“Just use the spray paint can.”
That was me trying to teach my 82-year-old grandpa, Harold, how to use his new computer’s Microsoft Paint Program. It was 1997, and Grandpa Hal was ready to paint. He had done it with actual paintbrushes all his life–and now he was learning how to do it on the computer, a technological advancement that at the time seemed alien to this World War II veteran. Eventually, it would become an art form that reflected his earlier artistic talent–and, fortunately, would ultimately allow my grandfather to continue his lifelong passion until he was almost 99 years old.
My grandfather was always an artist in one shape or form. Professionally, he was a graphic designer long before computers did most of the work for us. He used his hands, pencil, and paper to create illustrations, maps, and fonts. So it was a surprise to him, decades later, that a computer mouse would be his paintbrush, helping him, pixel by pixel, create the same intricate landscapes he had made so many years before. In fact, he grew to absolutely love the Paint program, and by his early 90s, he had mastered Microsoft Paint, just in time for him to learn he was losing most of his eyesight due to wet macular degeneration.
After much of his central vision disappeared, Microsoft Paint enabled my grandpa to continue to paint, because the ability to zoom in on the screen–down to the pixel level–enabled Grandpa to see what he was doing. He would spend hours in front of his computer, obsessing over his pixels, meticulously filling up each one with his color of choice using the paint can tool, zooming in and out, and creating elaborate images. For more than 15 years, when I would come home to visit, he and I would talk for hours about what he was creating.
I loved his enthusiasm for his craft–so much so that my friend Josh and I decided to make a film about him. We always said at best maybe a few people would see it online, and that at worst it would be a really nice home video for the family to watch. Instead, the documentary would go on to be viewed more than 3 million times on the web, it was featured in Microsoft’s Super Bowl 2013 commercial, it led my grandpa to his first solo art show, and, at the age of 98, helped him sell thousands of paintings.
Hal could never believe people all over the world, from Europe to Brazil to Japan, had become fans and owners of his work. He just kept doing what he loved most, using Microsoft Paint to create art, spending his days thinking about what his next project would be. He was even talking about his paintings the day he passed, just a few weeks shy of his 99th birthday.
We miss my grandpa so much, but it helps that we are surrounded by his vibrant works of art. One of my favorite paintings, “Metropolis,” hangs in my son’s bedroom. Nearly every morning, my boy wakes up and points at the different cars, trucks, and skyscrapers that his great-grandpa spent hours creating. Those paintings gave my grandfather a sense of purpose, and showed me (and millions of others) that passion knows no age. Proof of that is surely in those pixels.