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"Personally Painted" from Fruit Garden and Home

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Fruit Garden and Home
Personally Painted
by Ellis Parker Butler

For the final coat I used fifteen percent ichthyol ointment; on my right wrist and forearm up to the elbow, I mean. This gives the human skin a neat brown-black, as if it had been rubbed on the bottom of a coffeepot that had first been stood on a wad of lard. I then wrapped the whole forearm in an old handkerchief and went to bed. For the first coat I had used ten percent iodine, following this with a second coat of the same the next night.

You see, when I choose the title "Personally Painted" for this communication, I mean it both ways -- I've personally painted the third-floor rooms, and I've painted myself personally. I am now in a position to give expert advice to amateur home-painters, including what drugs to use on the forearm and back of the neck after the painting job is, so to speak, put on the bum. "Put on the bum" is the technical phrase used by the professional painter when he comes to see if he can do anything to save the rooms from total wreck after you have painted them in your hopeful amateur way. He comes in, looks at the rooms, and says: "Well, you certainly did put these rooms on the bum, didn't you?" You then reply, "Yes, but it only cost me sixty-two dollars for paint." He then says, "Is that all the paint you used?" He means this sarcastically.

When you mention sixty-two dollars worth of paint, you mean the paint that you put on the walls and ceilings; this does not include the paint you got on your pants, shirt, face and in your hair. That does not come under the head of "Home Decoration Expense"; it is charged in the "Personal Adornment" column, along with your shaving soap and talcum powder and such things.

Of course, in following the directions I shall give, the amateur painter need not take cognizance of the drugs to smear on the back of the neck unless he means to paint a ceiling. I do not advise much ceiling painting during the first four or five hundred years of an amateur's painting career. There seems to be a joint in the back of the neck, built -- I imagine -- something like the trigger of a gun, and when the amateur has stood on a stepladder a few nights, looking up at the ceiling, this trigger joint goes "click!" and sets solidly, causing the chin and face to point permanently upward until the back of the neck has been rubbed seven nights with horse liniment, causing the patient to smell like a livery stable. During this period the wife sleeps in the other room. The next ceiling I have to paint I am going to take down and turn upside down. I shall then stand on it and paint it from above, getting the paint on my socks instead of in my hair, and saving the cost of the horse liniment. It is now my opinion that the only amateur who can paint a ceiling painlessly is one of those circus fellows who can lie on his back and paint the ceiling with his feet.

One of my friends wrote me, not long ago, "Why don't you write something about repainting your own house, or redecorating your own walls? I think the hardest three weeks I ever spent in my life was when I got the notion that I could save money by painting my own walls. The original estimate of the decorator was $235. I figured this was $35 for materials and $200 for labor. I decided to take two weeks off and earn $100 a week by saving it. The result was that I spent three weeks working twelve to fourteen hours a day and finally gave up with half the kitchen painted and never finished it. It seems that I used glue sizing when I should have used varnish size. The stuff all came off before I got my hat and coat on to go back to work. I had to call in another decorator and it cost me $255 to get rid of him. To save $200 I spent $34.74 for paint, paid another decorator $255, lost three weeks' time from my regular job, and got my arms in such shape from painting the ceiling that I couldn't feed myself for a month."

This, I think, is an exaggeration. I have been able to feed myself right along, using my left hand. Of course, my right hand is -- as we experts say -- on the blink. "On the blink" is an ancient Greek term meaning it is no longer worth the powder to blow it up. But that is merely part of the formula accepted by all authorities as usual, namely: First, paint the ceiling; Second, give the arm two months to get well. I would be ashamed and feel myself disgraced if I came out of a job of ceiling painting with my right arm in a condition to wave a palm leaf fan without agony.

While the pain is sharpest between the bones of the hand the ache is steadiest from the shoulder to and including the wrist, but the fever is confined to the wrist itself, where I put the iodine. Most of the swelling is there also. While the wrist is as large as a leg of mutton the hand is now swelled to only the size of a ham and there are several spots on it that I can touch without screaming.

I have, you understand, quite a house, and nothing had been done about the third floor rooms for fifty-four years, when they were finished in yellow pine and varnished, the window and doorframes being painted mahogany red. This is a neat finish, very popular for harness rooms in stables, but during the long sad years the pine absorbed the varnish and the red paint departed in spots. There are four of these rooms and a big central hall, and one day my wife said, "I don't think the twins like their rooms any more; I notice they don't take their little friends up there as much as they did." So I said: "All right, they do look raggy; I'll give them a few dabs of paint." I said it off-hand and carelessly, just like that. I said it cheerfully and optimistically, and I have not been cheerful or optimistic since.

I began by laying in enough paint to do the job, with brushes and putty and turpentine. I decided to paint two rooms and make them nice and beautiful. I needed to paint only the walls, ceilings, floors, doors and windows, and I chose to have the ceilings white, the walls French gray, and the trim a shade darker gray. The floors, which were unpainted pine boards a foot wide with cracks about two feet wide between every two boards, were to be walnut color. I got the stepladder from the stable, moved everything out of the rooms, put newspapers on the floors, opened a gallon can of "ready-mixed" white paint, and began to stir the paint. "Ready-mixed" white paint comes in a pail; the paint is in a heavy wad at the bottom of the pail, with thin soup above it. The trick is to take a stick and scrape at the wad in the bottom of the pail until it decides to loosen up and associate with the soupy stuff. It does this reluctantly, being aristocratic in nature and loath to mix with common soup. By the time when I had expected to have the painting job done and the rooms ready for the twins to move into I decided that that paint was as mixed as I was going to mix it, and I got on the stepladder with the pail of paint on the top step, and dipped my two-inch brush in the paint. I then twisted my body slightly to examine the ceiling and my bare elbow glided along the top of the paint pail, which I had opened with a good can-opener, and I got down from the stepladder and tied a handkerchief tightly around the elbow. This stopped the worst of the bleeding and, fortunately, not enough of the good red claret had got in the white paint to turn it pink. That cut is now almost well, healing rapidly in only six weeks, and hurts only when I move the arm. Not much of the white paint got in it; not enough to make it necessary to buy another gallon of paint that night.

The trouble with these yellow pine ceilings and walls is that whoever invented them thought he would be smart and grooved them. There is one groove down the middle of each board and another where the boards join, and -- another trouble -- where the boards join they don't join. They edge apart and leave cracks after fifty-four years or so. In two minutes I saw I had lied when I said I would paint the rooms -- what I had to do was paint cracks. The next morning when I went up to look at the job I had done on the ceiling, I could only see streaks of thin white here and there with yellow pine cracks in great abundance. I then began puttying the worst cracks. Then I painted the cracks. Then I gave the whole thing a second coat. Then I gave the walls a coat of French gray. Then I painted the ceiling again. Then I gave my neck a coat of horse liniment. Then I gave the walls another coat of French gray. Then I gave the ceiling another coat of white. Then I gave my neck another coat of horse liniment. I was now spending the forenoons telephoning for more paint, the afternoons giving my neck coats of liniment, the evenings till midnight giving the rooms more coats of paint, and the rest of the night sitting up in bed holding my right wrist in my left hand, moaning in a low but sincere tone of voice.

But I am a stubborn cuss, once I get at a thing. I bought more paint and more putty, and lamp black, and darkened some of the French gray paint with a little lamp black and began on the baseboards and doors and windows of one room. Probably it was because I got so much of this darker gray on the window glass that I ran out of it so soon and had to mix some more. With this new lot I finished the trim of that room, and the next morning I saw the new shade did not connect with the old shade by about a mile and a half. So I painted that over again with a new mixture, and painted again what I had painted first, and retouched the ceilings, and repainted the back of my neck. It was then I gave my wrist a good earnest coat of iodine. It gave quite a little relief and I slept a good half-hour that night, but the next morning the rich brown that my wrist had been had faded to a sick greenish yellow, so I gave it a second coat of iodine and bound it tightly in bandages and gave the floor a first coat of walnut varnish stain. By this time my children were thinking twice before they spoke to me on important matters and my wife was not speaking to me at all.

The next morning the coat of iodine had disappeared from my wrist and forearm but had been succeeded by a coat of small red pimples set close together and completely surrounding the arm, resembling a first-class case of ivy-poisoning and registering 190 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, with the pleasant sensation of the seven-year itch. It was then I gave the floor a second coat of walnut varnish stain and the forearm the first coat of fifteen percent ichthyol ointment. I understand that ichthyol ointment is made of dead fish and black grease. Little did I expect, when I planned to paint those rooms, to be painting with dead fish before I got through. But that is the beauty of tackling an amateur painting job; you never know what pleasant surprise is in store for you. I am not quite through with the job yet, and before I am done I may be painting with dead alligators. That lies in the unfathomed bosom of the future. Nobody knows.

I am improving as a painter right along. I have bought more and bigger brushes day by day. The next room I paint I am going to paint with a twelve-inch whitewash brush. I am going to buy ichthyol ointment in one-gallon cans.

As a matter of fact, the rooms look very well. They do look a thousand times better than when I began painting them, and in time and money I do not think they have cost me more than six or eight times what a regular painter would have charged me. But that is a mere detail; think what sublime thoughts I have been able to think while sitting up in bed holding my right wrist in my left hand when, had I not tackled this job, I would have been in deep and profitless sleep. Think what self-control I have learned while resisting the irresistible desire to scratch the itching eruption on my forearm caused by the iodine poisoning.

There are a few things, however, I would like to say. No cat, as a friend suggested I might say, got in my paint, for I have no cat. The cat did not, after getting in the paint, rush about the neighborhood, spotting it all up. Nothing like that happened. It is true that the paint got on my pants and that when so much got on them that they got stiff and would not bend at the knees I had to discard them and take another pair, but they were old pants anyway. And if I had to cut off a few locks of my hair because they got wadded with paint, that did not matter either -- it was old hair. That I bought a pound of crack-filler to fill the one hundred and eight cracks in the floor and pushed the whole pound into one crack before I discovered that the cracks had no bottoms and that the filler was going clear through into the open space above the ceiling below -- that was not serious; I bought more crack filler. But I do want to make a few remarks about walnut varnish stain. Paint is a delicious thing to smear on things; cold-water paints and kalsomines are lovely mediums to fool with; putty is a dream of delight to plug into knotholes -- but varnish stain is an invention of Satan! It is, I insist, one of the meanest things I have ever sat in.

It may be that I do not know how to use varnish stain properly. It may be that the heat of my fevered wrist caused it to evaporate with unusual rapidity, but I would rather paint with a lukewarm Welsh rabbit or cold glue than with the lower half of a can of varnish stain. I do not say this because it aggravates me, after I have painted for the best part of a night with varnish stain, to find that I have varnish-stained one of my socks fast to my ankle so that I have to scrape it off with the large blade of my pocket-knife. That is merely one of the normal incidents of amateur painting; a man expects to have to sandpaper himself in spots before he goes to bed after a painting job, and he gets used to it and comes to look forward to the pleasant rasp of sandpaper against his skin. But when I meet up with a sort of paint that requires one coat and then another coat and then another coat and which, after the fourth coat, is shiny in some spots and dull in others, and when that paint has a knack of getting so sticky that it grabs the hairs of the brush and holds onto them so that you have to brace your feet and pull with both hands to get the brush loose, I call it an unpleasant sort of paint to fool with.

It was Samuel Longfellow who said that if we could look into the hearts of our fellow men and see the sorrow hidden there we could have nothing but pity for all; it is little Ellis Parker Butler who says that until we try another man's job we cannot know how worthy of respect that other man is. I am now able to give the professional house painter the same awe and admiration I have given George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte and Noah. He is one of the world's great men.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:12:55am USA Central
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