Paint-by-Numbers Creativity

A ghastly paint by numbers canvas

I like to craft — I have a bookcase and two storage stacks overflowing with craft supplies of all sorts — and I like to get gifts I can “do.” But because I’m a craft generalist at heart, it can be tough to find a craft.

I got this paint by number set at Christmas and immediately sort of hated it. First, it’s a paint by number. Who does that past age five? I can do real art. There’s no creativity in paint by number; this was even the point of that movie Mona Lisa Smile. You’re just following orders at that point. Plus all the numbers show through when you’re done, so you can’t pass it off as your own work anyway; everyone knows you’re just filling it in.

Second, it’s a bizarre semi-abstract painting of four cats. The little paint pots are mediocre quality, and half the instructions are in Chinese, the rest in computer-mistranslated English. And the canvas is pretty big, like poster sized if you were planning on displaying it for everyone to see your definitely-not-paint-by-number artwork (wink wink).

So when I got it, I kind of laughed, wrote the thank you note, and set it aside.

But I had a baby, and then maternity leave ended, and the world ground to a halt because of zombies covid-19.

As my stress levels climbed, I started to feel like a tube of toothpaste, being squeezed dry of the creative energies I just assumed were an essential pet of myself. I felt desiccated and hollow. And I found myself thinking about that paint by number set. And eventually, I decided to stop berating myself for doing something embarrassing, and I got out the kit.

It’s hypnotic. I don’t have to think. I can let the overworked stress hamster in my brain run itself out while my hands just quietly and methodically fill in the voids. And I felt accomplished, while everything else was spinning out of control. I couldn’t control that, but I could find and color in every little blob marked 12.

And little by little, the ugly incomprehensible blobs started to turn into a picture. The act is soothing, and I will have something visible to show I had done something. It is lots of little victories.

I’m nearly done with it now. It still looks moderately hideous, partially because the cats swirl into each other and are garishly red, blue, and yellow and partially because I didn’t do a great job filling in the blobs. I probably won’t display it on the wall.

But I’m proud of it. It shows I kept going. I’m still here, still doing creative things, things are being created. And I can take some of that pressure off.

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