(Ed note: This is the third in a series by Anna Cypra Oliver. Find yesterday's post here. sdh)
I couldn’t write and so for a long time I turned my creative attention elsewhere: to elaborate cooking and entertaining, freelance editing, the creation with two colleagues of a dramatic reading series, travelling and sketching with Stephan. Then on impulse, prompted by that first effort with the starter kit, I signed Stephan and myself up for an oil painting course at the New School in Manhattan.
After showing us how to arrange our palettes, the instructor, a young working artist named Sonya Sklaroff, set up a canvas in front of a nude model and, as a demonstration, began to paint. First, draw a rough sketch in a single color thinned with turpentine. She made a puddle of watery ultramarine on the palette and quickly roughed in the shape of the reclining woman. If you don’t like the composition, wipe it out with a rag, then start again. She stood back, squinted, rubbed out the legs, repositioned them. Make sure you draw in the shadows at the beginning—shadows are not an afterthought, but an integral part of the object, helping to give it weight and substance—and anything you might want to include in the background. She drew an off-center line behind the model to indicate the corner of the room. After that, lay in all your darks. Work all around the canvas, not just in one corner. We pressed toward her, wanting to be told her secrets, to have the curtain drawn back from the mystery of Art. Save the details for later. Stand back from the canvas, holding your brush at arm’s length, not up-close, with it clutched in your fist. Don’t just fill in a section with paint, as if you were painting a house. I felt a nudge in the ribs by my grandfather. Every brushstroke defines a gesture: if you’re painting the space between the model’s bent elbow and her side, let the movement of your brush over the surface mimic that shape, a kind of off-kilter rectangle. Use the shape of the space around objects to define the objects themselves. For me, she said, that’s what painting is all about—finding beauty in-between things. Now lay in your lights.
Notice, Sonya went on, that each color interacts with the ones next to it, altering your perception of it. A yellow next to a blue creates a shimmer of green. This is why you need to work all around your canvas. I thought of writing, the way I developed paragraphs from the inside, adding and unfolding, cutting and rearranging, or skipped around when I wrote, writing whatever most compelled me, wherever I could find a foothold, constructing the narrative bridges later on or sometimes, not at all. Keep wiping your brush; paint, wipe, paint, wipe. Clean it thoroughly in turpenoid before moving on to the next color, to avoid contaminating one with another. Paint, wipe, paint, wipe. We shifted from foot to foot, growing impatient, eager as kindergarteners to have the brushes in our own hands. Be generous with paint, squeezing large gobs onto your palette so you have plenty to work with. We began to groan inwardly, the students around me giving each other little glances, though Stephan and I, good students both, continued to pay as close attention as we could. She mixed a little cadmium red light, yellow ochre and Naples yellow light, a gorgeous pale butter color, into a skin tone, telling us to avoid white because when it dries it tends to look chalky. How we wanted to be the one’s squeezing out the paint, swirling it around, sloshing it on! Finally, she was done: In twenty minutes she had produced a painting.
This method is called alla prima, which means “at the first,” and refers to a painting that is completed in one session. It’s perfect for the non-classically trained, speed-over-method contemporary artist. Or the intimidated beginner.
I loved it more with each stroke, as did Stephan. The squish and glide of the paint, its smell and texture and gloss and brilliant hue
were an enchantment, simultaneously physical and ethereal. I’d tried watercolor, too, the medium my grandfather favored, but it didn’t move me as this did. So sensual that I wanted to keep spreading it even after the subject was limned, the oil possessed an almost sexual gushiness, as well as a deep sense of thing-ness, as if I held at the end of my brush the material with which to make a world. We huffed and sighed when it came time for the model to take a break, our brush hands drifting toward the canvas even though our subject was out of the room— What are you painting? What are you painting? Sonya would ask. Stop painting. She isn’t there! Three hours passed like nothing. The medium was so variable and so willful that it was more like a living thing than the product of chemicals and ground stones. By the time we left the studio, we were people possessed.
Painting, as a medium, pursues you. You find daubs of paint on your clothes, your handbag, the sleeve of your good coat, the soles of your shoes—a trace you of course discover only after a trail of ultramarine materializes on the polished wood floor of your apartment. Fortunately, it wipes off easily with soap and water when wet, a little mineral spirits when dry. Even oil paint on clothing can usually be scrubbed out with dish soap and elbow grease. But where did it come from? You weren’t even using that blue, not in the last few days at least. No matter. The color hides out, a fugitive leaving tell-tale prints, on the edge of a table, a discarded paper towel, a wedge of plastic used to protect a tabletop or keep a cup of medium from drying out. Worst of all are the outsides of paint tubes. Pick one up, or push one aside searching for another color, and you are bound to be smeared in the process. Or the handles of brushes. Water bottles used to quench the mean thirst that develops while you paint. Canvas tote bags full of painting supplies. The residue is everywhere.
Gripped by the properties of light and color, the forms taking shape on canvas, I worked for so long and with such concentration that I developed headaches, started to wreck things with shaky gestures, had to instruct myself to stop.
Just a daub of flesh-color there. A swipe of viridian to darken that shadow there under the chin.
I spattered paint on the dove white walls of our apartment, on the polished chrome door handles, on the red and orange shag rug in my office (orange paint, fortunately). I splotched my good clothes, as well. I had a denim apron, disposable surgical gloves to keep the paint and turpenoid off my skin, but I didn’t plan to paint when I painted—I was just passing by, on my way to my desk, and saw a patch that needed a daub, a little fix—and so rarely wore any protective covering. An hour later, my hands were streaked with toxic alizarin crimson, poisonous cadmium yellow, cancer-causing (“as determined by the State of California”) titanium white. I’d have a clot of raw sienna in my hair. The mess was everywhere, as were the fumes. The can of turpenoid—mineral spirits—trumpeted the words “natural” and “non-toxic,” but I could tell from the way my eyes and throat burned after a while that there was reason to discount those claims. Heedless, I couldn’t stop for fumes or death.
Painting grabs hold of you in other ways. As I went through my day, I started to see ordinary things in terms of shapes of light and dark, the relation of voids to solids; in my mind, I continually organized the cityscape into compositions on canvas. Walking down Lafayette Street in Manhattan’s Central Village, I came to a sudden halt, stunned by the juxtaposition of a brown brick building and water towers thrust into the gray afternoon sky above a dusky blue mansard roof, both buildings framed below by the black back of a billboard and the pulsing yellow of a Meineke Muffler canopy. I’ve always been drawn to random juxtapositions, disparate elements bumping up against each other, making connections and meanings and causing a little bit of chaos. My book was a collage of images and texts, an assemblage, the Scotch-taped piecing together of the shattered life of my father, a suicide. Standing on the street in front of the mansard roof and Meineke, I felt almost desperate—and definitely self-accusing—that I had neither sketchbook nor camera, much less paint and canvas, in hand, though at this point in my brief career, painting on the street was too embarrassing to consider.
From the outset it was clear that I lacked one of the cardinal virtues of a good painter: patience. Or rather, patience was a virtue that came and went. Sometimes, I could sink completely into the process, work with care and concentration, but at others—all too often—I struggled to proceed methodically, to facilitate the art by doing the technique right. Set-up seemed a tedious chore that took half my morning. I had to force down my own eagerness to jump right in so that I would have fewer hassles while actually trying to work. And if I didn’t approach the process methodically at the outset, a similar lack of rigor would bleed onto the canvas while I was painting. Paint loses its clarity when brushes aren’t adequately cleaned between colors or when smears from an overloaded palette stray from one color to another, yet, ever submissive to the will of urge and impulse, resistant to the equally essential demands of meticulous craft, I’d compulsively jab a still-brown brush into a creamy pale yellow. I’d use tiny dabs of half-dried paint instead of the great squishy gobs my instructor advocated because those gobs were still in the tube somewhere while this old paint, barely pliable, but still moist enough to stain a brush, was right in front of me. All of this was the sure sign of an amateur, as was, I suspect, the inability to stop even after my brush started to chatter in a fatigued hand. Stopping when the juice ran out took a discipline I did not possess. Clean-up afterward was no easier: I’d clean brushes sometimes only when the paint was almost too stiff to remove or leave them standing in a can of mineral spirits for days at a time—an absolute no-no because it weakens the bristles and distorts the shape.
This from the granddaughter of an artist who had a drawer for everything and a painted outline on pegboard for each of his tools, who never let me leave his studio without first putting every one of his cleaned and capped supplies back in its proper place.
I found it difficult, too, to be a handmaiden to paint, waiting hand and foot on its fussy habits. Oil paints are complicated, high-maintenance creatures. They take a long time to dry, which allows them, wonderfully, to be manipulated over a period of time, but they don’t all dry at the same rate, requiring patience and the willingness to let a work evolve at whatever pace the pigment requires: many earth tones dry quickly, in a day or two, cerulean blue and viridian green take up to five, while alizarin crimson and ivory black, among others, take as many as ten days—and even a painting that is dry to the touch shouldn’t be varnished for at least six months, the time it takes for every particle of pigment to harden. Some are opaque (titanium white); some translucent (cobalt blue); some permanent (burnt sienna); some fugitive (alizarin crimson), meaning that they are not light-fast and can fade over time; their tinting strength varies, as does, from manufacturer to manufacturer, their hue, intensity and texture; some colors that would seem a natural mix might instead produce a muddy third color because the chemical composition of the two tints is not compatible. The colors are so sensitive—or so temperamental—that they will even darken if they dry in a dark room, then brighten again if exposed to sunlight, while a few do the reverse: they fade in sunlight but recover, like victims of a migraine, in the dark.
I liked quick results. I also had trouble living with mistakes: if a corner of a painting didn’t work, I wanted to redo it right away, otherwise it would sit there, reproaching me for my lack of talent or ability. Worse yet, someone else might see it.
All images Copyright © 2015 Anna Cypra Oliver
(Find Thursday's post in this series here. sdh)