You’Ll Never Know If You Can Do It Until You Try

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More than once, life has taught me a valuable lesson: If you want to do something where your chances of success seem small, the only way to find out whether you can do it is to climb up to the high diving board, walk out on it, take a quick look around, suck in a breath, and dive! And the younger, the better! 

It’s so simple: If you don’t take a chance on failing, how can you succeed? Can’t be done. Besides, what would success be worth if we couldn’t fail? Who would care one way or the other?

As far back as can remember I had an urge to paint and draw, but for a long time I had no idea I had been dealt a losing hand because I was colorblind. So I kept at it, and my teachers never told me I was colorblind, but they frowned at my drawings a lot. 

Being colorblind is no fun. When I was about 8, I was amazed to discover that after the water in a mud puddle cleared up, some fuzzy stuff on its bottom would make bubbles which would lift thin slices of mud off the bottom and float them. I told all kinds of adults about it, including teachers, but not one of them showed the slightest interest. I suppose if I had told them that the fuzz was green — which I didn’t know — somebody might have had enough knowledge to realize that the “fuzz” was algae growing in the mineral rich environment of the puddles and creating bubbles of pure oxygen. I had to go find that out for myself.

And no, I never told my teachers. Let them go figure it out!

I was 12 by the time I found out I was red/green colorblind. The reaction of my “art” teacher was to frown at my drawings even more. Why? I was more interested in line, texture, and shape than in using the whole box of Crayolas. And then there was that thing about the ocean, which she insisted was blue. Hey! I lived just a mile from the sea at the time, and whenever I went and looked at it, it was green. Didn’t do any good telling her that, though. 

“The ocean is blue, Thomas. Blue! This crayon right here.”

Offering to bring a pail of seawater into class didn’t help. Nor did pointing out that the ship I had drawn was docked. So I dragged my friend Norman down to the ship docked at the State Pier. He said the water was green. Good enough for me!

My notebooks in high school never had notes in them except when I wrote down an assignment. I didn’t need to take notes. If you told me something I could repeat it back to you fairly well because I paid attention. But my notebooks had plenty of drawings in them. All over the page. Most of them small, but fun to do.

I drew a female face once at age 14, a beautiful face, the kind of face that makes a young man dream. My teacher came by. 

“The eyes are too low, Thomas. And not blue enough.”

They were blue enough for me. She lived next door. And she was looking down, which changed the facial perspective. Nuts!

By high school I had all but given up on art, and had turned to the written word. That, at least, allowed me to draw castles in the air, which — since they were done in the black and white of pen and ink — were more acceptable to the powers that be. That was nice, but the trouble was I kept envisioning the things I wrote about. I wanted to draw them, but at 16 I gave it up in disgust.    

One year at Christmas when I was 18, I saw a Christmas card with a little drawing of a white puppy sitting on a frozen pond. It said, “My tail is told.” I thought it was funny, and I knew Mom would love having a copy of it. Finding “ice” to draw it on was no problem. I had a big, oval mirror that was perfect. But trying to get watercolors — all I had left from my drawing days — to stick to glass was impossible. They just beaded up and looked terrible. 

Then I got the idea of putting some Ajax cleanser into them. Bingo! Watercolors worked on glass as slick as ever! Well, Mom loved the painting, and it was still Christmas, so-o-o-o....

Can you see where I’m going, Johnny?

You bet! The windows. Our windows blossomed into wreaths with lighted candles in them. Snow men. Candy canes. Big red bows. Santas. And, of course, Christmas trees. 

But no blue oceans.

I learned some fascinating things, too. If you want to paint on glass, and want it to look good from both inside and outside, you have to plan exactly where each speck of color is going. If you don’t, the side you aren’t painting on looks terrible (go look at a painted store window). And I learned that putting a tiny dot of white in the center of a yellow flame made it much brighter.

When I was 22, in the Air Force and living in Wichita Falls, Texas, I won set of watercolors in a raffle. They were the kind of watercolors that come in tubes and have to be thinned. 

Well, it wasn’t Christmas, and I wasn’t into painting windows during the summer, but I had a magazine with a picture of Marilyn Monroe on its cover. Remember that one? The one with her lips parted? You see it everywhere, even today. So I painted a copy of it, but I didn’t thin the paints; I used them the same way you use oils. My teachers would have hated it. They were sticklers about following all the rules.

And would you believe? When I tacked it up on a wall to dry, the crazy paper guy wanted to buy it! So I sold it to him, but he wouldn’t pay me the 10 bucks until I signed it. Crazy! Back then 10 bucks would buy 50 gallons of gas. Anyway, somewhere out in Texas, maybe in a landfill, is a painting I did. Imagine that.

When Lolly and I arrived in England in 1969 there was a slip-up in a transportation section back in the States, and we didn’t ship our household goods. We decided to buy what we needed to fill an otherwise empty house, and by the time we got done buying the furniture we were broke — and with bare walls. The Sears wish book had a print of a ship at sea — 40 bucks. Sorry, wrong number.

I had given Lolly a set of Craftint oils that came with some painting paper. I eyed the paper and the ship, and said — fool that I was — “I can paint a ship as good as that one.”

Nope! There were some things I didn’t know about oils.

I was 37 years old by then, so I got a book — and a quick education. To my utter amazement, someone wanted to buy the first thing I painted. Well, I couldn’t sell that, could I? It would have been like selling one of the kids. So I painted him a copy. 

Before we left England I sold more than 200 oils. And I spent four thunderstruck years all over Europe, standing before the works of the masters, seeing how little I knew, and loving every minute I spent learning things I could have learned a lot earlier in life. 

Do it, Johnny! Take that dive! Early! You owe it to yourself!

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