She dips the brush into the copper pot of balsam. She is still at thirty-one experimenting with mediums, with glazes, with all her manifold materials. She has learned how untrustworthy the chemicals she needs for her art are. The primers, the pigments, the poisons, the oils. They betray her constantly, like unfaithful lovers.
I paint from nature; I paint what I see.
She adds medium to the colour she has mixed on her palette. Her palette with its pageantry of firebrand earth colours. She squints at the furrows and folds in the boy’s shirt. At its rhythm of lines. Its choreography of lights and darks. Its shadow shapes and submerged order of half tones. Adds another touch of cadmium red to the colour she has made on her palette. The colour glistens pink like the flesh of a newly spliced watermelon. She holds out her sable brush as she strides forward. Her narrowed blue eyes move back and forth between the image on the canvas and the face of the boy by its side. There is a rhythm in the act, as if a pendulum swings back and forth in her mind. She lays down strokes on the air as she walks, quick corkscrewing flourishes of the brush, rehearsing her intention, marshalling her forces, whipping up her blood. She stops at her easel. Stands forward on her toes. Makes a new mark on the canvas. In her idle left hand she holds a dozen brushes, splayed out like a fan.
Today is a good day. Today she feels she is the master of her craft. Today she is free of the grinding tyranny of doubt. The voice that mocks her ambition. The voice that bites and slanders and causes her more heartache than any other voice. Today she is focused, she is exultant. Her every brushstroke like a wake of radiance. Today she can move the paint around the canvas at will. If only painting were like this every day. Without the sudden extinguishing of light, the collapsing of belief, the cursing and flailing, the knots and clenched fists in a world gone suddenly dark.
The boy, Leo, blinks when she studies him. She senses he has to steel himself against the audacity of her exacting eye. He sits with the sleeves of his jersey pulled down over his hands.
I paint from nature; I paint what I see.
There is a physical intimacy when she is up at her canvas, when they are side by side. His body heat, his heartbeat, some essence of his being is part of her mood as she lays down paint. She breathes him in, breathes him out, onto the canvas. Sometimes she feels an impulse to touch his face, to trace the contours of his skull with her hand.
She lays down a brushstroke, smudges it delicately with her finger. There is paint beneath her nails, engrained in the lines on her hands. Her smock is a grubby rainbow of fused colours. She wipes her brushes on the blue fabric. Everything in the studio is peppered with pigment, smeared with oil paint, sticky with resins. The coins and banknotes in her purse often have alizarin crimson or raw umber fingerprints on them. Her ration coupons are crisp with sun-thickened oil stains or blackened with charcoal dust.
She walks backwards away from the canvas. Tilting her head this way and that. Squinting at her picture. She walks forwards and backwards along this same trail every day for hours on end. The boards beneath her feet shaking, making things rattle in the studio. As happens when the planes fly low overhead. As happens when the armoured vehicles pass by on the riverside street below.
While she follows the stroke of the brush over the canvas her eyes narrow to thin slits, her brows wrinkle up, her tongue darts out frequently and licks at her upper lip or she pulls faces she would be horrified by if she saw herself in a mirror.
When she is up by her canvas she can sometimes smell rabbit skin glue. A rotting kind of smell that catches at the back of her throat, that makes her feel queasy. A smell of death among earthroots. There is a blackened pot of the fudge-coloured solution that she has recently heated on the stove in the small kitchen.
She looks at her image in a small mirror where it seems distant and separate from her, the umbilical cord cut, the intimate connection severed.
She frowns. She curses aloud, forgetting she is not alone. Scrapes away some of the paint she has laid down with a palette knife. Every decision is measured, is intricate, is fatal.
But this is pretence on her part, another trick one part of herself plays on another part. A brushstroke is never fatal, though it is a vital element of the painting process to pretend this is not the case. To pretend there is no room for error. She plays countless tricks on the artist in her. Holds back knowledge from her as though the artist in her is a child and she the mother, filtering through intelligence only when she is sure it won’t do any harm. A brushstroke can be erased as though it never existed. She erases many of the strokes she puts down.
The air raid siren begins shrieking and before long she hears the now familiar low drone of planes in the sky. The grumbling noise gains in intensity. It becomes a sensation in the body, an irritation on the skin, like a feeding insect. The frames rattle, dust is displaced. Circles shiver on the surface of the balsam in the pot on her palette. She goes to the window. Lifts the black drape that keeps out the reflected glare of daylight. Never have the planes been this low in the sky before.