Stephen Paints a Picture – Part Sixteen

December 4, 2013

31 August 2013

It was Saturday and Stephen Scott and I had already met at the Sackville Farmers Market for a cup of coffee at the Black Duck Café and after the usual postmortem of last night’s dinner, lobster, again, we decided to continue his painting of my portrait in the afternoon at, as usual, my place. Sophie, his wife, had left to go back to Fredericton and her teaching job after spending the summer in Sackville. Stephen had found another place to live for the next couple of weeks so that we could keep working on our project. So, at 1:45 he was knocking at my door.

“This new place of mine is really depressing. Even Echo (his dog) doesn’t like it,” he said, “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stand it.”

“Ah, but you still have me.”

“I think I would rather have Sophie.”

“Absence does make…”

“I know, make the heart grow fonder, but that’s bullshit,” he said finishing my sentence.

brush and paletteBullshit aside, Stephen noticed that he was running short on flake white paint. “I am going to have to dig some more up on Monday. It’s pretty key to my work.” He did pull out a new tube of mars yellow from of his paint box. “This might help with the lights,” he added. By lights, he was referring to the lighting in tone of the colours in his palette. He was working on the latest of the three oil sketches, blue and red shirt, white t-shirt, “I’ve got to find a good place to start. Look for the darkest and lightest spots. It’s a matter of play after all.” I suggested that a good light spot would be the tip of my nose and the darks would be my thoughts, but that he couldn’t paint them. “I don’t know about that,” he said, “I hope that my painting shows more of you than just the surface.” I assured him that my remark was only a lame attempt at humour. The nature of a good portrait is about both the sitter and the artist. Think of the portraits of Rembrandt and Goya and what they tell of us of their subjects and themselves. I really think that Stephen’s oil sketches of me are going far beyond any photograph in capturing me warts and all.

“Do you think that it’s important that the colour of your palette (the board on which places his colours) is the same as ground (the blank surface of the canvas),” I asked.

“I suppose so, but I am working with a white ground, but just the same, it’s good to have the colour look the same on the palette as it does on the canvas,” he answered.

“That’s why I asked. Because when I painted portraits, I tended to use a middle value ground, usually green or brown and it was important that the palette was a mid-value as well. That way I could work both ways. Middle to light and light to dark.”

“That’s very old fashioned. Most artists from the Impressionist on worked on white grounds.”

“I never claimed to be up to date. I rather like being old fashioned and you aren’t exactly up to date yourself. Walnut oil?” I said.

“But, you can be fresh with an old idea,” he replied.

“I can’t deny that old chestnut or, should I say walnut. There are very few really new ideas in art and fresh is about as good as it gets.”

VH 31Aug2013Stephen was looking intently at his painting, “You’ve got some tricky passages in your face.” I wasn’t sure what he meant; most people just think I have my fair share of wrinkles. “What colour is your face?” he asked. “I haven’t a clue. Off white? Pinkish?” I said. “I really wasn’t expecting an answer. I was asking myself.” We had, as usual the radio on in the background, “Nice to work by opera. What is it?” he said. “Mozart, I think. Let me look,” I said looking at the readout on my streaming radio, “I was right. It’s Bastien une Bastienne. A very early work, and I do mean early, by him. He was twelve” “Nice, all the same,” he said. “People like that really piss me off. When I was twelve, I was still playing with marbles,” I said. “Thank God, there aren’t many people like that. Most of us just have to bust our balls to do anything that’s remotely nice. Got to agree that geniuses are few and far between,” he added. This sort of brought up again, the question of raw talent versing hard work. We agreed, early on, that it would be best to have both talent and hard work, but the subject keeps coming up.

“I don’t know what to think about landscape anymore. It lacks the human condition and it’s easy to fake,” Stephen said.

“Christ, Stephen, you’ve spent your whole life painting landscapes and, I might add, good ones.”

“Still, I am reluctant to show them.”

“I wouldn’t go there. They are your bread and butter and besides, as I said, they are damn good. Let’s stop for coffee and think this out.”

We drink a lot of coffee during our sessions as it keeps both of us on edge and, in my case, awake. “It takes a major study for a major painting which I hope will be the result of all this work,” he said. “Look, I think these oil sketches are pretty nice on their own as are the drawings. It’s been a good summer’s work. Mind you, a honking great painting of myself wouldn’t be bad. Generations to come will say, who in the hell is that funny guy in the Scott painting?” “That’s assuming that either of us will have a place in history or that there is a future, period,” Stephen said.

Back at work, he remarked, “I love the feeling of paint, but it’s got to be right.” It was one of those remarks that only makes sense between painters as painting is such a physical activity. It is the act of painting rather than the product that drives printers to continue paint. “I keep going back to Colville all the time. It’s all about location. If I was in London, I’d be thinking about Stanley Spencer,” he said. “Well you are in my kitchen now and we’re in Sackville. How’s that for a location? Any different from any kitchen, anywhere?” I asked. “You are always where you are even if it’s only in your head,” he said. “I don’t know about a typical Canadian portrait unless I was wearing a plaid shirt and toque, eh?” “Maybe, I should get you to wear a toque,” he said. “Yeah, we could call it The Portrait of Jack Pine.”

“Speaking of Canadianisms, we have to stop painting as I promised Meredith that I would go with her to a friend’s cottage on the shore for some lobster,” I said. Even though, I have lived in Canada for the last forty-six years, I have never figured out the cottage thing, but I do like lobster. “OK,” he said, “I can work on some of this stuff at home.”


© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Sunday, December 1, 2013.

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