How learning to paint food made me a better cook

A few months ago, I wandered the aisles of Blick Art Materials looking for a few paintbrushes, a sketchbook and a decent watercolor palette. Nothing too expensive — just a little nicer than what I could pick up in the school supply section of my corner store. For some reason, a part of me felt a little sheepish when I approached the cashier, a Loyola student with a mop of blonde hair streaked with flashes of purple.

“I know I’m not actually good at all this,” a part of me wanted to say while waving a dismissive hand over the supplies. I think it’s a classic symptom of the perfectionist teen to anxious adult pipeline, but there’s something undeniably vulnerable about picking up a new activity or returning to one at which you aren’t inherently skilled — especially as an adult. To that end, outside of painting a few walls and the occasional fence post, I hadn’t touched a paintbrush since college.

But Chicago winters are long, and I knew that having a creative outlet during the impending gray season would be welcome. So, I just quietly let the cashier ring up my items. “Enjoy,” he said, with a genuine, broad smile as he handed me my bag.

“I think I will,” I replied — and I meant it.

My boyfriend set me up a little painting nook in the sunniest corner of our kitchen, and perhaps by virtue of that, I found myself instantly drawn to painting food. I’ve learned a lot along the way. For instance, I wouldn’t have anticipated how truly difficult it is to paint a realistic (or realistic-enough) Chicago-style hot dog.

But think about it: A hot dog bun is never just straight brown. If you really look at one, there are shades of taupe, golden-brown, ivory and occasionally toasty edges. The earthy green of the sport pepper differs from the acid green of the relish. I lost hours coaxing out the differences by carefully mixing the contents of my 14-color palette.

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I loved it. Later, I shifted to working on a series of paintings of different types of bread and butter. I found myself captivated by the reality that I could be holding an ingredient or dish in my hand that superficially looks incredibly simple, yet actually has a ton of dimension.

Through that lens, painting food has certainly impacted my base-level appreciation of food itself, which is admittedly already pretty high. It’s also taught me a lot about the craft of cooking. Until I really feel like I know what I’m doing, I typically tend to find myself a little timid in the kitchen. It’s a very methodical, measured process of working towards “perfecting” a recipe, but I’m completely different with a paintbrush in my hand.

I push myself, I make mistakes and I allow myself to be creative. Have there been some failures along the way? Oh, sure. There are pages and pages from my sketchbook that are ultimately destined for the garbage bin. While mistakes in the kitchen may feel massive (when ingredients are expensive, it sucks to end up with something inedible!), I feel newly inspired to try to cook by embodying the same sense of creativity and play I feel while painting.

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