The Painting Studio
Claire’s painting studio was on the uppermost floor of the office building where she worked. Being in this studio put her into a completely different world, away from the yellow couch and the travel magazines. This was her space, her’s alone. Often times she felt as if she were walking through a portal and entering a parallel universe when she walked through the front door. Everything about this room was different from her office downstairs. Lighter, whiter, home.
Standing in the middle of the room, this room that served both as her personal work and personal living space, she looked into the part of the studio that served as her work space.
Five large, empty, and incredibly intimidating white canvases lined the far wall of the painting studio.
Oh, please spare me the hell of the intimidation which is held in the face of a blank canvas.
The hell that was one blank canvas was one thing, but there were five. In an artist’s studio, stark white paper was fairly intimidating too, but the stack of lenox paper that she owned was not a worry at the moment because it was still stashed and tucked away in a storage drawer for the time being. At that particular moment, as Claire was standing on the other side of the loft, she knew those canvases were waiting for her, and her alone. They haunted her. They had been haunting her for days. Those canveses made their presence known even from the other side of the studio. Through the wall that was dividing the living and working areas of the space. Claire could have left the building and they would still follow her as she was minding her own business at the grocery store, as she perused the displays of organic fruit, or went for a walk down by the bay. See that beautiful sunset over there? No, all Claire could see were the five large, still empty, and still incredibly intimidating white canvases that lined the far wall of the painting studio. The best thing to do to eliminate the intimidation factor of an empty, gessoed, glaringly white canvas was to make it dirty, really dirty. The best way make a white canvas dirty, and still be able to use it, still be able to work on it, was to wash it with coat of burnt sienna. By wash, Claire meant that she should get to painting the canvas with a very thin, wet, layer of color. In the past she would wash the canvas with a loaded brush of turpentine and a smidgen of color. Now, Claire uses mineral spirits combined with a painting medium – the odor was not as harsh on the lungs. The canvas could be washed with any color, but burnt sienna was the color that Claire could build from. She energetically connected to it somehow. It was a rich, earthy, out of the tube, color. Once the canvas had one layer of paint on it, while not being even remotely conquered by any means, it was much easier to look at – it became less intimidating and sat against the wall as something that could now be worked with.
There was an opaque, floor to ceiling, plastic curtain that clearly divided the living space from the work space in this studio. This had been installed here for two reasons. The first reason was to subconsciously divide the living and the working aspects of life without completely severing them from each other. The second being that the curtain also allowed the natural light from the windows to pass through the curtain, lighting both areas. But really, the main reason was that even though there was an industrial ceiling fan in the studio, the curtain kept the paint fumes contained within the work area.
Claire went into the work studio with a cup of hot black tea – Earl Grey, of course, although you wouldn’t know that because this is the first time I’ve mentioned it – with some lemon and honey and a dash of cinnamon – and set it down on a non-cluttered spot on the work table. This was an old routine, of sorts, for her. At this point in the process, Claire should have been thinking of what she would be going to do next, what she wanted to say or express visually. Some time was spent thinking of how her next actions would get her to the finished painting that she saw in her head.
When Claire thought about her work, there was also the element of sticking to a sort of visual path so as to keep a line of continuity from her past work, and then moving forward. Sometimes it was very difficult to not go off on some visual tangent – mostly because experiences outside of her influenced her and her work greatly. It was one of the reasons she liked having a studio in the same building where she worked her day job and also the reason why she rarely went to view other artists’ work. The external influences were too strong, pulling her in directions she hadn’t anticipated. Often times when her work did go off on a visual tangent, the conceptual ideas always seemed to keep a loose trail through her work. Fitting in with her own past was not extremely important, not to her anyway, but often a challenge. It’s what a collector or even someone who was only vaguely familiar with her work would expect. Art collectors always seemed to want, need, to see the similarities, of the same exact work done over and over again in an artist’s portfolio over the years. They found comfort in being able to follow a conceptual or visual trail. They found comfort in knowing that their investments were not being put at risk. But what good would Claire be as an artist, or a human being, if she was not constantly reinventing herself or changing her work? Pushing her boundaries? At this point in her career, her work had become cryptic, even to her, and had taken on a “just do it” kind of edginess to it. Most of the time, to begin a new piece, Claire would just pick up a brush or a charcoal stick and attack the canvas or the paper.
After that the work was on its own.
Walking over to the corner of the studio Claire flipped the switch that turned on the overhead exhaust fan that was centered in the ceiling above. The air was sucked into the center of the studio, funneled up and out in a small, invisible, whirlygig of energy. Claire went over to her work table and opened a paint jar that was half full of a concoction of mineral spirits and paint medium. She squirted a bit of burnt sienna out of a very large tube onto her palette. The palette itself was nothing fancy, just an old piece of formica countertop that some beautiful ginger boy gave to her a long time ago as the perfect present for a special occasion. It was the paint that made the palette special. Picking up her big round brush and dipping it in the jar of clear spirited liquid, she waited a moment and allowed the bundle of bristles to soak up the spirits. Lifting the brush just to the top of the jar, she shook it a bit to get the excess thinner off of it, then dipped the brush into the paint, into a gob of thick, out-of-the-tube burnt sienna. Twirling the paint while contemplating her next move, she toyed the brush around in the thick goopy mud, which thinned the color out a little, and then with the brush in her right hand, Claire approached the first canvas.
Now came the easy part. Even easier than stretching the canvases and gessoing them, although just as meditative. All Claire wanted to do was wash the canvas in this warm brown color that reminded her of the finish of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling before they cleaned it. It was only hundreds of years of incense smoke stuck to the most famous fresco in the world that made generations think that burnt sienna was the main color on Michelangelo’s palette. But it wasn’t. Claire touched the brush to the top of the canvas and watched as the thinned color began to run down the face of what will become, over the next few months, a painting. A good painting. Claire pulled the brush across the the top of the canvas and watched the color run down, the brilliant white slowly disappeared under the drips. She continued pulling the paintbrush across the canvas until the white had completely disappeared, and when the canvas was completely covered, Claire painted the sides of the canvas. A painting was never started, nor finished, correctly, if the sides were left white and unpainted.
Claire spent that evening going from one canvas to the next, forgetting about the tea that she had set on the table. By now the tea must have turned cold anyway. She went back to each of the five canvases and brushed in the gesture of the ghost she might expect to see coming out of the next layers of paint. Once Claire finished for the night, well, after this first layer of paint has been applied, she’d sit with them and wait a few days for it to dry before adding the next layer.
Claire had spent much of her life with the struggle of being an artist. It had never been a question of whether she was or whether she wasn’t an artist. Claire had known that this was where her life was headed from a young age. The struggle of being an artist in her timeline was to live in a society, to live in a world, and to come from a family, at a time in history when art was not only not appreciated but in so being an artist it also required her to have to work in a field unrelated to art to keep her studio alive and food on her table. Keeping any number of jobs until she had enough money saved so that she could quit them which then allowed her to stay in the studio and work full time. It was a cycle. It was a life choice, that’s for sure, one that was very different from the life choices made by those who are not called to a life quest such as this. But the life of an artist was only a struggle when Claire fell prey to the thought that it was a struggle. It was the others who thought this life of her’s and of artists in general was a struggle, which was a misconception, and a judgement. For Claire, it was just her life. Her joy. Her work.
As Claire finished up by cleaning her brush of excess paint, she noticed that the studio had become a little cold. She walked back through the plastic curtains and took a sweater off of the back of chair and turned on the heat. Pulling the sweater over the top of her head she blindly walked to the stove and picked up the kettle as the neck of the sweater popped down over her nose. Filling the kettle with water, Claire placed it on the stove and turned on the gas, lighting the fire with a match.
After another cup of tea was made Claire sat down on the couch and tried to empty her brain. Don’t think about this, don’t think about that. Just a little mental rejuvenation. But instead of meditating, Claire fell asleep.
Hours later, the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof above her head woke her up. Claire stretched her arms and then rubbed the kinks out of her shoulder. It was still dark. The air was a little chilly. The heat must have gone off … Claire looked at the clock and it said 5:30. Should I just wake up?, Claire wondered. There was something energizing about being awake in the studio at this hour of the day.