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Dirty Pour

Everyone seated in the art studio had four red plastic cups of paint, one empty cup, and a blank canvas in front of them. And the action was about to begin.

We were at a Dirty Pour Painting class, on the fourth floor of an old manufacturing building (actually it was five flights of stairs, because, yes, I was counting while climbing).

Out of breath and full of nervous anticipation, my attention shifted as I walked into an organized art studio with white canvases neatly waiting in front of each seat.

This was new to most of us. The only painting I've done needs a lot of upfront work: “It’s all in the prep.” It turned out my prep was the hardest part of this 2-hour class, though it was mostly mental.

It began when my friend asked me to go with her, and my first reaction was “Oh God. I’m no artist!”And my friend is. But this was new to her too, and she said it would be “fun” to try something different.


Painting is outside of my wheelhouse! I don’t have an eye for color, in fact my eyes have lied to me about color, seeing what they want to see, and not what is. And when trying to distinguish between similar colors, they are lazy and will only report “Who knows, pick any one, they’re all alike!” Which is both inaccurate and untrue.

So, when it comes to color, for me seeing isn’t believing.

Once, staring at 60,000,000 shades of pink in a paint store, we couldn’t decide which one would match the carpet. Then our three-year-old toddled over, laid a chubby finger on one particular pink, and pronounced “Hey! Dat’s da kuhlah uv mah kahpit.” That's when we learned that some people, including some toddlers, have an eye for color.

My husband also tried “just have fun” to encourage me to go to the class.

As if.

I couldn’t imagine how that could be possible, given my complete lack of either training in color theory, art history, an eye for color or any art talent. I finally just accepted that I would be the slow learner in the class, embarrass myself, and likely my friend, and agreed to go.

The very combination of the words "Paint + Pour"conjured up images of a paint-splatted evening. So I dressed accordingly in things no one would miss when they had to be burned because of being soaked head-to-toe in hazardous OSHA-infringing paint.

Let's just say I arrived at this new experience with some of my own layers.

With a bright smile, our instructor Ashley showed us how to do each step. She squeezed the paint bottle with all of her fingers and when some got on her finger, she wiped it on her artist’s apron and continued without hesitating.

Choosing four colors from --I don’t know it was either 300 or 3,000 -- little clear plastic paint bottles, arranged into color families, was one more painting prep challenge for me. I mean with so many colors, how do you know which four are the right ones?

Always a fan of copper and the verdigris color when it oxidizes, I was probably under the influence of the late fall colors outside. I squeezed each of my precious four colors into four cups, carefully avoiding getting paint anywhere it shouldn’t be.  

As she layered the four individual colors all into the one empty cup, we learned we would use that cup to pour onto our canvases. Oh, I realized, this explains the “dirty” in “Dirty Pour” Painting. I had envisioned “dirty” somewhat differently. More on this later.

Ashley explained that the first color poured into the bottom of the cup becomes the most dominant color on the canvas. This at first seemed counter-intuitive. Yet since it comes out last when poured, it ends up on top of all the others.

Kind of like long term memory: things that went in first make the biggest impression. This is why I know most of the lyrics to The Carpenters' songs, yet I can't tell you what I did last week.

So I put the metallic copper, my favorite of the colors, into the bottom of the cup, adding two shades of turquoise green, and a light peach after that.

And finally, we were ready to introduce Paint to Canvas.

Placing the canvas side on top of the cup, Ashley demonstrated the popular option: Turning both upside down, she laid the canvas back on the table, and the combined paints dumped freely onto the canvas rolling off the edges onto the tablecloth. With the paints all in motion, we watched as she showed us how tipping the canvas away from a color combination created more of it, spreading it over a larger area.

I admit I cringed when she touched the paint that had dripped off the canvas onto the tablecloth to fill in the white spots on the sides of the canvas. I mean there is wet paint on your hands? And my kids didn’t like finger painting.

Artists voluntarily touch wet paint without flinching. Yet this is not the "dirty" in Dirty Pour Painting.

It didn’t appear to bother her, and she floated around the room showing us hundreds of different finished pieces, different colors, even on different media, including jewelry and keychains she had made from dried paint drips.

But at no point did paint flood out of the ceiling onto us. We weren’t either spraying or throwing paint at our canvases, as I had imagined. And no clothes were ruined in the process.

For a brief second, through this window, I noticed my thoughts: Do it right. Don’t make a mess. Think about it first. Rehearse it. Don’t mess up. Don’t get dirty.

We went one at a time, watching each other. Every one had different colors, making every creation completely unique. I studied the others and went last, choosing to pour the cup of combined paints across the canvas, with the illusion that it would give me more control over the paint. *Note to self: The paint does what the paint wants, and you will not know or understand what this is until it is finished flowing.

I watched the copper and turquoise meet each other and float around and become their own shapes. Touching the pools of wet paint on the plastic tablecloth, I covered the white spots on the edge of the canvas.

Ashley said our new creations would take days to dry, so as we were getting ready to leave the studio, she offered to take us back down the five flights of stairs in the freight elevator.

Ummm and now a freight elevator?

Seriously. I got into this thing and came out OK.

Yeah, no. I don’t enjoy elevators. And this one actually was a wire cage and was manually operated. I looked at my friend, raising an eyebrow to communicate “Umm me have Fright of Elevator”. She smiled.

Ashley pulled open the sliding cage door, the same way elevator operators used used to do in large department stores. A happy childhood memory flickered: Pushing aside things in our bedroom closet, my sister and I took turns opening and closing the sliding closet doors while announcing our arrival on each floor.

I floated into the moving cage with the group, and we laughed while gliding to ground level.


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