Almost every time I pick up a paintbrush, I think of my buddy Andy. He is a friend I met in college, and one who did a lot to draw me out of my self-imposed shell. As my sophomore year was drawing to a close, and therefore as I was following my habit of heading back to my childhood home for the summer, Andy intervened. “Why not stay in Chicago for the summer?,” he asked, adding “There’s a lot of work you could find.” Indeed, he offered me a few hours a week as a janitor at the church where he was employed as the Sexton, and reminded me of all of the odd jobs that we never had time to take when classes were in session. Furthermore, we could stay in the basement of the vacant house he was watching for the summer (which was garishly decorated and overpriced, so that thankfully didn’t sell for those 3 months).
It was a few weeks into that summer that Andy asked if I’d like to help him with a painting job. Well, I’d painted a few bedrooms with my dad, and felt pretty confident. Sure, I’d do it. It’d be a nice way to fill up the empty spaces in a week, and Andy was offering me a nice hourly rate.
We got up early that day to fill tall mugs with coffee and load up drop-cloths and brushes and ladders and buckets, and headed to the hardware store. Where Andy led me straight to the paintbrushes to give a short lesson, and to recommend one that seemed especially expensive. I was confused: was he offering to buy it for me? I mean, he had plenty of brushes, and I was just a temporary assistant, right? With considered assumption, he placed it in my hands as he grabbed some other supplies and headed toward the cash register.
And so began my education: a real painter maintains his/her own equipment. Just like every mechanic keeps a personal set of tools, and every chef carries their knives, and every scholar shows up with boxes of books, a painter’s tools are a part of the trade. If I wanted to abuse my stuff, that was my choice. But if I learned to take proper care of my stuff, I’d have it for a very long time. And expensive brushes are more frequently lost or stolen than worn out.
I also learned that painting is mostly preparation. We spent several days scraping, and reglazing, and replacing panes of glass. Then we sanded. Then we caulked. Then we primed. Then we sanded some more. And when we finally got to the painting, it was over so quick that I almost missed it.
But perhaps the best lesson I learned from Andy was to trust yourself. In my limited experience, we always used lots of masking tape to catch drips and runs and other imminent disasters. But on this job, where we were painting windows set in brick, and ‘cutting in’ (carefully painting against the edge of the material) next to glass and brick, and otherwise doing lots of detail work, we barely used drop-cloths. Which wasn’t reckless, but quite the opposite: I learned that having all of those safety nets meant that one would unavoidably rely on them. But with proper attention and technique, one could avoid making the mess in the first place (and work much, much faster).
So today, when I was cruising through the Home Depot and saw a display for a fancy product that would help me “Cut in like a pro”, I scoffed. No, I thought to myself, because a pro would never use a confounded contraption like that. A pro learns how to use professional equipment, and learns to do so consistently. If you want to learn how to do something like a pro, you need to work like a pro. You don’t need to be a professional, but you should act like one.