This is why adults don’t do this.
I’m with longtime Lawrence artist Louis Copt trying to learn how to paint watercolors, which, if you think about it, isn’t a very adult thing to do. Nearly all of us have painted a picture as a child, but how many adults have ever done so?
This is why: Copt reaches across his work table, grabs a wide brush, dips it generously in a pool of paint, and then starts slinging it. I mean paint flying off the brush, floating through the air, controlled only by how Copt flicks his wrist.
Good grief, man. You want me to do this in my house? Where there are painted walls, shampooed carpets, upholstered chairs and a host of other items that my wife already swears are constantly dirtied by me?
“I call it capturing the randomness of nature,” Copt says, as he explains that the drops of paints can be blades of grass or stones in a field or any number of pieces of nature, depending on what color he chooses to flick.
All I can think is that if I do this in my dining room, there will be a scene of nature: Remember the old “Wild Kingdom” scenes featuring a hungry lion and a little gazelle? I won’t be the lion.
None of it bothers Copt, though. For one, he knows how to flick his wrist. He can make a drop of paint land just about anywhere he wants it to. But more than that, he’s willing to take the risk because he knows what the return can be from a good painting — and he’s not just talking about the $900 to $5,000 prices that most of his larger pieces command.
“With a paintbrush and blank piece of paper, you can control the world,” Copt says.
And there is always a world to paint. Copt has about 30,000 photos, most taken from the back roads of Douglas and Jefferson counties. Today, he flips through several winter scenes. Winter is his favorite season because it allows people to see the “bones of nature.”
At least it does if you have the eye of an artist. Copt says artists do view the world differently. There’s a whole world of light and darkness and shapes and proportions that most of us never pay attention to.
He points to a watercolor he has completed of cattle huddled beneath a tree in a blizzard.
“Everybody else sees the tree,” Copt says. “I see the shadow.”
Today, Copt picks a quintessential Douglas County scene: a snow-covered farm field in the foreground, trees in a shallow valley and the iconic Fraser Hall on the horizon.
Copt starts with a pencil, drawing lines to show where the land ends and the sky begins, sketching outlines of trees or buildings. Then it is on to four or five different sizes of brushes, a white dinner plate that serves as a palette, a razor blade that adds highlights as it scrapes, and a small hair dryer that cures the layers of paint.
Copt controlled the world for about 45 minutes today. That is all it took. Well, that and more than 30 years of practice. Copt quit a good full-time job with Lawrence-based Maupintour in 1984 to study art in New York. His wife, Phyllis, says he really didn’t have a choice. He always had his paint sets out, even when he was working other jobs ranging from a newspaper photographer in his hometown of Emporia to hand-drawing business forms in the days before computers.
Now, he, Phyllis and business partner and fellow artist Mark Feiden operate a holiday gallery at 800 Massachusetts St. in downtown Lawrence.
Copt isn’t advocating that you quit your day job, but he thinks we may all benefit if we picked up our paintbrush again.
“I think people would be more relaxed if they painted more,” Copt says.
It is amazing, he says, how painting can open a side of the brain that the real world doesn’t often let us visit.
“People need to have the money/practicality side, but they also need the fantasy side, the side that dreams, the side that hopes for bigger things,” Copt says.
He notes that great men such as Eisenhower and Churchill were painters. The point is clear: If we ever invade Europe again, an artist should lead the charge.
Well, maybe that isn’t the point. Maybe the point is that a little art can help a good mind become great, a content mind become curious, or perhaps most importantly, a closed mind become open.
“I feel like the mind of an artist really is open to change,” Copt says. “An artist can see left and right. An artist can help guide other people to see the world differently.”
In today’s world, maybe we all could benefit from finding that paintbrush of our youth.
Maybe. But if I sling paint inside my house, I’m still pretty sure it’s going to end like my kindergarten art project — with a paintbrush stuck up my nose.