What I learned from painting a wall

I’m back! My summer break was great. I did a lot of good stuff during my offline time, but the most interesting — and unexpected — endeavor was that I painted a room.

It all started with reading The Nester‘s book, The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful, which I picked up just before the break. I expected it to be a coffee table book with some decorating tips I might enjoy looking at over my morning cup of coffee. To my surprise, it turned out to be a more of a kick-in-the-pants manifesto about creating beauty in your physical space.

It’s more like The War of Art than it’s like an issue of Martha Stewart Living. The Nester reveals all the limitations she’s faced in creating a beautiful space for her family — shoestring budgets, rental houses, moving frequently — and details how she thought outside of the box to create beauty anyway.

the nesting place What I learned from painting a wall

As I got more and more into the book, Joe grew trepidatious.

“The Nester says we shouldn’t be afraid to get out hammers, nails, and paint to create beautiful things for our homes!” I declared when he came home from work one afternoon. “I have this great idea for a mirror…”

“The Nester doesn’t want you to do that,” he said, mildly startled. “We’d end up with glass shards and paint all over the garage floor, and you’d give up in disgust and realize that you don’t want a mirror that badly.”

I enthusiastically brushed off Joe’s skepticism. Last Thursday evening, the kids and I came in from Home Depot carrying bags bulging with brushes and pans, and a can of paint.

“What is that?” he asked as if I were bringing in roadkill from the street.

“It’s paint!”

“Have you ever painted anything?”

“No.”

“Have you ever even seen it done?”

“No.” When I saw the look on his face, I added. “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.”

“I don’t think you’re the target audience for that message,” he said. “She’s talking to women who struggle with perfectionism in the way their houses look. That’s, umm, not your cross.”

Though he didn’t say it, I could see it in his eyes that he worried that I’d interpret “it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful!” to mean “let’s spill a gallon of paint on the carpet and tweet about it instead of cleaning it up!”

Despite Joe’s belief that The Nester needs to release a separate version of her book for people like me, perhaps with the subtitle, It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect…But There Is a Point at Which the Health Department Gets Involved, he ended up supporting me in this endeavor.

joe text What I learned from painting a wall

On Friday afternoon, I set out to paint my daughter’s room bright green, a color she picked out. (Joe: “That paint is bright green.” Me: “It’s a Montessori thing. We need to let kids make their own choices.” Joe: “Have you ever actually read anything about the Montessori method?” Me: “No. But I accidentally bought the most expensive brand of paint, so the wall will be green.”)

During the baby’s naptime, the older kids and I painted two of the walls of my daughter’s room (the other two “walls” are heavy curtains that separate her room from another, since that’s how you roll when you have eight people living in a three-bedroom house).

It ended up being a wonderful endeavor that surprised me in many ways. Here are a few things I learned:

1. Just do it

Shortly before I bought The Nesting Place, I heard an excellent podcast where Jeff Goins interviewed Seth Godin. I was struck by Godin’s message to “just ship,” meaning: get your project out there. Start creating before you have time to talk yourself out of it.

The Nester’s book has the same basic message, and it was an effective one-two punch in combination with the podcast.

kids painting What I learned from painting a wall

If I had given myself too much time to think of everything that could go wrong with someone like me opening up a gallon of bright green paint in a carpeted house with six kids under the age of 10, I would have never started. The moment the first streak of neon green splashed across the wall, it felt like a victory.

2. Those drops on top of the paint can are wet

looking at paint 2 What I learned from painting a wall

When you’re at Home Depot and the employee hoists your freshly-made gallon of paint onto the counter, you will see droplets in your requested color on the lid.

You might assume that they came with the can, perhaps part of a special lid reserved for that hue. When you smack the top of the can as you declare, “Huzzah! That’s our color!” you will discover that those are wet drops of paint.

3. Even brains in jars like beauty

Because of my brain-in-a-jar personality type, I used to think of myself as a person who’s immune to her physical surroundings. When Joe and I were first married, I always said that a messy house had no impact on me. However, when Joe started keeping everything tidy, I realized that it did make a difference. I was more relaxed. I could think more clearly. I felt like my life was in order, which gave me a sense of peace.

the painter What I learned from painting a wall

The same goes for decoration: Even though it’s never going to come naturally to people like me to spend lots of time getting the details of our decorating motif just right, it’s worth putting forth the effort to make conscious choices about how you want your living space to look. Having a home whose decor reflects the mission and the tone of your family can have far-reaching impact on every area of life.

4. Cats and open trays of paint don’t mix

cat What I learned from painting a wall

We had a very near miss when I realized only after I’d poured the paint into the tray that I’d forgotten to close the cat in a room.

I imagined Joe coming home to see green paw prints tracked all across the carpet, onto the couch, then over the table. He’d look over at me in horror, and I’d stand there with green cat prints all over my own clothes and say, “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful?”

5. We all need breaks from DECISIONS

Guess what? I loved painting. I was shocked (and Joe was floored to the point that he thought we had an Invasion of the Body Snatchers situation going on) when I realized that it was immensely enjoyable for me to spend my afternoon immersed in the slow, repetitive process of painting a wall.

As someone whose preferred methods of relaxation always involve staring at words on screens, I never would have guessed that taping off baseboards, spreading out tarps, and using a brush to dab paint into hard-to-reach corners would have been something I could get into. Yet not only did I love it, but it felt like something I needed. It was an oddly therapeutic experience to roll the brush up and down, up and down, and watch the white wall become green.

I realized that what was so soothing about it is that painting requires concentration but not decisions.

One difficult thing about 21st-century life is that it can be mentally exhausting. We have have so many more points of interaction with other people and so many more options for how to use our time than our ancestors did just a hundred years ago, and the result is that our days are filled with one decision after another.

I went through emails before I started on the room, and it was an incredibly mentally fatiguing process.

Should I sign the kids up for that summer camp? What about those classes for the Fall? What should I do about the swim team volunteer request? Should I respond to the person who criticized me on social media? How do I say no to that person who’s asking me to do that thing I don’t have time to do? When should I meet that friend for coffee?

…Those were just a few of the decisions I had to make in one 15-minute period of going through my email — and I got a text that required a decision during that time, too!

When I began painting, it was like a soothing balm for my overheated brain. There was a lot of work to do, but there were no decisions to be made. It required mental energy — but, for once, it was a sort of stable energy that could be pointed like a laser in one direction, rather than constantly jumping from one type of conundrum to the next.

. . .

room before after What I learned from painting a wall

I’m glad to be back in the swing of blogging, but my break left me with a valuable lesson:

When you find yourself overwhelmed by the world of glowing screens, sometimes the best thing you can do is to go paint a wall.

. . .

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Enter the Conversation...

52 Responses to “What I learned from painting a wall”
  1. Erin says:

    Jen
    Just laughed and laughed at your Joe’s conversation, he still reminds me so much of my husband. I admit when you said green I was nervous but..it turned out beautifully!!
    Erin recently posted..Enjoying the Winter Sunshine

  2. Marie says:

    1) I’m now the 11th hold on The Nester’s book in my library system.
    2) When you have paint trays, in addition to watching for cats, you should also beware of 5-year olds. Luckily the quilt dragged through the paint tray had been made by my mom, who laughed and reminded me about walking in the room and tossing my sweater into the tray of white paint at the same age when she was painting. The child for whom the quilt was made didn’t notice the dark red stains on the binding for 6 years (despite daily use), by which time they had faded to pink.

  3. Allison H. says:

    I KEEP TELLING MY HUSBAND TO LET ME PAINT! I think I’ll wait for him to go on his annual caribou hunt and do it as a surprise. He’ll love it. He will.
    Allison H. recently posted..Celebrating Twenty-four Years

  4. Charlotte says:

    When you see all those scuffs and marks disappear under a fresh coat of beautiful, clean paint… be careful! It’s addictive! Seriously. Some days I would rather paint a room than do anything else in the world. It’s so peaceful and such a great workout too.

    We started out in an opposite fashion. I was afraid to paint because I’d never done it before. My husband woke up early one morning and painted our bathroom. I looked at it and said, “I can do that.” And I did.
    Charlotte recently posted..Teaching From Rest :: A Review

  5. “Let’s spill a gallon of paint on the carpet and tweet about it instead of cleaning it up!” Hahaha! I’m glad you’re back (and that your break was nice, of course).
    Amy @ Motherhood and Miscellany recently posted..Baby Catholic Answers All the Things, Volume 2 – The Pope

  6. Meika says:

    YES to all of the things! I picked up the Nester’s book after you mentioned it and probably read it half a dozen times, in bits and pieces. We now have a rainbow wall in my girls’ new room – the one that all 3 of them will share, so I’m looking with interest at your room curtain – my 7-year-old has repeatedly requested exactly that.

    And you green room? I adore it. Green is my favorite color, but I can never get quite the right shade. Yours looks awesome!
    Meika recently posted..Bikes in Holland is TODAY

    • Jessica says:

      Melika, green is my absolute favorite color for walls, and I agonized over how to use it best in our teeny little “library.” I ended up with Benjamin Moore’s Acadia Green, and I kid you not, I have had multiple people stop and stare into the room and say, “That is the most beautiful paint color I have ever seen.” (The Holy Spirit must have led me to the choice, because I’m no decorator!) So that’s my recommended shade! :-D

  7. Marilyn says:

    I agree, that green is awesome and it looks like it was lots of fun to do and very therapeutic! I might check out the book since it gives ideas for rentals.
    Marilyn recently posted..How to be a peaceful mother

  8. Jenny says:

    I LOVE this…and I loved that book, per your recommendation. It snapped me out of my “woe is me we’re renters and thus I shall not decorate with sub-par not Pottery Barn materials” and forced me to make some easy and lovely decisions involving moving furniture around and, bam, I like my house again. Ridiculous.

    And I love painting walls.
    Jenny recently posted..Soul Blockage

  9. Amanda says:

    I love the green in your daughter’s room, very nice and fun! I totally need to check out The Nester, though it’ll probably be a ‘preaching to the choir’ kind of thing :)

    I’m not at all afraid of decorating and I’ve learned my mood is heavily influenced by my surroundings. So my husband and I spend lots of time on our house, we love it. Almost every room in the house is painted now, we just have to finish our master bedroom and the hallways sometime when we can squeeze it into the budget…and decide on a master bedroom color. I’m pretty sure my dream job would be to be a professional organizer/decorator.

    Have you read Leila Lawler’s A Little Oratory? She kind of touches on creating beauty in the home, it might help inspire more house projects :)
    Amanda recently posted..Literary Analysis With Struggling Readers

    • Jennifer says:

      My mood is ABSOLUTELY influenced by my surroundings, too! It’s a cross with eight (LOVABLE) messy children and a(n also lovable) slobby husband. I finally figured out it’s at least partly because I’m so visual (learning, etc). Disorder and mess (in my own home, not so much others’) make my skin crawl – pretty literally. Anyhoo, on that note I’ll end this random chime-in to your comment.

  10. Mary Keane says:

    Oh, can I relate! On Friday I had an acute case of Mommy burnout. Saturday I sanded and painted a toddler bed. Better and cheaper than therapy!

  11. Julie says:

    Good for you! My husband always gets the painting jobs around here and maybe, just maybe, you’ve persuaded me to take charge of the next one. Especially because of number 5.
    Julie recently posted..Of Bugs And Crabs: One Hot Mess (Vol. 5)

  12. Melody says:

    Boy, I really love painting. Now that we are no longer in “transition” houses with the necessary neutral everything, I have been a little crazy with the color. We have burgundy, navy, putty, cream, periwinkle, mint, sage, blue-ish something, tan, grey, and pink. I think that green is fantastic! Good for you!

  13. LiverpoolEleanor says:

    The green looks great! And what a good example to your kids to try new things to make their surroundings appeal to them!
    There does come a time when the kids are old enough to (mostly) not wreck decorating projects like this one or knock over paint cans onto the floor, or try to eat the paint. Until that point in life what worked for me was taking out (and putting back) every little bit of decorating supplies every night and painting one wall every night with 2 coats. Then starting over the next night again! It kept curious fingers out of the paint and dog hair out of the paint, too :)

  14. Mira says:

    I painted my room eight years ago. In yellow. I’ve never painted anything in my life before.

    But I was confident because – how hard could it, anyway, BE?!?

    So I bought the brushes, and a pan and a can of paint. What to me seemed like a fun, summer-ish colour in the store turned out to be the brightest, most yellow-est neon-est yellow you could imagine on my wall. I grew a little suspicious of my choice when the word “fluorescent” occurred to me but I pressed on, determined to prove everyone who said that I should leave it to professionals wrong.

    My Dad came in while I was painting, looked around and proclaimed that I’m making the room unlivable. Then he pointed to the wall which to him seemed an acceptable shade of yellow and suggested that I paint the whole room that shade. I didn’t dare to tell him that the wall he was pointing at wasn’t actually painted yet. That the yellow on the wall that seemed fine to him was actually a reflection of the yellow on another wall. Perhaps that could give you an idea how yellow that yellow really was.

    It took me four times to get the paint right. I almost gave up and painted all peach. What should have been a two-day job tops turned out to be a two-week job.

    But it also turned out to be one of my fondest memories with my Dad to this day. :-)

    P.S. I still think that I could have lowered our overall heating bill, had I left that neon yellow on. It would’ve warmed up my room. I’m sure of it.

  15. Leticia Adams says:

    Love it! It came out so beautiful.

    We have cans of paint ready to go for our bathroom. I’ve been dreading painting it. Thanks for this post, it might be exactly what we need. :)

  16. Mary Creger says:

    I love that room! The green is so refreshing.
    Painting is very therapeutic. I always loved being able to choose how my walls would look. Now being dependent on oxygen for half my time keeps me from painting so I crochet. It’s amazing how many prayers can be said while working on a baby blanket!
    Thank you for another awesome post.

  17. Sandy C says:

    My daughter teaches at a Montessori school so I am learning more about the method. I think your painting IS a good Montessori idea. :) When I observed my daughter’s classroom, I was surprised to see 3-5 year olds carrying glass plates and cups to the snack table and then to the dishwasher when they were done eating. They also do a lot of cooking/baking with these tots and one of the favorites chores for the children is carrying the eggs. Maria Montessori believed children rise to the occasion when we trust them to do “real” things. Great job on your painting project!

  18. Sandy C says:

    Also just rememberd the time I wanted to paint our living room but knew my husband would insist on moving all the furniture out of the room. So I waited until he was away on a week-long trip and painted it without telling him. Lol. I moved the furniture to the center of the room and it was FINE.

  19. Nicole says:

    I just finished SOTG at midnight and woke up to this post. I swear I thought you were contacting me personally as if you know I went to bed thinking about how much I enjoyed your story!!! Crazy I know….not used to recving post on Tuesdays from you and now your full name appears instead of conversiondairy as before. All that to say we bought a house in VA Beach 2006 and before we moved in I took 2 weeks (w/ my 84yr old Dad helping) to paint 4 bd rms, living rm and kitchen!!!! It was a labor of love once I saw how nice the first room looked. I just couldn’t stop!! We are now about to close on a house in NO,LA which is partially renovated and to save $$ I again will be painting the bedrms & baths. I can’t wait to compare the before and after!!! Thanks for the new inspiration!!!

  20. Donna says:

    I work in IT and found that jobs at home that require little decision making and not much thinking are so very relaxing. My “go to” job is gardening. Weeding and playing in the dirt often helps my mind relax and to put things in perspective. Glad your cat didn’t add to the job!
    Donna recently posted..A missed opportunity

  21. Nancy says:

    Needs concentration but not decisions… I love that. I needed that. Thank you!
    Nancy recently posted..Out of the Turmoil of Life

  22. nester says:

    I laughed my way through this post. and oh my gosh just read your brain-in-a-jar post and we might be twins, I’ve thought that was a fine idea in the past too (as well as serving glorious alone time in jail—a vacation!)
    nester recently posted..The Decorating Truths You Won’t See on HGTV

  23. Anne says:

    I read this in the middle of the night last night and found these conversations with Joe to be the funniest ever.

    “The Nester doesn’t want you to do that,” he said mildly startled.” LOL!

    “No.” When I saw the look on his face, I added. “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.” LOLOL! IDHTBPTBB as a defense move! :-)

    Great post. Hope you had a good staycation.
    Anne recently posted..Twitterature – June 2014

  24. Kris says:

    I love this. I do keep a decently “neat” house, but I do NOT have an eye for decorating. Nor does it really interest me. Thankfully, I have a very good friend who does, and she keeps my house looking pretty with little touches I would never think to do. However, I have discovered over the years that painting is the one home improvement project that I do well. My husband is gone a lot for the military, and I paint while he’s gone to keep me and the kids busy. And I loved your description of how peaceful it is to just focus on the painting. That’s exactly why I love it.

  25. Deanna says:

    My husband and I prefer bright colors to neutral. When we told my sister our painting plans for the house, she said “oh no, it’s going to be a rainbow house”. We have one room the same bright green as yours. My son’s room is bright orange. Our kitchen is a deep, dark red….we kinda regret that one and it will take a lot of coats to redo it. Glad you found a new “hobby”!
    Deanna recently posted..Early Theme Adopters: Bushwick

  26. Barbara C. says:

    I’m going through a divorce, and while I hope the kids and I can stay in the house for another 3 to 5 years, I also have to prepare it to sell. This has been my first-time painting a house.

    I just finished painting the basement and turning the former “man-cave” into a home library with a prayer corner. It’s become the favorite room in the house for everyone. It just makes me happy to go down and see the color on the walls when the rest of the house is just drab (and extremely dirty) white.

    Tomorrow I start on the Master Bedroom to convert it into a girls dormitory. I know I will be physically worn out by the time I’m done, but I’m hoping the “Arctic Blue” and more space will be a peaceful haven for my kids.

    New paint just makes everything clean and fresh and hopeful.

  27. MamaGee says:

    My office is painted about the same color with drak(espresso) bookcases. It reminds me of a forest and I love it. I love painting rooms!

  28. Maureen says:

    I could not help but read this post through the eyes of a therapist. Perhaps unknowingly you captured a great therapeutic truth from one of my favorite Catholic psychiatrists, Conrad Baars. He wrote much about the importance of nurturing our affective self (being) since modern society has us almost always in the effective side of ourselves (decision making). Much of his therapy consisted of having his clients just “be” and do things like take up bird watching. I think painting a wall would definitely count. Free therapy!!

  29. Mary says:

    I hear you. My full-time job is 95 percent reading and writing, and pretty much all my hobbies are the same. I dabble in artsy sorts of things, not because I’m any good, but because sometimes my brain needs to just not do *words.*
    Mary recently posted..Beware of the Facebook Trap

  30. I love the bright green color for a children’s room!

    I painted many rooms in my house and unlike you, found no enjoyment in the process- only in the final result.

    So cheers to you for discovering a love of wall painting!! I wish I could do the same.

    :)
    Julie @ Connecticut Catholic Corner recently posted..When will the Vatican end Catholic parishes in gay pride parades?

  31. Kristin says:

    Your conversation with your husband made me laugh so much! So glad to have you back on the glowing screen. :)
    Kristin recently posted..This ONE Thing has changed my SAH Mommy Life

  32. Kayla says:

    I need to find a copy of this book! I love your takeaway from it :)
    Kayla recently posted..Dear Baby F

  33. Bridgette says:

    This post is awesome and so is the green. I’ve recently read how mean people can be on social media and I’m trying to tell bloggers whom I like that they are really inspiring. You’re really inspiring, Jennifer. Thanks.

  34. Lynne says:

    Looking at the picture of a child holding a neon green paint roller reduces me to speaking in Dick and Jane terms: “Oh, oh, oh. Oh my. Oh my, oh my.” Paint makes me cringe and quiver, and that’s when the children are shipped off to Grandma’s. I admire your courage greatly. The end result is spectacular. I would never attempt this, ever, ever EVER.

  35. Lynne says:

    Oh, and now that you’re back from vacay, I have to tell you a little story. A relative was visiting and mentioned having your book along, and having just finished it. She offered it to me and I considered (briefly) taking it from her, *even though I own my own copy*. Just so I could have one to keep and one as a back up to share.

  36. Emily says:

    Painting is always a great decision :) I’ve tried all sorts of brands…Behr is definitely worth the money!
    Emily recently posted..The Goodbye Tour: The Laundry Room

  37. Cynthia C says:

    Your husbands comment -“She’s talking to women who struggle with perfectionism in the way their houses look. That’s, umm, not your cross.”
    was awesome !! It’s not my cross either but like you I do definitely feel better when the house is in order. I think my kids and I will do some painting this summer

  38. LPatter says:

    I relate to everything in this post! I love breaks from decisions and repetitious physical work but I SOOOO rarely do it because of my rare brand of perfectionism (too many reasons things can go wrong…wait til you can do it right…equals never do things) and strong tendency toward brain-in-jar syndrome (thought I test ENFP my E and F fight with their I and T counterparts, and N & P are super strong). Especially with kids, it’s so freeing to just dig in and do something together – and realize you HAVE acquired quite a host of judgment skills as a mom to at least navigate the how and the process as you go. It looks great! Great job!

  39. Jessica says:

    This is an amazing post, and you should be very proud of your lovely walls! I think it’s an important lesson to the kids that you all got your hands in and tackled the work yourselves.

    You also hit the nail on the head with “concentration, not decisions.” I have always felt mildly envious when I watched my husband mow the lawn, and this post explains why! Who knew? :-)

  40. Aileen says:

    Your conversations with Joe had me grinning from ear to ear!! :D And I’m not one to prefer brightly colored walls but that green sure is pretty in the children’s room. Glad to have you back!

  41. Smoochagator says:

    I LOVE THIS POST. I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT. Probably because I love painting. I’ve done a LOT of it in my life (much more wall-painting than art-painting, to be honest, even though I have a degree in art) and I agree with you, it is incredibly therapeutic. And I used to be the most obsessive perfectionist when it came to painting, but now I don’t let little mess-ups bother me any more, because that ruined the fun of making pretty things.

    I have to say that I love Joe’s diplomacy: “That’s, um, not your cross.”

  42. Lara says:

    Coming over from the Nester:) Loved this post! Going to read it to my hubby… There must be a secret club they belong to, lol! Love the green, think my daughter would also choose that bright colour.

  43. david says:

    Great website i love it.

  44. layla says:

    Though he didn’t say it, I could see it in his eyes that he worried that I’d interpret “it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful!” to mean “let’s spill a gallon of paint on the carpet and tweet about it instead of cleaning it up!”

    EXACTLY WHAT MY LONGSUFFERING HUSBAND WOULD SAY :)

    he’s a trooper, but i put him through a lot, and our kids are starting to pick up on the fact that i start many projects that don’t ever get finished… they have nice things to say about that!
    layla recently posted..vicarious joy

  45. Rebecca McD says:

    I LOVE painting with my kids! The part I can’t stand is the TAPING!!!
    I don’t WANT to tape, I shouldn’t HAVE to tape, I will NOT tape! So I might paint all the middle of all the walls and let someone else do the edges! THEY can tape! haha

    “It’s not your cross” is my new go-to response, btw! LOVE IT!!
    Rebecca McD recently posted..Focus on Furniture in Houston!