Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Thirty

October 20, 2014

24 May 2014

Stephen Scott and I went to Fredericton, from his Nashwaak Village home, early Saturday morning to meet two friends, Harold Jarche and Chris Mackay, from Sackville for brunch at Isaac’s Way which is just two doors up from the gallery. They were both in on the project from its beginning the year before and they wanted to see the large painting being completed. All last summer the four of us would meet every Wednesday night at my place for wine and cheese and to shoot the breeze about art and technology. Chris and Harold were the techies and Stephen and me provided the art part. Anyway, they became very keen about Stephen’s art and we managed to plough our way through a great deal of wine in the process.

After a long brunch and conversation, we all went next door to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the exhibition. Chris and Harold had only seen the larger portrait in its very early stages and were impressed with the nearly completed painting.

“It’s pretty neat,” Harold said, “How long have you been working on it?

“I don’t know, thirty, forty hours, maybe more. What would you say, Virgil?”

“About that. I haven’t really counted. Should though.”

Stephen was transferring his paint from the water bath to his palette. “Hey, that’s a new palette. It’s square. Why?” I asked.

“It’s larger that’s all. I haven’t a fucking clue about the background colour. What do you think?”

“You’re painting, not me. If I were, I’d opt for something dark to contrast with the yellow shirt—dark brown or green.

“Speaking of the yellow shirt. I can’t seem to be able to find the right yellow.” He looked through the tubes of paint in his paint box. Picking one up, he said, “Think I’ll try yellow lake.”

basement sittingChris and Harold were walking around looking at the rest of the exhibition. They couldn’t figure what they liked best. It seemed like toss-up between the swimming pictures of Sophie or the painting of the dogs. “all things being said,” I told them, “I like the series better, but Echo and Bailey art pretty cute.”

“What do you mean by cute!” Stephen interjected, “I don’t paint cute.”

“Dog pictures are everybody’s favourite. Just watch the people as them come into the gallery. I’ll bet three quarters of them gravitate to the dog picture,” I answered.

“Perhaps, I should paint you as a dog.”

“Might be an improvement. It would certainly be better than painting me nude.”

“that’s an awful thought.”

“Yeah, my body is gone. Can my mind be far behind?”

Just about then Max, the art student we had met yesterday, came in. We had invited him to help us with the project.

“Good to see you Max. Ready to give us a hand?” I said.

“Sure, what can I do?”

“Not much right now. We need your eye more than anything else. What do you think? Have a look,” I told him.

“It looks pretty good to me.”

“What would you do?” Stephen asked him.

“I don’t know.”

“Here, have a go,” Stephen handed him his brush.

This took Max, and I must say, me, by surprise. I wouldn’t think that Stephen would ever let anyone touch one of his paintings. Max took the brush and dabbled a couple of strokes on the canvas. Mainly, it turns out, on the background and quickly returned the brush to Stephen.

“I think that was an improvement,” Stephen said.

Stephen never ceases to amaze me. He often puts on a grouchy persona, but, in reality, he is a bit of a softy. During our time painting at the Beaverbrook, he was always polite and friendly in answering everyone’s questions particularly those from children and students. I, on the other hand, have no problem being constantly grumpy. I put it to lower back pain.

“Max,” I offered, “Why don’t you go in the staff room and make us all, yourself included, a cup of coffee and I think I left some cookies from yesterday.”

While Max was gone, I asked Stephen why he let him work on the painting.

“Look, he isn’t going to any harm and the painting still got a long way to go. What’s here today might be gone tomorrow and besides, it’s good for his ego.”

“You got a point, I guess. It’s interesting that you keep referring to the drawings, and even the photographs of the drawings, while I’m sitting right in front of you.”

“The drawings are a different thing. They are the product of non-thinking. Drawing is almost automatic.”

“I would call it creative non-thinking,” I replied.

“I guess that’s a good way of putting it.”

“In order for drawing to be automatic,” I said, “You’ve got to master it and here I mean technique.”

“You learn drawing by doing it over and over again until it becomes second nature,” he said.

“Learning to draw is sort of like learning to play the piano. Lots of practice makes perfect. Mind you, it still doesn’t explain great drawing which comes down to talent,” I countered.

“I’m pretty sure that talent is over rated,” he said, “I think we should hold this conversation until Max returns.”

“Ok, you paint and I’ll sit.”

Presently Max returned with the coffee and cookies and we took a break. “Max, Stephen and I were just talking about the importance of drawing. What do you think?” I said.

“I guess, it’s pretty important. I actually brought my sketchbook. Mind if I draw?”

“Well, you guessed right. If you can’t draw, you’re not an artist. As far as drawing here; I don’t see a problem. Do you, Stephen?”

“Sure, I would be interested in what you come up with, Max.”

“How were your drawing courses at the craft school?” I asked.

“They were Ok, but I wish that we had more drawing.”

“I think the problem with many contemporary artists is that they can’t draw,” Stephen said.

“Many of them took drawing courses from professors who couldn’t draw. We’re three or four decades into teaching drawing poorly,” I replied.

“It’s likely that they were trying to teach them art with a capital A rather than the craft of drawing,” Stephen said.

“Yeah, I’ve had discussions with a lot of teachers over the years who tell me that they’re not interested in teaching technique. They want to teach art.”

“I’ll bet that most of them had very little technique themselves.”

“You’re right, that’s the ticket.”

“Let’s get back to work,” Stephen said.

Back in place, Stephen had a hard look at me. “Move your head a little bit to the left and look up a tad. That’s better.”

“For you maybe, but I still have to write my notes.”

“You figure it out. I’m sure you can get back into position.”

“Look, no notes, no book.”

“I should really cost this painting out.”

“Do you mean in time or materials?”


“Don’t it would be too scary.”

“Yeah, the paint alone is costing me a fortune and, as for the time, even at minimum wage it’s running into the thousands.”

“It’s interesting that wealthy people want to nickel and dime you for a portrait. They just don’t get it. Look it’s going to work out to well over a hundred hours of painting to finish the project. You got three oil sketches, lots of drawings all leading up to this big sucker,” I said.

“Stop. You’re depressing me.”

“Perhaps, we can con some collector into buying the painting for the Beaverbrook.”

“Fat chance,” he said.

“Just keep focused,” I told him, “and we’ll be finished before you know.”

“Focus is a good point. How do you keep focused throughout your life? Some great artists seem to have figured it out; Picasso, Cézanne and Courbet for example.”

“It was French food and wine,” I suggested.

“No, I’m serious. It’s hard to be true to your own vision throughout your life.”

“Look, it’s all about liking yourself and your work.”

“Are you listening to this, Max?” Stephen asked.

Max who was drawing in his sketchbook, looked up and replied, “Yes, it’s interesting.”

“Remember, Max you’re listening to two old farts complaining,” I said.

“Actually, it’s more to my point,” Stephen said, “follow your dreams, Max, and be true to yourself.”

Stephen painted for a couple more hours before Sophie returned to the gallery and told us the gallery was about to close and that we should quit. “Take a few photos before we do,” I asked.

grumpy old men

Photo by Christopher Mackay


© Virgil Hammock, Sackville, NB Canada, 20 October 2014.

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