Mr. Hartley took a small canvas the size of a notebook from the table at the front of the classroom. “You’ll apply the alizarin first. That will be the bottom primer color. It will barely show through all the other colors that come later in the painting. The alizarin crimson will act as the unifier in your final piece. So, everyone, take your canvasses and put them onto the easel, like this.”
Mr. Hartley demonstrated with the closest student’s easel. “Make sure your canvas is level. You adjust the easel like this.” He adjusted the sides of the easel, screwing and unscrewing the side pins until everything was level and secure.
“Now, class, put about two tablespoons of medium on your palette and mix it with one half teaspoon of alizarin and cobalt drier. Use your palette knife, not your brushes, for mixing.” He glared at the girl on the left. He let out a big sigh.
“That’s it, you got it now. Well done…”
Mr. Hartley’s thoughts drifted toward home. In two hours, he’d be there. His breath quickened. Home at night was a lonely prospect where the hours ticked by slowly. He used to watch TV, then movies, and went through a small free-cell and on-line scrabble phase. But lately, Mr. Hartley had taken to wallowing in his loneliness. He wasn’t going to distract himself from the troubles of his life. He’d decided instead to sit at the kitchen table every night and try to figure out the exact moment his life went wrong.
His first art teacher in college. Ms. Penska. What a bitch. Her annoying ticking and clicking with the ruler.
“This side of the canvas is not working.” She’d point. “Don’t you see it? It stops the eye and surely you don’t want us here. Or do you? Do you, Ted?”
With her hand on her floral silk skirt she’d sift through the class, making insulting comments and insisting critique was not easy but necessary to become a better artist.
Ms. Penska would ask, “Now, Ted, why is it that you can’t tell this shoulder is not right? Look at this figure. Where is her collar bone? Do necks do that? No. Did you want to make a statement about a deformed girl? No. You just need to learn to draw better. Until you can do this, I want you in my figure-drawing class open studio. This is important! Class, do you understand? You should know this by now.”
And Ted Hartley had agreed. We should know this. We should be able to draw from life, from pictures, and from the stuff in our head—our memories and dreams.
Mr. Hartley was startled back to his classroom by the sound of an easel crashing to the floor. It was that same girl on the left. Mr. Hartley walked over to her and helped her pick up the easel. Their hands brushed together, and he quickly moved his hands to his sides. His breath came out distinctly louder. He looked up at the girl. “I’m sorry; I can’t remember your name. Ella, was it?”
Mr. Hartley stood up tall and cleared his throat. “The canvasses are dry now, and the paint won’t seep through. Set up your still life with your partner. Decide first which direction the light source is coming from. This class is about light, folks. That’s why you’re here. We are going to learn how light falls across objects and creates lots of really exciting reflective light. Yes, that’s true, reflective light. Many, many colors happen in the shadows of things.”
“Mr. Hartley,” Isabella said, “I’m not sure I want to set up a still life. Couldn’t I just paint what I feel like? I’m sort of in the mood to just experiment with different colors.”
“This is a still life painting class. This class is designed to teach the classical and traditional methods of still life painting,” he said.
“Yes, I know, but I’m just really in the mood to paint more of an abstract right now. I’ll still use the alizarin crimson.”
Mr. Hartley walked over to her canvas. He noticed it was three times the size of the others in the room. And three times the size he’d recommended on the syllabus. It was covered in cerulean blue paint.
“Why are you taking this class, Isabella?” Mr. Hartley asked.
The classroom fell silent. The air was still and thick with the odors of turpentine and dammar varnish. No one moved.
Isabella said, “I heard you were the best.”She smiled. Her mouth was small; when smiling, her lips pressed forward. Her eyes were chocolate brown with a burnt sienna glaze. Mr. Hartley found himself staring into them.
The entire room let out a breath, and the low murmuring of students and the low murmuring of objects being placed on tabletops resumed.
“Yes, I see.” Mr. Hartley turned away. He slid his fingers through his graying hair. He pulled his shirt cuff crisply towards his hand and walked to the front of the class.
Before the class had arrived that morning, Mr. Hartley had opened up the tall cabinets from the back of the room. He’d carefully selected, over the years, many objects for his classes he was proud to own. There were clear glass vases, green glass, ceramic of every color and many were even antiques. He had dried flowers and plastic flowers and fake fruit. There were tablecloths, candles, watches, lace, and hourglasses. He had cut branches from several trees so the students could put them in the vases. That morning, he’d purchased fruit from the market and had that available for them, as well. The class continued setting up their objects on their tables.
Except Isabella. She was already painting.
Mr. Hartley took in a sour breath. His eyes cramped shut. His memory floated backwards to a girl in his first painting class at art school. She was the star of the class, and he’d been instructed to paint next to her so that he could learn what art truly was and what art most certainly was not. Sara had pale skin and long, ivory black hair that she regularly tossed behind her as she worked. She wore pale peach lipstick and matching nail polish on her toes. Sara would smile at him as she picked up her four-inch brush and loaded it with paint. Her flip-flops made slapping noises as she took the steps to reach the edges of her immense canvas. She started each painting the same way: a thin coat of cerulean blue.
Sara loved to hum when she painted. Her humming had not ever consisted of any known tune, just like her paintings had never consisted of any known object. She was considered the best, painting like Mark Rothko in an art school struggling to produce just one great artist. Her cerulean blues often mixed with French ultramarine, and for this she was praised. She loved to add cadmium red and often finished her paintings with lots of titanium white added to all the original colors. This would be placed even thicker in the middle of the paintings. Sometimes she used an entire tube of titanium white for one painting.
Mr. Hartley’s eyes snapped open. There she was: Isabella. Right in front of him, her face only about twelve inches from his.
“Sara—I mean Isabella,” he said.
“Are you ok, Mr. Hartley?” she asked.
“Ok? Why wouldn’t I be? Let me see what you’ve done.”
She led him back to her canvas. It was now covered in alizarin crimson. On top of the cerulean blue, it made a certain purplish mud that made Mr. Hartley wince. The corners of his mouth pointed toward his penny loafers. He straightened his oxford collar. He cleared his throat. “Isabella, I’ve said before, this is a still-life class. What you have here makes no sense.”
Mr. Hartley moved quickly to the cabinet and grabbed a vase and a handful of grapes. He returned to her table and slapped the vase down. He set the grapes around the vase and pulled some of the grapes forward so they hung over the edge of the table. The grapes plunged to the ground. In an attempt to prevent the disaster of dirty grapes, Mr. Hartley thrust his hand forward to catch them, knocking his hand into the leg of the table. More grapes fell as he managed to get them back on the table. This time Isabella reached out to catch them as well. Their heads smashed together with a deep thud. Mr. Hartley reached out his hand to steady himself on Isabella. The weight of his hand on her shoulder propelled her head under the table, and as she straightened to stand, her head cracked the underside of the table. It lifted the table several inches off the ground, and the small clear glass vase hit the ground with a piercing crash.
Glass slid across the floor in every direction. The noise of the classroom chatter ended so suddenly it was as if the room had been thrust into the dark and silent atmosphere of space surrounding earth. No sound was allowed to exist.
Isabella raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth as if to make a joyous scream, but a high-pitched squeak was all that came out.
“I’ll get a broom,” someone called out.
Mr. Hartley stood up straighter. He glared at Isabella. “Thank you for cleaning this up. I’ll be right back.”
He made his way through the easels and students and glass and grapes and quickly left the classroom. A squished grape made a wet noise on the floor. As he headed to the restroom, he felt the blood pumping through his temples.
Once in the men’s bathroom, he stood in front of the mirror. His face was gray. His eyes sunk in. He could hear Ms. Penska’s voice loud in his ear.
“This is a figure-drawing class. Yes. This is where we learn to draw correctly. But, this figure on this canvas is not art. This figure is boring. We learn the rules of drawing and painting, and then we break them. We have to take our unique self into this work and make it more. This is not art!” Ms. Penska boomed this toward Ted and his fellow students while slamming her ruler into the eyeball of his painted seated figure.
The figure was his roommate, whom he’d coerced into posing for him for a six-pack of beer. He’d carefully placed a single light shining on Rob’s face. Ted had read several books on Rembrandt and considered him the best artist of all time.
Ms. Penska’s bold claims that his portrait was not art only solidified Ted’s feelings: painting that portrait felt like the first time he’d created any art at all. It felt as if he was seeing for the first time. He saw a reddish glow on the shadowed side of Rob’s cheek. He saw reds, yellows, greens, and blues happen on the shadowed side of Rob’s nose. This was unbelievable. This was a breakthrough for him. Even after two years of figure drawing with Ms. Penska, no one had ever talked about the colors of the shadows.
And that had been just the beginning. He read books on old masters and by the masters. His favorite quote was by the sculptor MedardoRosso:“Light being of the essence of our existence, a work of art that is not concerned with light has no right to exist.”
He learned to paint by opening his eyes and staring, at home, for hours on his subject matter. He would stare at the fruit and the bowls and the vases and replicate the colors with his paints. He became obsessed with the three main traditional subject matters of the 17th century classical era: the still life, the portrait, and the landscape. He felt they were the only true art forms, and that all other types of painting were just concerned with the ego of the artist. Ted felt that by matching the paint to the tones and values and colors of what was before him, he was not just making art, he was experiencing art.
After sitting through another class with Sara explaining why she decided to put yellow dots on top of her white-centered abstract, Ted took a small canvas and walked out to the courtyard of the school. He set up a small portable easel and began painting the palm trees as they swayed in the breeze. He had chosen a place in the courtyard that allowed a view of the hills off in the distance. He made sure to leave a space for this great distance to occur in his painting.
He did not hear her footsteps until Sara was directly behind him. He turned around and smiled. “No yellow dots for me, Sara.”
“I see that, Ted. But really, what’s the point of that painting? Landscape is dead, Ted.” She let out a laugh. “But seriously, I’m pretty sure that’s not going to get you into a good master’s program.”
“Master’s! Who said I wanted to get a master’s? I’m not sure I’m even going to make it another week here. I’m this close to quitting,” Ted said as he squeezed his sweaty fingers around his smallest filbert paintbrush.
“Quit? Are you crazy? You’ll never get into a good school like this again.”
“Well, I don’t think I want to,” he said.
Sara turned sharply away. Ted watched the back pockets of her cut off jeans shorts move up and down with her movement. He called out, “Hey, Sara, when you paint your abstract paintings, how do you know when you’re getting better?”
Sara either didn’t hear or chose to ignore him, he was not sure which. But, one week later, at the age of twenty, Ted was a college dropout. He would later enroll in an art academy that was dedicated to the realistic and traditional depiction of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes.
And now, after fifteen years of teaching at that same art academy, Isabella is Sara. She is beautiful, naïve, flirtatious, self-assured, and worst of all, she thinks putting paint on a canvas is art.
Mr. Hartley splashed his face with water, then dried it. He tucked in his shirt and tightened his brown leather belt by one notch. He corrected the pleat in his pants and patted down a wrinkle with a moist hand. Hedecided he’d do his class a favor: a painting demonstration. He’d show them how seeing is art, and how it translates. He’d tell them not to get duped by all the contemporary hype of art that is mainly concerned with the ego of the artist.
He walked with resolve back into the room. He entered a quiet room where the students were just beginning to put paint on their palettes. He could see everyone had successfully turned on their lights, illuminating the still-life objects.
He said, “Class, I’d like to give a quick painting demonstration.”
Mr. Hartley set up his easel and palette at the front of the room, where he chose a setup that two older ladies had put together. There was a blue ceramic vase with dried leaves, grapes, and clementines. His favorite.He explained his philosophies and his visual concepts as he painted. His favorite: “Self-expression is what the unskilled call art.” He was careful not to look directly at Isabella, although he could see her watching him out of the corner of his eyes.
A small applause. Thank-you’s.
And then waiting, watching, and helping the students as they painted on their own canvasses. He avoided Isabella altogether, purposefully not looking at her canvas.
He did notice she had a still life set up on the table next to her. Her light was on, shining down on a yellow porcelain vase and lots of grapes and apples. No leaves or flowers. Mr. Hartley went around the room some more, reminding students that when painting the edges of all their still-life objects, the eye stops at every hard edge and flows with every soft edge.
Then, “Mr. Hartley, I’m done. Will you come look at mine?” Isabella asked.
The room stiffened. Students looked at Mr. Hartley. His eyes scanned the faces. He looked longingly at the door leading into the hallway. His feet began the process of walking, but they were slow, as if stuck in mud.
He finally arrived in front of Isabella’s canvas. Other students had gathered around as well.
Mr. Hartley stared at the canvas and then stared at the still life she had set up. His eyes moved back and forth between the two. Isabella’s canvas contained no depicted vase or grapes or apples, but it had something he couldn’t quite put into words.
The canvas was mostly covered in alizarin crimson and black. But, starting on the left, a dim light was occurring with the introduction of a small amount of cadmium orange.
The light grew brighter and brighter as Mr. Hartley’s eyes moved across her canvas to the right. The brightness contained cadmium reds, yellows, and oranges and grew to intensity until, just at the edge of the canvas, it burst into the brightest whites and yellows and then was no more.
It was a perfectly executed abstract of a still life with no discernible objects at all. Colors and values and edges all gave way to each other, directing the eye to the full burst of light on the lower right.
Speechless was an understatement for Mr. Hartley. His heart hurt and ached for words. And there it was: where his life had taken its first wrong turn. Sara. He’d been in love with her. From day one. And art and seeing reflective color and his damn attachment to realism had turned his life into a narrow and lonely place, free of freedoms and free of love. This was art. This was love.