I lifted the garage door for him. He wasn’t as spry as he used to be, though at his age it’s to be expected. The hinges squealed, as if I were punishing them.

I knew my grandpa had a lot of hobbies, but the sight of all this mid-century crafting supplies momentarily took my breath. Not only were there boxes upon boxes of unidentified storage, there were jig saws, yellowed canvases, pieces of colored glass, tiles, drafting equipment.

“I think it’s all back here,” he said, slowly wending his way through the stacks of dilapidated cardboard.

“Wow,” I muttered under my breath. All of these costly supplies, going to waste in this cavernous space. My grandfather had quality tools; he understood the value of craftsmanship. It showed in the final product of whatever he worked on, from hand-lettered birthday cards to the tile laid in my parent’s bathroom.

He pulled out a green and khaki carrying case layered with dust. Unclasping the lid, I saw murky bottles and caught an acrid whiff of turpentine.

paint box

“Most of this stuff is still good. It doesn’t go bad,” he explained.

Opening the front of the case, I saw it had pull-out drawers full of grimy tubes labeled “Umber,” “Chromium Oxide Green,” “Payne’s Gray.”

“I don’t know how many of these are still good, but you’re welcome to it all.”

“Thank you,” I said, brushing my fingertips across the tubes. “What makes a color go bad?”

“Well,” he said, “Some of the pigments are made of organic material, so they go bad faster than others. Or if air got into any of these, they’d harden. Sometimes the pigment separates from the oil. You’ll be able to tell. Just toss it if it’s no good.


I nodded. I’d learned a little about pigments in art history class. Cadmiums and ultramarine, Phthalos and vermilion; how Renaissance artists would mix them with egg yolk to make tempera. Art history class was what made me say yes to grandpa’s offer of his oil painting supplies. I had only ever drawn safely in pencil before, but the daily exposure to Titian and Pissarro made me want to try ascending to another level. After a lifetime of black and white, I craved color.

Then he opened the box next to the workbench. I had never seen so many brushes! Some brushes large enough to paint a mural, some so fine they appeared to only have three or four hairs.


“What makes it a good brush?” I asked.

“Well, see this one here?” he said, pulling out a medium-sized brush in a clear plastic tube. Popping it open, he pulled it out and instructed, “Feel the bristles.”

I did. They were soft and pliable.

“These are made of sable.” He pulled out another brush. “This one is hog hair. Good brushes are made of better material.”

I selected a variety of sizes and types. Though I had a bag full, it hardly seemed to make a dent.

As he shut up the box, turning to a larger one, I asked, “Do you think you’ll ever paint again, grandpa?”

“Maybe so. I think about it sometimes.” 

As we locked up the garage, hiding away the treasure trove of tools and art supplies, he said, “Now, you know what my dad always said about painting? Just have fun with it. Sometimes he used q-tips, or sponges, to try different effects.”

I nodded.

“‘There are no wrong ways to create art,’ he told me. Just remember that.”

I kept nodding. I recognized good advice when I heard it.

– – –



Art Supplies — 49 Comments

  1. That is a serious grab! Especially since how expensive oil paints can cost. I would be thrilled. I’m no painter at all, but I respect the tools greatly. And I love his advice to you, about not just using the typical painting items. I love to use sponges, rags, q tips -those are all great ways to experiment with technique. It’s a beautiful thing that your grandfather handed that stuff down to you.
    Calamity Rae recently posted…I Am Clare Hreshak’s Daughter – just one more story of childhood abuseMy Profile

  2. Great story. It’s amazing how you can write about these slightly more interesting than normal experiences and make them somehow universal and epic (that’s a complement).

    My grandmother and my mom are painters, so I know the value of good oils and good brushes. They can easily push into the hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars. It’s nice when inheritance comes early.
    Chris Plumb recently posted…Kids Are Great, They’ll Make You Punch Holes in WallsMy Profile

  3. I absolutely LOVE this! Although I am partial to art supplies and art history, and conversations alluding to the past. What a special moment and memory. I currently have this conversation a dozen times a day (when I’m lucky), and get to watch people discover new passions, new tools, new toys with childlike wonder each week. Sometimes a relative who inherited a loved one’s art supply collection will donate them to the store, for us to pass on to “needy artists” and I love hearing the stories behind them and to imagine what was created with these simple tools. Are you still painting? I’m not as much as I should, and beautiful moments like this make me question why not, and urge me to simply pick up a brush.

    • Sounds like you have a dream job to me! Yes, I’m still painting, and since getting laid off a little more often than I was before. Now that you’re back on the west coast we should have a painting party! 😉

  4. Beautifully told moment of your life. Try to find the fun in all things you do – makes your whole life happier. Even something difficult, can have a funny moment when you look back on it – most of what I remember about the hurricane 20+ years later, is the funny things.

  5. Loved this! The dialogue was very well done. It made me want to paint again. My younger brother is the better artist though, so I will just admire and encourage him. I just finished reading The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro, and this post made me think you would really enjoy it. It’s worth checking out. I think you would find it a good read. I would also recommend The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland. Happy painting and reading!

  6. I’m late to the party but just had to say how much I enjoyed this post! I love to paint as well so I can relate to the joy of paint tubes and brushes. Your Grandpa sounds really special. As he says, have fun Natalie.
    lisa thomson recently posted…Fear Of LossMy Profile

  7. ‘There are no wrong ways to create art,’

    I couldn’t agree more. Art is whatever you make of it – there really are no rules. There are techniques, but should never be rules. Rules only restrict creativity.

    I am very glad I found this, and am going to read more of your blog now! 🙂

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