Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Six

July 16, 2014

10 May 2014

After we finished breakfast, Stephen Scott and I adjourned to his Nashwaak Village home studio to have a look at his uncompleted portrait of me before he started work on it again. “The skin tones are too yellow, it’s the artificial light,” he tells me, “You know there’s a lot to be said for black and white.”

“Doesn’t look too bad to me, but I know what you’re talking about. More than once when I painted with tungsten artificial light the painting looked different in natural light. As you said, too yellow. It’s the colour temperature. I changed to daylight bulbs.”

“And then there is yellow shirt,” he added.

“Looks jaundiced, does it?”

“Speaking of yellow. I do like that yellow nude painting of Goodridge Roberts.” Stephen said.

“It’s like all of those German yellow nudes,” I replied.

“I wish I could do it,” he said.

“It’s back to the expressionist discussion of yesterday. I keep telling you’re a realist and not an expressionist.”

“What’s the term we came up?” he asked, “ neo-post-romantic?”

“That’s it.”

“Well, let’s see if I can fix the painting, sit down and we’ll get started.”

I sat and he took his paints out of the water bath where he had left them the day before and began to transfer them to his palette. He turned on the light, I took out my pen and we started. He was trying something with a small brush which is something he doesn’t do that often.

wet paints“I need a maul stick. I’ve got one somewhere,” he said looking around studio. He did find one, actually two.

“That really makes you look like an artist. I have seen all of those self portraits of 16th and 17th century artists holding their maul sticks and palettes.”

“Don’t forget the long brushes,” he added, “and on the subject of brushes, I don’t seem to have the right size.”

“You have a ton of brushes, Stephen, but you seem to use medium to large bristle flats most of the time.”

“I like flats they’re the most flexible.”

“I used to like rounds,” I said, “flats are a much later invention. All of the Renaissance artists used rounds.”

“In the end the public really doesn’t give a shit if an artist uses a flat, a round, a bright or filbert, it’s the painting that counts,” he said.

“And I guess that goes for mediums as well. Do they care about linseed oil, walnut oil or poppy seed oil? I doubt it,” I added, “It’s all about the product, the painting and not the process, but it is the process that I find interesting.”

“That’s because you started out as an artist and not as a critic,” he said.

“Yeah, but to be a good critic I think you really need to know about how something is made, process as well as history.”

brushesWe had spent months talking about art history, both current and past, and the process of painting while Stephen painted my portrait and we both came to the conclusion that you could not separate the two. Perhaps the conversation went the way it did because of our shared backgrounds in being trained as artists, but, more likely because we were interested in the mystery of art, in particular painting, and what drew people to art. The whole idea of painting is queer. You have an object hanging on a wall that people look at and, that if the object interests them, they might be emotionally moved. It seems to have worked for a very long time and I doubt that it will cease to work in the future.

Stephen had stopped working with the small brush and reverted to a much larger one. “William Merritt Chase’s and John Singer Sargent’s approach to art was right. You’ve got to get right from the start,” he said.

“That’s an interesting pair. I know Chase really admired Sargent and they both could do kick ass portraits. Frankly, you’re the first artist I’ve known who’s ever mentioned Chase. There’s lots of really good artists artists who really get lost in art history.”

“Speaking on lost. Let me show you something.” He stopped painting went upstairs and returned with a small paperback book, “Have a look at this.” It was a copy of the 1936 catalogue of the 149th official exhibition of the Société des Artistes Français at Grande Palais des Champs-Elysées that he had picked up in Amsterdam years ago. “See if you can find anybody you know?” he asked.

It was a good question. There were hundreds’ if not thousands, of artists listed and illustrated and I, like Stephen, couldn’t find a single artist that we recognized. I wish I was exaggerating, but every artist in this very large exhibition seems to have slipped into obscurity and I pride myself on knowing about obscure artists. Supply, it seems, far outstrips demand as far as art goes and that certainly includes ‘officially’ sanctioned art.

“Scary isn’t it?” I said referring to the catalogue, “Hopefully you’re dead before you’re forgotten. Being dead sort takes ego out of it.”

“Better you should take the money and run. It’s better than being famous after you’re dead,” he said.

“The trouble is that most artists aren’t famous or rich when they are alive or when they are dead,” I cheerfully added.

“It does make one wonder why one does this stuff,” he said looking at the brush in his hand.

“Well most good artists, and you’re a good artist, can’t do anything else. It’s more a curse than a blessing. How’s the painting coming?”

“OK, I think. Why don’t you have a look? I’ll make us a coffee. This whole process is odd. I’m not sure about asking professionals about my work, especially while I’m doing it. I remember asking Bruno Bobak to my studio and asking him what he thought. You know what he said? ‘Some have it and others don’t’. Sort of made me want to stop.”

“It’s too late for us. We’ve been at this since last July. Look, you’ve made something out of nothing although I don’t like the idea of calling myself nothing.”

We went into the kitchen and made coffee. “Jesus, this a slow process,” he said. “Are you talking about the coffee or the painting?” I said.

“Don’t be an ass. Just go back and look at the painting and I’ll bring you a cup of coffee.”

I actually couldn’t see a lot of change from where we had left off the day before, but it seemed better. Small changes count for a lot. It was not only what he had added, but what he had taken out. The biggest critic of Stephen’s work is Stephen.

“I like it,” I told him, as he was coming back into the studio with my coffee, “Where have you been doing most of the work? The head?”

“Yes, but it’s still a long way from right. I’m afraid of fucking it up.”

“No chance of that. It’s going to be pretty painting. I’m going to sit down, drink my coffee and let you continue.”

“Berlin must have been a hell of place to work before and after World War I and before the Nazi screwed it up for everyone,” he said.

“Yeah, there was a hell of a lot of energy going on. Great goings on. Mind you, Paris was the other side of the coin.”

“I would’ve given anything to be in either place at the time,” he said.

“But here we are in New Brunswick,” I replied, “definitely not Berlin or Paris.”

“I can see that every time I look out the window,” he added.

“There is the school of thought that you can make great art wherever you are.”

“That might be true, Virg, but there’s something to be said for the energy of a place.”

“You have point. Both you and Colville have worked in Berlin and loved it. At least that’s what both of you have told me.”

“I’m not sure why we’ve never had that energy in Canada much less the maritimes.” he asked.

“We’ve never been through the shit that Europe has been through and in the maritimes we just don’t have the population. The kind of people that settled here, like the Loyalist, didn’t give two hoots about the arts. In general they were dull people. Hell, in France they were having a revolution every other year form the end of the 18th century and all through the 19th.”

“Still, people made art here and continue to do so,” he said.

“That’s more to do with people than place. People like you make art because you have to and that says a lot about the human condition. I think that art is within us and artists are different because they let it out.”

“That’s great, but it’s a hell of a way to make a living, at least here.”

“Do you want to stop? I’ve got to go back to Sackville tomorrow morning, but I’ll try to get up here once more before we start working in the Beaverbrook at the end of the month. What do you say?”

“Sure, let’s get Sophie (his wife) and go downtown for dinner.”

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, July 13, 2014.

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