The reaction I get to my paint-splattered clothes can be revealing.

Now that I’m back to writing and editing full-time, I don’t spend much time playing with paint in my studio (by “studio” I mean the table on the other side of my “office”). But a few years back, when I was painting daily, I had one unbreakable habit. I had to wear the same outfit, every time. I wore:

· Black baggy sweat pants

· A long-sleeve khaki-green top

· A black hooded sweatshirt, always zipped halfway up

· An apron bearing a picture of a Rainbow trout in a frying pan and the words, “The End of the Rainbow”

· Bright pink Crocs, the size of small rubber boats

Once upon a time, these were all perfectly decent clothes (well, maybe not the Crocs). Now, everything is splattered with paint. The pants are smeared with Zinc White, Raw Umber and Teal Blue. My shirt is dotted with Burnt Sienna. My sweatshirt is a crazy palette of Ultramarine, Cobalt and Cerulean Blue, plus Bright Cadmium Orange, Primary Yellow, Chromium Oxide Green and Pyrrole Red. The “rainbow” apron? The crusty layers of paint are a veritable blizzard of color.

I think I understand why this outfit was critical to my creative journey. It would have been impossible for me to relax into the artistic process if I was worried about splashing Quinacridone Red on my shoes or dragging a clean sleeve through a dollop of Mars Black. I needed to be able to wipe Paynes Gray directly on my pants or apron. For me, these clothes were as critical to the open, expansive, spontaneous process as the paints themselves.

My studio clothes took on a whole new significance when I wore them out of the house. Confession: I always painted up until the very last second before picking up kids or running an errand, so I was often in a rush. As a result, I’d sometimes wear said outfit (minus the apron) out of the house. Each time I did, I’d swear I’d never leave the studio dressed this way again. On cold days, I’d cover up with a jacket, so no one was the wiser. But on warm days, my colorful splatters were exposed. That’s when I noticed a surprising but very consistent reaction. Friends, acquaintances, teachers and the kids themselves would get really excited when they saw me.

“Wow, look at that! You’ve got paint on your clothes!”

It was if I’d done something slightly taboo: an adult has paint all over her clothes! People seemed to get a vicarious thrill out of seeing my messy attire — and I often heard a genuine wistfulness in their voice. Did the paint stains trigger a childhood memory of coming home dirty after finger painting or making mud pies? Maybe they tapped into a deeper desire to make and take quiet, creative time rather than rush, rush, rush from one task to the next. (And yes, maybe it was simply astonishment that I’d worn these sloppy old clothes out in public.)

I still love my painting clothes, with all their splatters, splotches and splashes. Today, when I inspect the multi-hued cuffs of my sweatshirt or try to make out the original Rainbow trout on my apron, I know I’m mentally peeling back layers of paint and time, metaphorically revisiting images that I dreamed of, sketched out, experimented with and, sometimes, created. These flecks are the shiny gold I used to embellish my nephew’s bright red heart painting one Christmas. Here is the Chartreuse I blended for a jaunty green chicken. Over here? The rich Citrine Yellow that perfectly connected a series of jewel-toned cupcakes. My painting clothes may not be pretty but for me, they are the perfect attire for traveling comfortably through space, time and rich, glorious paint.

Willow Older is a nationally and internationally published writer and a professional editor. She lives in Northern California where she runs her own editorial services business and publishes a weekly newsletter called Newsy!.

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