teacher doesn’t explain the project in great detail; I don’t feel comfortable with this one. “What the hell am I about to do? How do I stretch my own canvas?” I’ve never done anything similar to this. This will be a journey. Our teacher had already precut the correct sizes for our frame, which explains the wood smell. She then hands out what seems to be canvas – the material is similar but this slab of canvas is thick and tight. We have to stretch it. Turns out stretching a canvas is similar to making a bed to military standards: taunt, straight, corner to corner perfection, not a single wrinkle to be seen. Too bad we can’t use staples to hold our bed sheets down.

Our professor still hasn’t explained what it is exactly that she wants us to be painting. The only instruction our teacher gives is to find an idea that makes us uncomfortable. I know my skill level: I’m a landscape painter; trees, waterfalls, sunsets. I look at this 24” by 12” canvas. I immediately envision a bird. Animals are not my strong suit; I always struggle to convey any emotion in the eyes. I want to paint something big, colorful. Why I pick a bird that doesn’t even exist is beyond me. I choose to paint a phoenix. A phoenix is a mythical bird, known for its long lifespan and its ability to be reborn by rising from its own ashes. Turns out it’s hard to paint a mystical creature. Any idea I look up is just another painting of what other people think a phoenix looks like. I don’t particularly like any of them. I decide to find a picture of a crow flying, I like the body of it; another picture of a fire because I am drawn to the colors and the texture. I’ll just combine the two. I start my sketch – my phoenix is flying. I love it. Its wings are strong and powerful. The beak is perfectly hooked, and the texture of its wings make you feel as if you can reach out and expect to feel a feather boa. The bell rings, time to go home.
            I walk into the classroom, this place is starting to feel homey, and it’s my safe haven. I look at my daunting task set out in front of me. I begin to attempt to sketch my original idea onto my empty canvas. “Why isn’t this working?” I am less than pleased. I consider starting over completely but my heart is set on this phoenix. I continue my pathetic attempt to save this sketch. Yeah, not happening. The bell rings, time to go home.
            As I walk through the door, I see my canvas on its easel. From a distance, it looks as blank as I feel. Upon closer inspection, eraser marks, thin pencil lines, and frustration cover the seemingly white canvas. Looking around, I notice my classmates have already begun the painting process on their projects. I am behind and exasperated. I pick up what I thought was my friend, my now rebelling pencil. I let out a sigh of disappointment and start the hindering remodel of my Phoenix. I let my mind wonder. By the time class ends, I have something completely different than what I had originally planned. I have created a close up of a bird peering over its shoulder. Thank god it’s the weekend. The bell rings, time to go home.
            Even though Mondays suck, I’m excited as I walk through the doors to my second world. I’m content with my new sketch; now I can finally start painting. I start out with the background. I choose dull acrylics. I want a simple background so it won’t take away from my phoenix. I settle on black, brown, and purple. Ugly, huh? Very. I pick these colors because none of them will be in my phoenix: he’ll stand out. I blend these three awful colors together. I start sloppily covering the canvas. I fade my colors down from blackish brown to purplish brown. Wow, it’s hideous, I love it. I wash my paint brush out and gather my things. The bell rings, time to go home.
            Although I’m still far behind everyone else in my painting class, I do not rush; I’m in love with this project. I want it to be perfect. I start my phoenix. I start by blending a dull red as a base. Oil paint is a little more difficult to work with, it doesn’t like socializing – in other words, it’s a pain in the ass to blend. Taking a look at my palette, it looks like something Smokey the Bear should be protesting. Bright blood reds, juicy orange oranges, and sunshine yellows are strewn all over my palette, making it look like I’m holding fire in my hand. I set down my palette of fire, wash my third degree burned hands, and head for the doors. The bell rings, time to go home.
            Greeted with the lovely smell of turpentine, I sit down in front of my painting. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before but… I hate it. My phoenix is lifeless, it’s dull, and it’s safe. I want to immediately get rid of it. I’m embarrassed, but being so far behind, I can’t afford to start over. I spend the next hour and a half attempting to fix this train wreck of a phoenix. The bell rings, time to go home.
            I spend all weekend mulling over the thought of my phoenix. “What went wrong?” In my mind, I placed every stroke of fire in the perfect spot, careful to create the flames exactly like a fire. I don’t understand. Dreading my painting class all day, I finally had to face the reality of my horrendous painting. Its bright colors made it stick out like a sore thumb. Looking around at my classmates’ paintings, most of them were done; they were beautiful. Regretting my choice of subject, feeling as though I had bit off more than I could chew, I fell out of love with my phoenix. I picked up a paint brush in frustration, globbed on a ridiculously bright orange on the tip of my brush, and start carelessly slapping my caution-cone orange onto the wings of my phoenix. It looked like a blind person got a hold of my paint brush. I stopped, put my paint brush down, stepped back, and examined my work. There it is: I have figured it out. I love it. I was thinking too hard, I had this image in my head, I wanted perfection. I stopped thinking, put my head phones in, and got lost in my passion. The bell rang? Time to go home.
            I can’t wait to see my beautiful phoenix. It’s my creation. It’s alive. My phoenix now stands out in a good way. It’s large, powerful, and quietly demands attention. It draws your eyes to it. It grabs at your soul. You look into its eyes and it looks into yours. I spend the rest of the class period adding my finishing touches. The last thing I paint on that canvas is my name, Arin Kay Merrill, in the bottom right corner. I clean up, gather my items. The bell rings, time to go home, with my phoenix in my hand, it seems as though I can fly.

I have been engulfed in my own flames. But I, too, like the phoenix, have risen from my ashes. I have burned my chains. I am free.

            “Art is about knowing what mistakes to keep.”

            “In order to rise from the ashes, a Phoenix must burn.”