Seven years ago, I stared at the portrait model, and wondered where to go with the painting. Though I was pleased with the rendering of the face, the empty area of the canvas was so big, making the face seem dwarfed. The model wore regular jeans, and a light colored top, but the composition was lifeless. I had to adjust the painting composition, it just needed some movement. So, I sat and stared. While Beverly and I discussed various things about life in Florence, we both stared at the painting. She said it was a good likeness of herself, but there was something missing.
Eventually, our conversation turned to other things. Beverly began to talk about her years spent as a ballet dancer, in a prestigious ballet company in London. I could see that she was quite ambivalent about her past. Was the discipline of ballet enabling, or crippling? It surely demanded everything. But to give everything to a passion, what in life could be more fulfilling? We continued in this dialogue for a while, and then I realized- I would like to paint Beverly in her ballet shoes. It could be a terrible idea, but it could be a wonderful idea. No matter. Just paint it.
She brought in her ballet shoes, and we adjusted the pose. As she looked out, I could see that she herself was curious. Would it ruin the painting, to have her feet curled underneath, or would it make the painting? I never know the answer to such questions. The only way in which I can find my answer is to paint it- if it is good, it stays. If it is bad, it goes. That simple. So I began to paint in her shoes. They were a soft pink, with white straps. I worked quickly, slashing paint down on the canvas. Twenty minutes passed, and there they were- pink ballet shoes. And I paused to consider the change. And I considered the change to be terrible, and very, very unsuitable to the painting. There is nothing wrong with painting a ballet dancer in ballet shoes, but this looked like I forced it on the painting. I grabbed some turpentine and a few paper towels, ready to wipe off the shoes.
Just then, the door of the studio burst open. It was Charles Cecil, and he was there to give his usual critiques of the work. Normally, I had to wait my turn for his review, but he looked across the room at my easel, and his eyes widened. “My God, what have you done? It’s hideous. I mean, come on, it’s horrendous. Garish, tacky, trite, sweet, saccharine… pink. Good heavens, my dear boy, what were you thinking? I mean, Kevin, I’m terribly disappointed.” I tried to speak, but he was on a roll. “This is, this is just inconceivable. I mean, pink shoes, pink ballet slippers- what possessed your mind? I was considering that you might have a future, but now… craft can be learned, but taste… you are either born with it, or not.” The other students in the room held their breath. I responded in saying that that this was the way that I painted. If I had a thought, it went down. If the thought was good, it remained. If the thought was bad, it was wiped out. I thought about the shoes, and so I painted them. I did not like the shoes, and so I would now wipe them out. And that is the difference between a work of art, and an observed documentary. Works of art evolve, they are meanderings of the mind, sometimes purposeless wandering. I just had to wander, and sometimes that involved retracing my steps. After all, wasn’t that the virtue of oil painting, over frescoe? Oil paintings are not set in stone, they are evolutionary, in the same way that writing or music or poetry or even math. Isn’t that why there are so many changes that become visible, when you x-ray the paintings of Velazquez, Rembrandt, Titian?
Charles paused, winced with his eyes, and said “Fair enough. But I’m still going to call you twinkletoes.” Everyone in the studio laughed, it was funny.
And every so often, Twinkletoes would be called out across the room, and I made sure to not turn my head.
Seven years later, I am working in my studio in New York. If I have an idea, I put it down, no matter how absurd. This idea may be an entire painting, or it may be a small change in composition in a small part of the painting. As I painted with the model, I saw her clasp her hands a certain way, and it was very elegant. And so, I put the two hands down. Forty five minutes later, after having painted furiously, I took one long, hard look. The two hands was not a nice addition to the composition, as it was really clumsy, and took all the attention to the wrong place. And so, I pulled out some paper towels, and began wiping. Having regained the canvas surface, I then resumed painting, this time placing one hand. It worked wonderfully.
I’d rather be twinkletoes than be timid.
Two hands, closeup
Two hands, wiped out
One hand, and the composition works, the path of light is recovered
And I like this bit of painting