I’ve finally completed the painting above “Paris in Springtime”, which I have been working on for at least a couple of years now, off and on.
Engaging myself in the studio this summer helps me remember fondly my times spent in the city of many greys.
Right now I’m thinking back to Paris, where I was in May of 2017…
Because I would soon be teaching a painting workshop in Tuscany, and I hadn’t painted very much at all since the car crash, I wanted to get back into the groove by painting from life. I had brought with me a great plein air setup which involves a Strada paintbox recommended by fellow Vancouver painter Marie Josenhans. You can attach it to a standard camera tripod.
I laid out some oil colours in the paintbox, and with excitement set out early one morning to the beautiful Père Lachaise Cemetary. As I was unfolding my tripod, an official came by and insisted I take it down. It was the “regles” or rules: no tripods in the cemetary. I pondered what might be the reason for this–perhaps because I might kill some ghosts? Ha ha ha!
At any rate, I was not going to not paint this fantastic place, so I put the tripod away, and placed my paint box on a tombstone, working quickly before the light changed too much. Similar to when I draw, I felt like my paint brush was actually touching what I was looking at––the surfaces of the stones, the textures of the leaves and grasses as they shimmered in the early morning breeze.
Which brings to mind a quote from a book I love, All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This stunningly beautiful story is about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
In the early chapters of the story, little Marie-Laure accompanies her father to his place of work, the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She loves to explore the fascinating collections of nature specimens there.
“To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.”
As the German troops force her and her father to flee the city into the countryside, she experiences many difficult realizations about the evils that humankind can inflict on others:
“This, she realizes, is the basis of all fear. That a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark.”
Werner, an innocent young German boy with a natural talent for fixing electronics, has a dream to be a scientist, falls guilelessly into serving Hitler’s military as a wireless radio operator.
The painterly prose generates great empathy for both protagonists by helping us understand how two people can be caught in the middle of a conflict that neither have asked for. I think I can honestly say it’s one of the top ten novels I’ve read in my life.
Another painting project I really wanted to do was a portrait study in oil of Stella Libert, a talented cinematographer I had met through my Canadian-Parisian friend Dana Wyse. Stella agreed to sit for me in her lovely petite apartment not too far from the Père Lachaise.
I’m really glad I took a photo of the study, because when we reconvened a few days later for another sitting, I couldn’t make it better, and in fact it actually lost something in the process. So I eventually painted over it.
Sometimes a study is just meant to be what it is: a recording of the process of looking. It doesn’t have to be “finished”. So you painters out there, be okay not to censor yourself! Your initial impulse may contain some of the best of what is unique to you. Keep those studies hanging around, they may remind you of what you are capable of.
By the way, below you can see a beautiful short film made by Stella called “Paris Je T’Aime”, which artfully follows two parkour artists over the rooftops of Paris as they break the “regles” through exerting their freedom to defy gravity.
And here is a bonus little segment that shows Stella at work directing and filming it. Très cool:
Until next time, à bientôt.