Penkava: The art of painting giant still lifes

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

In my spare time I love to paint. I especially enjoy painting large, outdoor still lifes: ranches, bungalows and split-levels. Nope, I’m not an artist, I’m a house painter.

I got my start in the painting trade when I became a schoolteacher. As soon as summer vacation started, I put down my chalkboard eraser and picked up a paintbrush. It was a natural transition because both implements required similar hand motions.

During my first few summers, I worked for other painters so I could learn the trade. It was with those master still lifers that I honed my skills with the Mr. Handyman Deluxe Paint Scraper and the Purdy handcrafted nylon/polyester blend 3-inch sash-style paintbrush.

I also learned the difference between oil and latex paint, as well as how to clean paint from someone’s roof when you accidentally spill a 5-gallon bucket of paint on it. (Hint: It has to do with getting a garden hose working really fast, an angry boss and a whole lot of screaming). But after having committed every possible mistake, I was ready to create my own painting business.

But first I needed a name and a slogan. I really wanted to call my business “Paintzilla … King of the Painters!” My wife felt that was a bit grandiose and childish. Geesh, what is so childish about a painter created by the radiation of a nuclear detonation who just happens to be partially reptilian and can project powerful eyebeams? That practically screams, “Let him paint whatever he wants!”

But, sad to say, “Paintzilla” never happened. Instead I became “Mr. P’s Painting.” No indestructible scale-like skin, no underwater breathing, no electric bite … just some guy with a ladder and some paintbrushes. Talk about childish ingenuousness. I could almost hear the kids cry out, “Mommy the painter’s here, but he has no precognition or fireballs.”

So there I was, Mr. P’s Painting, ready to pack up my green 1975 Ford Pinto station wagon and cruise the neighborhood looking for people who were willing to take a chance on a rookie still life domicile artiste.

The first job I landed, however, revealed a serious flaw in my estimating ability. The customer was a little old lady who lived alone in rather large, tattered stucco house. This soft-spoken, kindly woman followed me around the outside of the house as I made my estimate, slowly wobbling along with the use of a well-worn cane.

When we had gone full circle around the house, it was time for me to calculate the price. It would include multiple repairs to the stucco, lots of caulking and a great deal of scraping, besides the priming and painting.

As I totaled up the estimate, I looked down at the poor old lady. She looked up at me, her sad eyes brimming with tears, seemingly begging me for mercy. I made a quick adjustment of the final price. It would maybe cover the price of the material.

“Well, ma’am, I can do it for this,” I said as I showed her the price.

She seemed to tremble for a moment, and then asked, “Does that price include my two-car garage?”

“The garage? Um … yes ma’am,” I squeaked.

“And the metal rails on the front and back porches?”

“Ahhh … sure, I could do that ma’am.”

“And the mailbox with its little red flag?”

“Of course, ma’am,” I gulped.

“And could you give me the widow’s discount?”

“I’m figuring it in as we speak, ma’am.”

And so went my first job. It took me three weeks. I lost about $100 in materials and made nothing for my labor. Sure, Paintzilla would have probably made big bucks on the job, but I was glad that in this case I had the bigger heart. Mind you, though, having atomic breath would have come in handy.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. The next year the same lady asked him to paint the inside of her home. He showed up with eyes brimming with tears and asked her for the Penniless Painter Bonus. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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