Skin Deep


The lesson is an olive branch. Something so simple, so everyday here in Provence, yet to paint one requires skill. How to mix the paint to capture that powdery green of the leaves? And those olives still attached, past their prime but still firmly holding on? Their thick skin is no longer black, nor is it a deep purple; the students must look beyond their knowledge of what an olive is in their mind, and discern what paint mixture can best represent.

“Lastly, don’t neglect the background. You should treat the background with the same amount of care and attention you give to your main image.”

Dave demonstrates as he guides them through the steps. His olive branch comes alive effortlessly, a simple stroke here, a touch there. The students impress easily at this early stage in the term. Then Dave does the unthinkable: he attacks the backgrounds right up to, in fact in to, the once-perfect olive branch, smudging the lines, working over what was with new paint, forcing the background to impose itself on the image.

“No! Dave you just ruined it!”

“It’s OK. It’s a dance. Like water on the shore, your background approaches, touches the branch, then pulls away. Back and forth, give and take, work the negative space, then the branch, then back again. You are after beauty, an impression of the branch, not photo-realism. If you wanted a photo, you could just take one.”

“But I don’t paint that way.” Grace is clearly conflicted. A Vietnamese-American, she is well-traveled and worldly. She loves fashion and knows how to get the most out of her long hair and designer make-up. Grace is petit with delicate features, a warm skin tone and almond eyes. One time we were sitting near each other, and I couldn’t help but be taken with her beauty, and told her such.

“You’re a bit short to be a model but you certainly are pretty enough.”

“I AM a model.”

“Really?! What do you model?”

“Fashion. Clothes…in Vietnam.”

Others in the room join in the conversation, intrigued by the idea of someone in our group living the luxury lifestyle of a fashion model. Grace carries herself with pride. She steps out in style even when it’s just to go paint in nature and have a rustic picnic.

“I’m not telling you that your way of painting is wrong,” Dave continues. “I just want you to learn skills. Afterwards you can decide what skills you want to keep, and which ones you want to leave behind.”

Her struggle is real. All her life she has been complimented on beauty. Her face, her hair, her clothing style, her art. To Grace, good art is a flawless replica of the living thing.

“Wow, that looks just like Emma!” Bella exclaimed when viewing Grace’s last creation.

Her ability to paint something to look exactly as it is amazes people. Who cares about the negative space? She has a trained eye and can mimic any subject precisely. Like her make up, her paintings are without a single misplaced brushstroke. And now she is being told to have the background intermix with her perfect edges. Yes, her struggle is real. She is not convinced. She takes an unsure breath and dutifully sets out to try.

The others are trying as well. It is not in their mindset to paint the background, this “nothingness”, as if it were “something.”

In my own art I layer imagery on top of imagery, trying to conjure up a stew of fleeting memories. Patterns, floor tiles, torn out pages from books, labels, bits of nature, YET I, too, neglect the negative space. My work gets so full of visuals that there is little breathing room left to the quiet background. I am just like the students. Somehow the background just doesn’t feel interesting enough, so why draw attention to it?

Isn’t that just like life though? How many times do we neglect our interior in order to focus on what others will see? Things that are unseen can be beautiful, too - Cam’s twinkly laugh, Jack’s music, Kally’s disposition. Grace gets it. She works both the seen and the unseen. She dances the dance. She grows to call this technique “Davish”, fondly.

We are off to a good start.

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