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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Three

June 11, 2014

7 May 2014

VH June 2014Two weeks later finds me in Nashwaak Village at Stephen Scott’s house and studio, once again to continue work on the portrait. We went to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, around noon to pick up the unfinished painting from the exhibition and bring it back to the house. We managed, in the process, to create quite a stir. There was someone at the front desk who did not recognize me or Stephen and when I announced that we were going to take a painting from the gallery and replace it with a blank canvas all hell broke out. Thank God, Terry Graff, the gallery’s director, was not out to lunch and introduced me as an adjunct curator of the gallery, the curator of the exhibition and that finishing the large portrait was all part of the exhibition. It did, however, prove that the staff was on their toes.

Back at the house, around three in the afternoon, we had again to try and replicate the lighting of my kitchen in Sackville which is where we started the painting. We started talking about art forgeries and, in particular, the Chinese guy in New Jersey who painted fake abstract expressionist paintings that were being sold as originals in a high end New York gallery that in the end bankrupted the gallery. The poor painter, who got peanuts for his work, thought that he was painting replicas for people how couldn’t afford originals while others made millions from his work.

“Just another case of artists being screwed,” Stephen said.

“Hell, you can buy copies, good copies, from China of almost any painting be they old masters or modern art on the internet,” I added.

“It is just the way artists in China were trained, by copying. It’s not a bad away of learning, you know,” he replied.

“Still are as far as I know. When I was in China a few years ago, I had a chance to visit a few art schools and they still copy. Mind you, people are still copying old masters in museums like the the Met and they seem to know how to paint.”

“That does, once again bring up the question of emphasizing originality over technique in most art schools today,” Stephen said.

“That goes back a long time. Certainly that was the case when I went to art school and that was over fifty years ago. I thought I still got sort of a solid education at the San Francisco Art Institute, but there was still the idea that we’re artists rather than students.”

“You know,” Stephen, mused as he painted, “we might be able to use one of those Chinese guys just to do the work right now. It would be easier than figuring this painting out. It would give us more time to drink and bull shit.”

“I think it’s coming out pretty good, myself. Just that it’s taking a lot of time. I’m getting saddle sores.”

We did have an agreed upon deadline of May 25th to finish the painting. It would, we reasoned, be a nice touch to put the last touch on the painting at the gallery in the closing hours of the 25th. Lord Beaverbrook Day; a bit of added drama. But, it did mean that we would have to get our shit together. No mean feat as Stephen was not only a slow worker, but he is very demanding of himself and I lived in the terror of him deciding to wipe everything out and starting over again.

“Art is a mugs game, art is just a game,” he said.

“But, it’s one you enjoy playing. I mean what else can you do?”

“Not a whole lot and you?”

“I never claimed to be clever. I’m one step more down the tubes than you. I write about art and you do it. Using Plato’s analogy, it puts me pretty much on the bottom of the heap. First you got the idea; then the thing itself; then the imitation of the thing, art and finally, me writing about art. Tis’ a long way from reality.”

“I prefer Aristotle’s definition of art being an improvement on nature rather than an imitation,” Stephen said, “anyway who wants an innovation to The Republic? Sounds like a boring place.”

“Rather like Heaven. Give me Hell, at least it’s warm which is more than you can say for Canada in the winter and there is some variety in Hell,” I added.

“It seems that your namesake, Virgil, was quite the expert on Hell.”

“Yeah, Dante seemed to think so. Made him the guide to the whole damn place.”

“Art critics should be guides of some sort don’t you think? Leading people down the garden path to art appreciation.”

“Most critics,” I replied, “couldn’t find their way to the washroom unaided.”

“It’s upstairs.”

“Thanks for the information. I like those extensions you made for your brushes. Keeps you from getting too close to the canvas.”

“I’ve got all of these brushes and I can never find the right one.”

“Perhaps the right one is at the art gallery. There’s quite a bundle there.” (We had setup a dummy studio at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery as part of our exhibition which included a number of brushes.)

“Listen, you never have the right brush regardless of how many you own. How’s it going anyway? You seem to be enjoying yourself.”

“It’s got a long way to go. Let’s take a break for coffee and you can judge for yourself. You’re the critic aren’t you?”

We tend to work in periods of thirty to forty five minutes, then stop to take stock and generally have a cup of coffee. The good thing about this setup as compared to those that were at my house is that lighting, while artificial, is constant. We don’t have to worry if it’s cloudy, rainy and having the light change position as the sun moves. Natural light is certainly nicer, but it’s nice not to worry about the light. The big thing, of course, is colour temperature, but Stephen, with all his years of experience has a pretty good handle on the problem. Colour does look different under artificial light than it does under natural light and that’s what we’re talking about as colour temperature and it can be measured in degrees Kelvin, but who wants to go there.

The big problem that we were having is that I forgot to bring the right shirt, the famous yellow shirt, with me from Sackville so we were working around the missing shirt emphasizing my head and a beautiful head it is. “It looking pretty good to me,” I said taking a sip of coffee.

“Is that the best you can do? Not very profound for an expert.”

“Well, the coffee is better at my place,” I offered.

“I’m having a problem with the right hand side of your head.”

“Is it in the details?” I said.

“Likely the opposite. Too much detail. I should be using a bigger brush. I need to get the impression.”

As I have said, throughout this process, Stephen uses far larger brushes than one would think when looking at his finished paintings. I’ve watched Alex Colville and Chris Pratt paint and they do use tiny brushes, ones, twos while Stephen is popping away with tens and twelves. Brushes range in the size of their tip from 00, the one hair type, up to twelve and beyond. There are flats, rounds, brights and, believe it or not, filberts. All of this is very interesting to painters, but the general public tends not to care, but, for information sake, Stephen is a large flat guy when it comes to brushes. To not confuse this with Long Flat which is an Australian red wine and not a bad one.

The thing about how Stephen works, as did Rembrandt and Hals, when using broad brush work is that the paintings fall together when you step back and view the them at a proper distance. Some say that the proper distance is the diagonal of the painting, but I like to get my nose right up to the surface as well which drives museum guards wild. Stephen and I have gone around and around on this issue. It boils down to that there is no proper distance. Likely there is no proper anything, but that would leave Stephen and me with nothing to talk about.

I sat down and Stephen started painting again. “You know we’ve got all day tomorrow to paint,” I said, “I vote for dinner and a good bottle of wine.”

“You don’t have a vote and since my radiation treatment I can’t taste a fucking thing. Wine and food all taste like shit.”

“Bummer. Food is one of the great things in life and you know my opinion on wine. That only leaves sex.”

“A man your age shouldn’t be talking about sex. It could prove dangerous,” he told me.

“Look, I already had my heart attack back in 03 and If I got to go I would it rather be in bed after a great dinner while engaged in even greater sex.”

“Dream on and while you’re at it sit still for a minute.”

“Well, stop talking about sex.”

“You brought it up.”

“Shouldn’t you be using more medium?” I said making an uncalled for suggestion.

“I don’t need a medium.”

“Yes, you do. It makes wet on wet easier.”

“My wet on wet is just fine. Shut up with the medium stuff.

painting toolsMediums are mixtures of oils, solvents and varnishes that are used to thin paint from the tube to a consistency that’s more fluid. (Pedants: I know that plural of medium is media, but here we’re describing different painting mediums.) Stephen does mix walnut oil with his paint and, from time to time, occasionally, sparingly, uses a medium of his own mixture, but he is loathed to admit it.

“You’ve got to push control to the back burner,” he said, “The only time things happen is when you’re taking a chance.”

“Hey, Columbus took a chance and he died he in jail.”

“Very helpful.”

We painted for another hour or so and threw in the towel for the day around five-thirty. I was keen to get to the red wine even if Stephen couldn’t taste it and tomorrow could spend all day working.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, June 9, 2014.

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