I recall sometime in grade school, the local children’s author Eloise McGraw came to our school for a reading. To encourage reading, the librarian put all the library’s full collection of her books on a month-long display. Interested by the presentation, I tried not her award winning Egypt book, but a different one that caught my eye “Master Cornhill.” It was a rather involved English historical fiction novel about an orphan finding his place in society in the framework of one of the great London fires. An unlikely read for a girl of ten or eleven, but I enjoyed in none-the-less.
An unlikely image from late in the book has stayed with me my whole life. The boy finds an unlikely friend and master in a Dutch mapmaker, who at one point the book hands the MC a paintbrush and pot of blue pain and points to the map he’s about to start and suggests the MC makes the first stroke. Faced with the beautiful blank page, the MC is suddenly terrified. What if his stroke is wrong? What if he ruins the either piece of precious (and expensive paper)? And yet, there is the master, watching, waiting, and he also dares not disobey and so conquers his fear and makes lone long blue stroke across the page.
Good, the master tells him, I did not know until this moment if you had in you what it takes to become an artist. It takes making that first stroke. And if I had ruined the page, asks the boy. Then you would have ruined it, but that’s a risk that has to be taken, because if the page remains blank, you will never be artist… so something like that.
I don’t own the book, shockingly. I have only my memory, the quiet English room on the bridge of London, the white-haired Dutch master, the blond haired young boy, the white of the paper, and that one lone blue stroke. As if I was standing there myself. I suppose considering the vividness of the image I don’t really need McGraw’s book after all, do I?
It’s easy to forget now that I’m a published author that I started out as a visual artist as a child. I’ve long overcome the fear of the word processor page, dingier than a piece of art paper as my laptop screen is smudged and dusty, only hastily wiped off as I focus on churning out the words. It’s easy to forget that just because I have conquered this page does not mean that piece of paper waiting for me will easy to face.
For the past three months I’ve officially been planning to illustrate one of my own books. But the blank page has been winning. I haven’t drawn in I don’t know how long and somewhere in those years, the terror has returned. And so, when I sit down to write and think of the illustration project yet again, I take a deep breath and call to mind that English room, the London bridge, the white-haired map maker.
“Here,” he says, offering me a pencil, freshly sharpened. “You make the first line.”
The infinite white page spreads out and my small hands shake, the world spins, but then rights itself as I reach out and draw a long confident line across the page. This time I will not forget—I am an artist.