I was practicing the cello when I got the call. My sound was thin after a month off, until Oscar –used to me sitting at the computer - jumped up for his afternoon cuddle. Banned from my lap, he had found a place on the chair behind me just in the small of my back, and I was softening, breathing into the fur behind me and my sound was becoming fat.
“Would you sit? I can’t think of what to paint.”
Julian was standing in the doorway. He had climbed the ladder to the studio late in the day after his usual procrastination dabbling on the computer. (There was a printer he wanted to buy and it seemed imperative that he look into it nowbabynow, even though I would be filing for divorce if he bought it before we tiled the goddam kitchen floor.) He had torn himself away from his mac at two, with his new copper pan in one hand and a big bulb of garlic in the other. He had seen a beautiful pink reflection and had seemed inspired. An hour later he was s in my practice room.
I managed to make a trail through the rotting quinces, screwed up kitchen paper, shrivelled clementines and precariously perched pottery towards the sitter’s chair by the big window now stained with dried raindrops. Julian and his easel inhabited the only other available space in front of me. He scraped an area of his palette clear of paint with the blade of a stanley knife, and we were off.
Unlike the last time I sat when I was reading, this time I was looking directly at Julian, or at his right eye to be precise. I listened to the brushed morse code of his strokes, and I looked. As I did so, I saw his eye become a fish darting across the bowl of his glasses. The creases on his skin became the tail and fins, and the line from his jaw all the way up to his eye, the fish’s trail. Above, his hair became curls of seaweed whilst below, the shipwreck of his nose collapsed onto his cheek-bone. I wondered if I would dare look at anyone else this frankly.
“People think it’s all about colour, but actually the colour doesn’t matter at all. I’m just using any old colour” said Julian, moving a bit of blue across to the red, adding some white and scooping it up on the brush.
About an hour in to the sitting our cat Manon ventured up the ladder in her stilettos and jumped on to my lap where she wriggled. I was terrified she would jump on to the palette. Julian was measuring with his paintbrush, and placing the cube of his forefinger and thumb across the fishbowl of his glasses. Behind all the activity, the fish was finally still.
“You’re a good sitter” Julian pulled a brush from the collection of six in his left hand like an arrow from its quiver. “It’s not just that I know you, but that I do not have to do the small talk. We are comfortable being silent together.”
“That’s nice.” I replied, doing my ventriloquist’s best not to disturb his subject. “Of course with you I’m not embarrassed, as maybe some might be, to look you in the eye for two hours.”
The brush strokes had become silent now.
“Well, the nice thing is you’re not vain. I mean, you’re vain in that you like being painted, but I know you don’t need me to make you look pretty. I can paint what I want. Mmm that’s a lovely bit of orange just there on your chin. Yes, that’s it.”
It was getting very cold. We were in seventy five square feet of unheated barn and I, unlike, the artist, did not have Damart special undergarments. I tucked my fingers under Manon’s belly. She made a good muffler.
“There’s a lovely triangle just there. This bit and the shadow make a wonderful pattern….the way the shadow of your hair draws your cheekbone” said Julian “Lucien Freud, you see, painted really crooked faces, but he followed the patterns and they make sense.”
Here I was, looking at my husband’s right eye and thinking it was a Saint Peter fish, while he checked out the orange on my chin. Our cat was on my lap and the Provençal light was fading in our very unfinished farmhouse. Between the artist and his subject, between my husband and myself, was this open channel: Observing, looking, seeing. Trusting.
Julian’s brushes clacked for the last time. It was almost dark. He unclipped the painting to show me.
“My eyes are too small.” I said.
“I take it back. You’re not a good sitter at all. You’re the same as the rest of them!”