Printed from WriteWords -

Two Colours

by  apcharman

Posted: Friday, January 12, 2007
Word Count: 3790
Summary: An ambitious piece; not immediately accessible, but you'll understand why if you manage to get all the way through it.

It is five months since José Luis started work on this painting. They always take him over. Each painting is the only thing he ever wanted to say, and each one is the ultimate, final expression. Starting was never easy, but never before did he have a problem finishing. It is a painting that is eluding him. It is defying him.

There will be an unfinished work, of course, he has known that for some time, but he does not believe this it. Every day he gets a little closer and today has a dawn, just like every other morning.

He strokes his cheeks and chin with hard, tough old fingers. A week’s growth scrapes against his skin, feeling rough-cut, sounding like a hand-saw. The tap squeaks as he screws it open and the cold water gives way to a steaming flow of warmth; he cups his hands with prayer-like symmetry, scoops up a face-full, then looks himself in the eye as droplets fall from his nose. The mirror is dulled by dried-on water, but still his image is clear.

It is such an old face. He’d never expected to have a face so aged—not so grooved, so patterned by time. It is strange to him now, like a brother he has not seen in decades, and it is uncomfortable. These lines in his bark were carved by events that he resisted, by developments he resented, by people too powerful, too callous, too stupid and too mean to contain, but whom he opposed nonetheless; whom he opposes still. The wounds and the graining are alien and serve only to obscure the truth of him. They are the boundary that he lies beyond. He lives elsewhere, in another land where he is still the child; still amused that he can cause such trouble with a paintbrush.

He wipes his hand down his face, clearing the water from his oily skin and his eyes twinkle back at him. He smiles, and then, as he shuffles through to his studio, his smile becomes a smirk. Which is it, he wonders, that causes those beautiful women half his age—a quarter his age—to touch his arm as they talk to him? That twinkle? The knowledge of what trouble his brush can cause? Or is it just his money? Or all of these?

He chuckles to himself as he breaks open a new cardboard box of brushes; he pulls one out; the thickest, the largest; and he holds it in front of his face. It is still an object of beauty, just in itself. The flame of sable, flaring from the metal crimp to such a wealthy, generous, sumptuous bulge and then tapering with such refinement to its delicate, perfect tip. And in colour it is inimitable—the hairs blend through the subtlest, most elusive shades of cream. His lifetime has been homage to this object of worshipful perfection. And it could still absorb so many.

The brush goes on the table beside his easel along with the others from the packet. He clears yesterday’s canvas from the stand with only a moment’s pause to consider it. It is white, still—a broad rectangle of white, as rough-edged as his chin, painted onto grey-blue backing. But like the others he has discarded in this his most recent pursuit, it is not the white he is after. It is not white enough. For an hour or so he prepares another couple of backgrounds; more grey-blue expanse that is nothing except that it is not plain canvass, and is not whiteness. But it is whiteness he is thinking of as he paints the blue-grey. It is whiteness, and all it stands for, that runs through his mind and that is projected onto the screen in front of him. It is whiteness that he is considering.

He has started to question himself. He knows he is right and that the questions will lead nowhere, but the questions arise all the same.

He does not mean to express purity. That is the crucial point. His childhood was not pure any more than any other childhood might be pure. He can see, now, cast onto the petrol-blue oil, drifting over the glistening lines as they are spread upon the surface, a face; a figure. It is Jesús, holding out a pair of sandals, offering them to him with hands that are grained with dirt and the tyre rubber he’d made them from. And God knows, Jesús was no angel, stealing tyres from the truck stops, but his teeth were white and even, all on display in the grin he offered over the shoes. White. Only white; but white, nonetheless.

And his brother’s teeth had the white of cotton bleached in the sun; another memory-image that came back again and again, as recent as a list of things he ought to be finishing off today. No-one seems to dry their sheets outside anymore, but his mother was always clipping them up, or pulling them down and it was invariably he who had to hold one end of corners while she folded. Just white; no other colour. And that was the core of it now; that it was no other colour.

With one canvass fully coloured, he swaps it over for another, brand new, unblemished frame. This is the luscious, succulent fruit of his success; a fresh canvas for every sketch, a new box of brushes for each new day.

He starts again with the petrol-grey. And perhaps he would never have needed to paint if his life had remained devoid of other colours. If things had remained so white, maybe he would have stayed in the village and lived a simple life like his father and his uncles; wearing white peasant frocks on fiestas, working hard, dying young. Maybe. Or, if there had never been Fascism, maybe he’d have found something else to paint about; something more comfortable than his constant protests. Who knows if he wouldn’t have painted flowers, or portraits, or landscapes? Or maybe it wouldn’t have been so different. Perhaps trouble would still have flowed from his paintbrush—maybe he’d have been the impassioned subvertor of something else. Who knows if the colours would have been gentler; easier? Who knows whether they could have been so much more simple?

When he has prepared another three canvasses for tomorrow, he starts with those he set up yesterday. His back is starting to ache already, but this is not something he cares too much about. There was always pain. And it might be that today he’ll find the white he wants, and that tomorrow’s canvasses go unworked. He remains optimistic, but prepares them all the same.

From the shelf below the brushes he retrieves his glasses. With these pinned on his nose he inspects the oil from the day before. It is not dry, of course, it will take months to dry completely, but it’s set enough that he can layer the white on top without the colour bleeding in. He is like a miser inspecting an expense. The grey must know its place. It is texture, it is that which is not white, nor the colour that followed. It is the dowdy housekeeper, not the glamorous young duchess. And when he is done with the inspection, he turns to another box.

This has been sent from Austria. He does not recall the ingredient that justifies the claims they make for it, nor the level of expense it has taken him to. But the tube squeezes onto fresh clean board with promising clarity. He takes up the brush and holds it once more in front of his nose, acknowledging its last unblemished moments. With a sigh he scoops it through the shimmering slug that is curled on his pallet, holds the gathered force above the canvass, then, with a single, surgical, meaning-laden stroke, draws it across the centre of the rectangle.

He knows with the first stroke it is inadequate. His teeth start chewing at his gums and his eyebrows twitch with the scepticism of a master. He does not deprive the new paint its moment of test, but the failure is already marked up. And when a patch is complete, its thick rails showing the subtlest shadows of rise and fall, his conclusion is made whole. There was nothing so plastic in his youth. His youngest years were undoubtedly white, but not in this way.

His sigh of defeat is deep and fully felt. Its an old chest that heaves such a breath and moving it so profoundly is no trivial matter. He has another two canvasses for today and the others ready for tomorrow, but really this was his last clear hope; this special package from Vienna. Where can he claim that whiteness from now?

He sighs again and pulls the wasted canvass onto his lap. It sits there like a cat that eats only the neighbours’ food. But there is a glint which catches his eye. He pushes his glasses up, and once the surface is more fully in focus, he pulls it close.

It is less than a millimetre across in any direction and if José Luis should hold the canvass at the wrong angle it slips away from the edge of one paint-ridge to the next. And, he sees, it will be gone when the paint is dry; but the tiny speck might be the whiteness he is after.

He makes an inexplicable leap. This is not the white from the paint he holds in his eye—it is the white from the light. And it comes directly from the light-bulb that lights his studio. He almost drops the canvass in his haste.

He uses the towel from the bathroom to unscrew the light-bulb; it is still wet from his face and the moisture rises in tiny wisps of steam, but when it is done, the bulb lies on the towel in his hand like the new-born baby of inspiration.

He has no idea how he might do this, but he places a glass jar beneath the bulb, full of expectation, then he catches hold of the stem with one hand and with the other, grips the glass lightly. Very slowly, with infinite compassion, he turns his hands and tightens his grip. It is how one might wring the life from a swan, but with quite astonishingly different results. The glass does not shatter, but bends and twists to his command and a small, slow trickle of light oozes out. Some soaks into the towel, but a small flow—steady for a second—dribbles over the material and into the jar he placed below it. When he tightens the last wringing motion a small, final, generous spurt splashes into the container.

He licks his lips with anticipation as he wipes his hands on his jeans, then he picks up the jar and stares into it with wonder. Liquid light! And he is chuckling as he replaces the canvass, barely feeling the regret as he sacrifices another brush.

In a few minutes he has painted the panel. A bright, shining rectangle of white, set confidently in the middle of its bed of petrol grey. It is certainly not an ordinary scene. His old and wrinkled skin is lit up as he looks on it; his smile made brighter by the very light he has painted. But no sooner has he had time to marvel at his creation, than he realises the disappointment. His face sags, and the light gives him the mask of a clown.

Certainly this is something no-one has painted before. It would set on end those hairs on the backs of the necks of the young critics who feel the need to be so carefully barbered, he has no doubt of that, but it is not the white of this youth. Still not. His eyes close. He dives inside himself to check for the pain; finds it, mourns the loss of hope, refreshes his determination with stubborn refusal to admit defeat and returns to himself. His eyes open. He sighs and scrapes the liquid light back into the jug. Someday he’ll need it. A little petrol-grey-blue gets scraped in there too, but that might be fitting; there’s never any telling.

When he moves to the far side of the studio, looking out over the city’s skyline, his hands are behind his back with a forgotten brush trailing lines of light like tiny tufts of grass on his tunic. Perhaps this is it. Perhaps this is defeat. It will come one day.

He sits, and continues to stare out over the roof-tops. It is a dull, hazy morning, making the distant Eiffel Tower a vague streak in a bland, grey wash. He was fifteen when he stood at the end of the Pont d’Léna and watched the German officers walk around it. Already at that age he had enough experience to know a Fascist instantly. It was in the laugh. Even among the Germans there were those who laughed nervously, apologetically; those whose laugh acknowledged the death and chaos that made possible their new possession. Not so the Fascists. For them, the deaths of their enemies brought scorn, and the scorn bled out with their laughter. When they laughed, they mocked. Of course they loved the Eiffel Tower. That was the fascist through and through. They could not help but love something so dominant; so brutal and so utterly, irredeemably obvious. That was the other mark of the Fascist; they hated to think.

José Luis finally notices the brush he has been holding in his hands. It has dripped light onto the floor in front of him and there are specks beaming from the suede of his slippers. He smiles, amused by the cartoon quality of his invention. He looks around and finds a glass full of liquid. One sniff tells him it is solvent, so he drops the brush into it. Surprisingly, the liquid light reacts with violence, fizzing and popping and spitting flecks of burning light out of the glass. He pulls the brush out and waits for the mini-fireworks to abate then finds another container in reach, this one full of water. It takes the brush more easily. The light spreads out, glows for a second and then quietly and sadly, dies.

José Luis gave up smoking ten years ago when the insistence of his eldest daughter got too much to ignore and it is at times like these he wishes he hadn’t promised her quite so fervently. The deep inhalation would do him good now. To puff smoke at the Eiffel tower would be some sort of rebellion that might stir his soul. He could have lit up right then, blown out and carried on thinking.

Why was it that Fascists hated art that asked them to think? He’d never understood. It was not a big thing. It wasn’t even as though the request was impolite. You could consider abstract, surrealist, cubist, non-figurative art if you wished. Or not. So why burn it? Why kill someone for painting it? Why did they not find it possible to leave it alone? Why kill Léon? Georges? They’d been gods to him; almost as exalted as his brother.

He draws a deep breath; a deliberately deep breath. It does him no good to dwell on these things; it never has done. They happened a long time ago. His head is turned sideways so his focus falls on the bookshelf at the far end of the studio; his studio; his prodigious, over-sized, chaos of a studio. Maybe there is a book somewhere explaining the thinking of the Fascist. Perhaps they have explained this loathing of art that is not obvious. Still he wonders; is it Fascist to exclaim that your two-year-old daughter could have painted something better?

He sighs again, knowing it would do him no good to know the answers to these questions. He peers at the books. Then he turns, slowly, thoughtfully, and looks back at the light bulb, now slightly deflated and wrung dry of light. He looks back at the books. Another glance at the bulb, and his twinkling eyes start to widen.

He pushes his old frame to its feet, staring at the books and wondering at the possibilities. He shuffles over to them in awe; shocked at his own thoughts and, with trembling hands, places a large plastic bottle on a table then takes the nearest book and tries what worked with the light-bulb. Nothing happens. Not a single letter is squeezed from the pages. He flicks through the leaves. It will need more. He finds the jug of solvent now whitened by light and pours a little onto the page. His old mouth falls open as he sees a few letters shift in sympathy with the flow of liquid.

“Ah oui, c’est ca!”

They are the first words he has uttered in the day. He pours more solvent then picks up a palette knife. With this he can scrape the letters into the jug. The bottle of solvent glugs like a whorish wine as he pours it into a depth in the container. The letters float and mix almost dissolving into a mass. He opens another book, soaking it in solvent then scraping the words out, then another, working his way along the shelf and flinging the soaked exhausted books aside when he is done. Within minutes he has a new reservoir. Another new paint; this time, of words.

He holds it up and studies the liquid. It is unseeable. He laughs out-loud with his deep, rich, ex-smoker’s laugh. Of course, you cannot see what is possible but is not yet made real; of course not. So he turns and strides to his canvas. He walks as a young man might; as a man who has forgotten himself.

“¡Ahora!” he declares, “¡Vamos a ver!”

Now we will see.

He draws out a new brush. This time he holds it up with due ceremony. He stares at the perfect sable bouffant and almost kisses it with delight. Then he plunges it into the cup of words and turns his attention to the canvass.

Again it is evident with the first careful stroke across the surface. But now he stops; and stares.

His eyes run across it back and forth. It is just the single stroke of the brush, ridged where he first pushed against the canvass, bare, thin and separated at the far end where the brush ran short of paint, but still it is astounding. It is like arriving home, to see such a thing. Like walking past the house where his uncle lived, up the steps and into his mother’s kitchen to the smell of roasting peppers.

His bottom lis starts to quiver. He rolls his jaw like a masticating cow in an attempt to keep control, he even turns away; but it has no effect. His vision blurs as tears bloom to his eyes and he has to blink them clear; to sigh, to shake his shoulders free from of the emotion.

This is it. This is the whiteness of his youth.

It takes a while before he can continue. To control himself he does not look again at the whole effect. He lets the tears stream down the wadis of his cheeks and focuses on the tiniest detail; the patches where the weave of canvas still shows through the backdrop of grey-blue oil; the ridges and furrows of the paint; the lines and the size and the shape of the rectangle he is painting.

Finally, when there is nothing more to do to make it complete, he steps back and lets himself see the whole effect. It is overwhelming. He is nodding, desperately sucking in his lips; squinting and squirming at the intensity of emotion. That is it. He can see it so clearly; it is so precisely right.

He sits back on the stool, draws his eyes from the vision he has created, lowers his face into the palms of his hands; and he weeps. He has painted the white of the youth that he lost. And seeing it again is almost too much. He weeps uncontrollably, dripping great droplets of tears onto the dust-covered floor of his studio.

His back shakes for five, maybe ten minutes; until he is done. And then he stops. His sighs are deep and plentiful. He stares up at what he has done, his chin in his own hands, and wonders how anyone can possibly understand it.

It is not yet complete, even though the main part is done. It is still missing the other colour; the colour that came after the white. The colour they brought with them. Eventually, wearily, he pulls himself up from the stool and moves to the table top where the other oils are. It seems a trivial decision to sort through the tubes of paint and select the right hue. But he forces himself to be careful; to make the right decision.

He picks up three tubes and forces out a confession from each one. The resultant worms lie on a palette for him to consider. It could be either of two, but one he knows which will dry darker, so he selects the other. With another large excretion of this paint spread over his palette he creates the second panel for the second colour. It is below the white of his youth and slightly to the left.

When it is done he steps back to review the whole work. Very soon he is standing, the brush still in his hand, nodding his head. He has done it; better than ever he thought he might be able to. He has painted both the colours. He sighs and mutters to himself.

“Et voila. C’est ca.”

Then he sits back on the stool, stares at it.

There it is. It looks like this:

White: as driven snow in the arctic. White like ice, like polar bear fur, like an arctic dawn from the furthest to your left, right around you, to the furthest to your right. White like the tallest billowing clouds that bloom over coastal mountains too enormous to believe in; crystal sharp edges; white bulges, white movement; impossible to know. White as the foaming waves that break on shores of undiscovered islands. White like light too dazzling to see. White like the sheets my mother used to cast into space to fill like the sails of tall-ships bound for distant salty-laden seas. White like teeth. White so white its edges are powder blue. White like horizons; and dawns; and distant dreams of tent walls flapping in winsome winds. White like frailty. White like surrender. White like hope.