Painting in Rome
I saw a nun raking in the garden, in late afternoon, as I was walking around the courtyard reading The Intellectual Life. Once I saw her, I wanted to paint her. She seemed strong as a plough horse, bent over, shaking out clods of dirt. She had a white veil on her head , a blue apron tied behind her, and dark blue sleeves rolled up. She worked for so long, turning the dirt. I watched her above the pages of my book, noting the shape of her sleeves, the line of her movement, etc. Once I had firmly printed her in my mind, I ran inside, upstairs, into my room, and drew three pencil sketches of her.
My friend and I painted on the balcony as the sun set. The late afternoon shadows grew longer, but the sister was still out there, working hard. I could see her movements, blurs of white and blue, through the green distance. We put away our watercolors when it was time for Theology.
The next day, I grabbed my plastic bag, which contained my paints, my brush, and my water container, a tissue for blotting, this journal, and an apple, and went back to the nun’s garden in high hopes of making a background of watercolored mint and sage grow up around her. Luckily the garden was deserted. I saw the fresh-turned dirt where she had been working. The sun was so warm it seemed to sink into the soil, intensifying the fragrance. I leaned my paper on the garden wall, which was crumbly with bits of mortar and moss, and picked a rosemary bush to start with, in full bloom.
As I painted, I talked back and forth in my head, and when I scribbled that conversation in my Rome journal, it ended up coming out script-form. Here it is, for a change of pace:
*An old man walks up to a young girl as she is painting. Afternoon is getting old; the sun is lowering.*
*He stands and watches her.*
Old man: What do you know about rosemary? *suddenly asks*
Girl: I’ve - grown it before. Wait, no. *realizes instinctively her first answer would not satisfy the man* Yes, I am learning about it now.
Old man: No, you’re not.
Girl: *pauses, startled*
Old man: Try again.
Girl: The… spikes go outward, not upward.
*Then her eyes are opened. She tentatively dips the brush in yellow and fills in yellow-green between the branches. She see darkness in patches and boldly fills those in.*
Man: You have to look up and down and up and down. Can’t spare that out of laziness. Art is ninety percent looking. Train the eye. Your eye should always be moving.
*As she exerts herself to look - and look and look and look - she finds her eye taking in, grasping, seizing colors, bringing them to her mouth. Her heart goes out to the plant. Honey bees bob. More patches and layers appear.*
Man: Skip details. Get to details later. You’re hardly there. You’re maybe halfway there. What is the color of the flower? Recreate it.
*She attempts puddling gray and red and blue together. She is afraid for a moment that she can’t do it - that she doesn’t have the color of the flower right. But then she looks up and realizes that the miniature flowerlets of the rosemary look like they’ve been dunked into the color on her palette. Don’t doubt yourself, she reminds herself.*
Man: Yellow ochre! Yellow ochre! Why a streak of yellow ochre?
Girl: *can’t help sounding a little triumphant* Because it’s there. *smiles* See.
Man: *looks* You’re right. Ack! But what - yellow on the right side! There is none. Stop! Take it out -
Girl: I want it there.
*Man takes the brush, rubs it in brown-green and swashes the yellow out.*
Man: Save it for later! Later, later. Learn to draw with the right eye first.
*The rosemary bush on the paper and the rosemary bush in the garden were merging synonymous.*
Man: You love yellow ochre! *bursts out*
Girl: Yes, I do. If I could choose one color to paint in - it’s so rustic.
Man: But on the stems! Tell me what color those stems are. Look!
*They were gray.*
Man : You’re using convention. Pulling out colors from the bank in your mind because you know how to use them - because they are from previous drawings. Yellow ochre is perhaps even homey to you - close to your heart, to wax sentimental. Did you have cabinets and kitchen tables that color growing up?
Girl: Yes, actually! And the furniture and the wood floors -
Man: Forget your kitchen, forget your garden. Draw the tree, not the treeness. Save the universal for when your eyes are closed and you have to draw from memory, with no model in sight. But draw the particular when it is the particular. Replicate what you see. You’re not God - maybe if you were you’d make the rosemary plant with yellow ochre stems.
*She paints the stems gray.*
Man: There - there - there. Drop all preconceived notions when approaching a subject. You need a blank mind for poetry - so it is with art. Don’t impose what you think is beautiful on what is before your eyes. Don’t base this rosemary on the rosemary you’ve grown. They are worlds apart.
*Finito - the painting complete.*
Man: Now you’ve painted as if you’ve never known a rosemary plant before.
Though I wonder how possible it is to have a completely blank mind - to forget the kitchen and my garden, which were so important and such a part of me… became a part of my being, and my favorite colors and images. But I guess what it is - the element essential to art - is not forgetfulness, but consciously choosing not to superimpose what you think something is, on what really is. Like yellow ochre on gray.