For the first week of this painting, Pabla did not really speak to me. She was a model, like any other in the city of Florence, who was doing this for extra money on the side. She didn’t seem to dislike modeling, she just didn’t seem to want to warm up to myself and the other artist. From the first few strokes, I had such difficulty with her portrait- I couldn’t figure out what kind of a person she really was. How can you paint somebody’s portrait if they won’t even talk to you?
I kept painting, and on our break I kept asking her if she wanted to go and get a coffee. She finally gave in, and let me buy her a coffee at the cafe across the street from the Charles Cecil Studio. My painting was going terribly, but I knew that I had to just plow through it, despite having a slow start. I pursued a one way conversation with her, and suddenly she said to me “Why do you say coffee that way? Like ‘cawfee'” I told her that it was because I was from New York. She let out a really loud laugh, smiled as I had never seen her, then said “OH, that’s why I liked you. I have posed a lot in the past for all of these cold British kids, and I just don’t like England- such stoic, stern people, so polite but distant. And so, I made up my mind to keep my distance. But, I found you to be so nice, and it frustrated me to find you agreeable.” (My apologies to my British friends for that comment, but it makes me laugh.) She laughed really hard, and apologized for her profiling. Right there, we became good friends. We talked for the next half hour, and in that time I found out that she was from Chile. She had grown up in a small city in Chile that Margaret and I had visited a year and a half before.
You would expect that following this connection, the painting would have taken a dramatic turn for the better. It didn’t. It’s not that it was bad, it was just… not… good. I put in a very dark blue background. Didn’t work. She actually had very long hair, which I painted, though in the portrait it took away from her graceful neck and shoulders. She often wore a black, sweater turtle neck, because the studio was freezing cold (it gets very cold in Florence in the winter.)
But, the face of Pabla looked very good. I had captured her eyes, her Native American high cheek bones, her expressive eyebrows. It was everything else that wasn’t clicking.
At four weeks, Pabla and I would talk for hours on end as I worked. Her life was difficult for her to recount, because it had such an unusual series of events. At one point, she had shaved her head and moved in with some extremist group in Cuba. That was short lived, so she continued on in her travels- South America, Europe, other places as well. She went on to train in a dance school, and found that she was gifted in modern ballet. She currently taught yoga, and also worked a job as a waitress at a restaurant in Fiesole, a hillside town on the outskirts of Florence. She was engaged to an Italian man, and would often ask me questions about marriage. She was a kind person, very sensitive, and I could tell that she was always in the process of figuring things out. Her home in Chile seemed so restrictive, too traditional, and yet Europe was a progressive place in which it is difficult to take root. What was more difficult is that she is South American, and this ensured that she would always be the “other”- no hostility implied, just an identity issue.
Five weeks into the painting, I suddenly had glimpses of hope. The background changed color once more, before I finally decided to paint not what I saw, but what I felt. I heightened the darkness on her right, so as to accent the light falling on her face. For the same reason, I lightened the background on her left, to accent the beautiful line of her neck. I placed a large gas heater beside her, and so the turtleneck was replaced by a lighter v-neck sweater. There were so many other changes, I can’t remember them all. The painting was just about finished, and then I realized that part of Pabla’s charm was that her black hair was always unkempt- she would put it back in a bun, and seconds later the hair would extricate itself. I hesitantly painted this, as I was unsure if it would look contrived.
I stepped back at six weeks, and was amazed. It was my greatest portrait. Charles and my other teachers gave me their hearty approval. I was amazed, I couldn’t believe that I had arrived at such an end.