Hereby begins a novel I began in 1993 and completed in 2007. I will put up 1 or 2 chapters each week and it can be followed on Categories. I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear from you about it.
Underpainting is the technique of painting multiple thin coats of paint before painting the final layer
Peter switched on the strip lights which slowly took hold of the darkness, the last one flickering into full throttle by the time he and Marianne were half way down the long studio. Marianne could smell the expensive paints. When Peter and Marianne argued, which wasn’t often, she told him he was more interested in the paints than in what he painted. Not true, but it caught a nerve. Peter bought paint from Osborne’s in Covent Garden, Marianne went to B&Q.
The studio was part of a former railway warehouse in Longhill, divided into artists’ studios, Peter had one of the largest spaces, he had enough money nowadays. At one end was a large window overlooking the orange glow of the railway yards, rain was streaming down the glass breaking up the dirt into maps of river deltas.
The left hand wall was mainly taken up with a long workbench which Peter had found in the basement. Above it were shelves neatly set out with tins of oil paint, bottles of turpentine and linseed oil, racks of spatulas and brushes, pots full of pencils, chalks and pastels. Some said it looked like a shop. There was an old radio covered in multi coloured finger marks and stuck forever on Radio 4, and a kettle which had once been white plastic but was now a burnt brown colour. Near the door there was a thick roll of expensive canvas and a stack of wood for stretchers. It was orderly, Peter paid students from the college to make sure of that.
Marianne’s much smaller studio was a tip, but her own tip and she hadn’t visited Peter’s studio for ages, and even though they’d been together for more than twenty years. She’d forgotten how methodical he was, very different than at home.
At one end of the room were two racks which Marianne and Peter had constructed together about twelve years previously, when he first moved in. One to store completed paintings, the other for ongoing work. These were supposedly to share but were full of Peter’s work.
On the right hand wall were hung large pieces of hand made paper, covered in preparatory drawings. Marianne stopped to look at them. The hard green strip lights made the thick charcoal shine. She always liked these, ‘sharp images…’, but they never appeared outside the studio, and usually Peter would destroy them when a painting was finished. They were accurate in the extreme often focusing on a tiny section of the completed picture, a stone, a clump of grass, a broken bottle.
“Help me out with this Mari will you?”
Peter was standing beside a large canvas. Her hands caught the wet oil paint at the edge.
“Careful!” he snapped.
“You should use acrylics like George” she retorted. They carried the picture to ‘the stage’, as Peter called it, in front of the window. A couple of years ago he’d bought some theatre lights from a school and set them up so he could always work in the same light, it cost him a fortune replacing bulbs, but he liked to see his work in a constant rather than natural light. They set the canvas on two heavy Victorian easels and made sure it was secure. Peter closed the large black out blinds to get rid of the orange glow. The painting looked dark and dull. He lit up the stage and the colours burst into life.
“It’s finished”, Peter said, with some pride. He was never satisfied with his work and found it hard to finish, but there always came a time when no more could be achieved, that was the completion. He picked up the kettle and went out to the communal kitchen to get water.
Marianne studied the canvas. The painting was crisp and confident, lines sharp and assured. To the left there was a vast block of black paint scraped away from under painting of shapes in greens and reds. The centre was taken up with a pool of cold light in tones of blue and white. Was that a lamp post rising above, or an arm, or a knife? She couldn’t tell. A deep red pool of paint hovered underneath. To the right was set of images, broken up, a wall with posters? No. A house open like a dolls house? No. She moved closer, looked carefully. ‘Claustrophobic’ she thought.
Peter’s paintings evoked the spirit of a place, they picked up the essence rather than topographical details in blocks of colour, unrelated lines, disharmonious shapes. But they were that place, when you knew where it was it never again felt as real as in his paintings.
Peter returned with the kettle and a couple of chipped mugs.
“Herb or Typhoo?”
“Peter?”, she only used his full name when annoyed or needing to be matter of fact. He looked up as he switched the kettle on. “Peter where is he? I thought he wanted some sort of portrait, isn’t that what he’s paid you for?”.
“Oh… he didn’t really mean it, he knows I’m no portrait painter, you should know that”
“Peter… look, you stood there making out as if you knew it all… smarming about…”
“That was the drink… he’ll know that, he’s seen my work before” Peter cut in.
“No Peter he won’t… you stood there telling him about how Renaissance princes would go out and burn down a city, steal cattle, screw the peasants, then pay Fra Angelico or whoever to put them on the right hand of God. I heard you, he loved it”.
“What does he know anyway… he’ll love it, it’s where he grew up, where he started, he’ll know this place as soon as he sees it… it’ll go up in a fancy office and his new friends will be green with envy, they’ll all want one”, he ended quite emphatically.
“Peter, he wanted to be seen in it” Marianne said very definitely.
“Perhaps he is”
She turned and looked at the drawings on the wall. There were details of mud pools, some grass, a gate, a brick, a boot, no person.
“You never intended to put him in did you?”
Peter looked like a naughty boy in front of a headmistress.
“And you know where he gets his money, he won’t like it and he’s nasty, it’s all a front… you know that… and he’s paid you… and you know you’ve screwed him”.
They stood in silence staring intently in the midnight silence at the picture, the central pool of light grew brighter, the colours around deepened, the red pool of paint like dark red blood, the studio seemed miles away.
They jumped as the kettle made a noise like a door buzzer.