There’s nothing quite like a good How-to book. One of the favourites on my bookshelf is a heavy hardback called ‘The Complete Watercolour Artist’. I love the reassuring promise of comprehensiveness, the straightforward noun-iness of the word ‘artist’. In a world of shifting meaning, of moral and ethical dilemmas, of dialectics and difference, of wordplay and double entendres (and French, for heaven’s sake), it is a breath of fresh air, a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-on-with-it guide book.
But even if you don’t roll-up-your-sleeves and reach for the paintbox, just reading about it – and looking at the pictures – is delight enough. The description of the tools is enough to set the pulse racing. The relative merits of different brushes – the best being, naturally, sable: “made from the tips of the tail hairs of the small rodent found chiefly in Siberia” the author helpfully tells us. Lined up against its poorer cousins, the synthetic sable and “the kind of cheap brush sometimes provided in watercolour boxes” its inherent superiority is “self-evident”. And when you’ve finished painting, rinse the darling brush under running water and tenderly reshape “with fingers or lips.”
And then there are the papers – ‘hot-pressed’, ‘cold-pressed’ (also known as ‘not’ – as in ‘not hot-pressed’) and ‘rough’ – manufactured by what sound like ancient and noble families such as Bockingford, Fabriano, Saunders and Strathmore. Whilst not painting, I fantasize about swanning into Sanjay Stationers in Hauz Khas Market and demanding a ream of “not Green’s de Wint Rugged” or “Crispbrook Hand Made” – phrases that seem incomplete without the addition of “my good man.”
And that’s before we’ve even got to the naming of colours. And entire rainbow of greens – viridian, sap green, Hooker’s green, the chemical rush of greens created with cobalt, cadmium or pthalocyanide. And don’t get me started on madder rose, Payne’s grey, Alizarin crimson or Pozzuoli earth. It’s enough to make you salivate.
I suppose it’s a similar rush for people who love to look at cookery books. It’s not necessary to rush to the kitchen and grab the meat tenderizer – the fantasy of doing is almost as good as the thing itself and, as any wannabe watercolour artist, Masterchef manqué or reader of cheap erotica knows, often considerably better.
One of the favourite books on my parents’ bookshelf of my childhood was a DIY manual. It had helpful step-by-step illustrated sequences on all sorts of stuff: cleaning the filter of a carburetor, putting up a shelf, repointing a roof, draining a radiator. It was great. A bit thin on plot and character development, to be sure, but who doesn’t revel in the lilt and romance of technical terminology, the poetry of gasket and flange?
The How-To book is rapidly becoming an endangered species. Today, all you need is Google – and a bit of YouTube. Which is sad, I think, because in books like these, over and above the practical knowledge that they impart, the important information about which bit of your car engine to pull out and which bit will have your finger off, there is an unexpected rush of sheer pleasure to be had in the driest, most practical tome.
And now to start painting… as soon as I’ve decided exactly what kind of palette I need. China? Metal? Ceramic? Plastic? Ah, choices, choices…
The Hindu Business Line, 21 September 2014