This is a close up of the first oil portrait that I ever painted. This was the most agonizing, delightful painting experience I have ever had. I sank to the depths of despair when things went wrong, I rose to heights of orgasmic, painterly ecstasy when things went well. Poor Margaret, being married to an artist.
Kate was a playwright, actress, nomad from London who had moved to Florence on a whim. She had no money, hence was modeling. She had permanently borrowed an obliging bike that was reclining against a wall, and would meander through the city and surrounding hills. She kept a bag with her at all times, in which were a few books and a box of loose tea.
Kate’s eyes, in this painting, mean so much to me. Something happened to me when I painted these eyes, something which would allow me to call painting my own, put it in my back pocket, and walk away. I was painting the eyes over and over again, not getting them right, not capturing the light in the iris, not capturing the soul of this fascinating girl, Kate. Things perpetually went wrong with this painting. It was my first portrait painting ever, and I was receiving many cues that painting was forever a closed door to me, a sword in a stone. What’s the use of painting if I couldn’t capture her eyes? Why did I cross the ocean with my wife, enroll in this studio… why was I painting this girl in 105 degree heat? I wiped the eyes off with a rag, I mixed more paint, I manipulated the paint with turpentine, added medium- the paint would not do what I told it to. I used tacky, dry paint, I used wet, slippery paint. Infuriating. I was just about to give up. Without thinking, I grabbed a knife off of a nearby shelf, and dashed towards the work. The problem I was having was with the iris of the eyes, so I took the knife and… scratched the inside of the iris with the knife. Instead of painting with paint, I was carving light into the canvas by returning to the white ground of the linen. I stepped back and suddenly, there it was. A something which cannot be painted.
So much of art is not understood, it is felt. Kate’s eyes are this “felt” for me. I don’t know how to tell people to paint eyes, because I don’t know what it might take to paint an eye. For many of my portraits, I now scratch the irises with a knife. But I don’t always use a knife, only when it feels right. Robert Frost would often refer to something called the “sound of sense,” that something in poetry which transcends the reasoning part of the beast. The epiphany is not the knife, the epiphany is paying attention to the felt, whatever that might entail.