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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Thirty-Two

December 3, 2014

26 May 2014

It was a Monday, the day after Lord Beaverbrook Day, and the gallery was closed as it is every Monday, but Stephen Scott and I were at Beaverbrook Art Gallery around eleven in the morning to try and finish his portrait of me.

“This should work out OK for us,” I said, “as there will be nobody around and we can concentrate on the painting.”

“Well, it certainly needs some work,” Stephen told me, Where’s the style? It’s boring.”

“You’re beating yourself up again. I think that it’s fine. It just needs the finishing touches.”

“I think that it’s a day for big brushes. Too much finicky detail. I’ve got to pull the whole fucking thing together,” he replied.

“I rather like the combination of detail and broad brushwork. It reminds me of Dutch and Flemish 17th century painting—Rembrandt, Halls, Rubens and the like,” I told him.

“But where’s the style, my style?”

“You got loads of style just don’t screw it up.”

“It’s hard to copy old master techniques. They’re just so natural and too good.”

“I think that you’re doing a pretty good job. A lot of contemporary artists have done a homage to past masters like Freud’s admitted homage to Watteau,” I said.

By this time Stephen was going in earnest with a very large brush on the canvas. Because I was posing I couldn’t see what he was doing, but seemed to be having a good time.

“It’s a good thing for painters to look back at art history to find inspiration. There’s some damn fine painters not that far back like Sargent and he, sure as hell, was looking at Rubens,” he said.

“It sure goes back to that old chestnut that art is about art,” I replied, “but I’ve been accused of being an old fart, sort of a neo-con critic and that was by friends.”

“They seem to have you pegged. Mind you, I’m not exactly a progressive.”

“You know I do like abstract painting, Abstract Expressionism, in particular, but that too is now history,” I added.
“But a lot of those guys,” he said, “could paint. They had solid education and it shows.”

“Where I have problem is with an artist like Jeff Koons who draws on Popeye and ballon dogs for inspiration and then farms out the work to a factory to do,” I said, “I think the work is shit, but then, again, he wildly successful and I’m not. One of the stupid dogs just sold for millions.”

“I’m not exactly swimming in money myself, but if you say artists like Koons or Hirst are shit, people will say you are reactionary or worse. Art is what it is today and that’s that.”

“Much of it is just bullshit, bad art, but then I’m a self identified old fart and what do I know about this brave new world of today’s art?” I said.

“Now, you’re beating yourself up. You’ve got a pretty solid base of art history. I’d say that there is a general disrespect for tradition in much of today’s art world.”

“I think that it’s more a lack of education than disrespect. When I talk to many students and younger artists, I’m amazed by what they don’t know about the history of art and, not only that, they don’t seem to care. They think history begins with them and, perhaps, they’re right.”

“Don’t forget the part,” he added, “that if you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

“You’ve got that right. I’ve been looking at the same bloody installation works, all by different artists who think they’re being original, for the past fifty years and these have been shows in North and South America, Asia and Europe. It’s depressing the number of circles of rocks, tree branches and empty galleries passing as a statement that I’ve seen.”

“There are good contemporary artists and good exhibitions of contemporary art,” he said.

“You’re right, but I just have trouble naming them off the top of my head. How’s my painting coming along?”

“It’s getting there. Are there any of those coffee cartridges we bought left in the staff room.”

“I think so. Let’s take a break and I’ll go make us a cup.”

Back with the coffee, I had a look at what Stephen was doing with the painting, he was trying to bring everything together. He was adding details like my wrist watch and pen and, at the same time, working on unifying the background with the figure. The problem with painting is knowing when it is done, when to quit. It’s a problem that we had talked about many times during this project. I was familiar with the problem, when I painted as I, more often than not, had screwed it up at the last minute and had gone too far with a painting. Stephen had confessed that he did the same thing, but I think that he was a better judge about his own work than I was about mine and I felt a majority of his paintings looked ‘right’.

“Look, we’re getting there,” I said, “what do you think?”

“It’s close, but there’s the difference between making a painting and not making a painting”

“That’s cryptic. Who’s going to be the judge with this painting? You or me?”

“Perhaps the rest of the world.”

“You may have reached the point where you don’t need me to finish the painting. The painting takes on its own life and I just get in the way, but I’ll sit down and you have at it.”

“Sounds like a plan. There’s still things I can do.”

“I keep going back to the idea of music and painting,” I told him as I resumed posing, “In music it’s the space between the notes that’s important and in painting, it is often, what not there that makes it art. One’s imagination makes an art work, be it music or painting, complete.”

“Yes, you’re right a work of art is always more than the sum total of its parts.”

“That’s often the problem with Photo Realism, it tries too hard to look like a photo and misses the whole point of painting which is to make the eye and imagination work,” I said.

“There are times when photographs are useful as tools to an end in painting, but only as one tool among many,” he replied.

“Granted, but we’ve gone through this whole project without using photography and I think that the painting is the better for it.”

“It has taken us a long time, though, since last summer nearly a whole year. When did we start?”

Sketch 18 July 2013

Sketch 18 July 2013

“The 18th of July of last year to be exact. I looked it up last night.”

“Glad, I’m not being paid by the hour.”

“Actually, you not getting paid at all.”

“Don’t remind me.”

We worked, or rather, he painted and I sat, for the next hour or so, continuing our conversation, until it was time for the gallery to close. Terry Graff came in to watch us finish as did Sophie, his wife.

“So, is it done?” Terry asked.

“Close,” Stephen said.

“Hey, let me get up and see the last stroke,” I said, “I’ve waited a long time for this,” Stephen hit a high light on my wrist and watch and that was that, “I think that we should all go out for a drink, right now. Can Stephen clean up tomorrow, Terry? This is cause for a celebration.”

“Sure, I’ll even spring for the drinks.”

Final Portrait

Final Portrait 26 May 2014

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Saturday, November 29, 2014.

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