CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
The Painter’s Gift
Catie skips and dances her way around the trees, occasionally stopping to crouch and peer intently at the ground, just as quickly laughing and running off in an apparently random direction. Matthew follows her, trying to keep track of their path so they can find their way back. He’s not having much success.
“Where are we going?” Matthew asks.
“Fishing!” Catie shouts, laughing merrily as she ships away. She gives no further information.
“Your mom told me to make sure you didn’t get lost,“ Matthew says, hurrying to catch up.
“Not lost.” Catie skips to the right, dashes behind a tree, laughs again, then peers around the trunk back at him. “You’re lost.”
Matthew looks around and sighs. “Maybe…”
Catie grins mischievously. She dashes off, threading between the trees without a care in the world. Matthew shakes his head then follows, calling for her to wait up.
Catie doesn’t stop. She hops and dodges and slips away from him, always managing to stay in view long enough for him to follow, then disappearing again. Matthew is caught between frustration and rueful amusement as he plods on, wondering why he agreed to do this in the first place.
If I lose track of her Ellie is going to kill me.
A moment later he rounds a tree and jerks back as the spindly ends of branches rake at his face. The memory of sharp branches momentarily overpowers him; he stumbles, gripping the nearest trunk for support, and the dim light of the forest fades to the remembered darkness of another, more malevolent grove of trees. Imagined branches grip, poke, and tear at him. He’s lost in the sensation of feeling lost.
A small hand grasps at his own. The feeling passes, the dim light returns, and looking down he sees Catie staring up at him, eyes wide.
“Do you want to go back?” Catie tugs on his hand once, as if to lead him away.
Matthew shakes his head, taking a deep, shuddering breath. “I’ll be OK.”
“You don’t have to be afraid,” Catie says. “This forest isn’t bad.”
“I’m not afraid of this forest,” Matthew says. “I was remembering another forest. It was like having a bad dream.”
“Like the baby that stops crying.” Catie’s voice is somber, her expression grave. Once again Matthew notices the redness in her eyes, and now sees faint dark circles under them.
“Yeah,” Matthew says. “Like that. Did you dream about the tower last night?”
Catie nods. “Didn’t you?”
Matthew shakes his head. “I only dreamed about it once. And I was really sick when I did.”
Catie sniffs. “You’re lucky. I dream it a lot.”
She shakes her head. “A lot, though.” She trembles, sniffs loudly, and looks away.
Matthew stares at her helplessly. “Well… you’re awake now.”
“And…” he looks around, desperately searching for inspiration, and finds it. “And anyway, you’re in a forest where you don’t have to be afraid. Someone told me that.”
Catie brightens. “I told you that!” All her cares seem to fall away, as if by magic, and she skips off, singing and kicking up dirt as she dances around a tree trunk.
Matthew watches her playing and smiles. She feels completely at ease here, as if she’s surrounded by friends and guardians. It’s a marked contrast, he thinks, from how she feels when she talks about her dreams.
Too bad she can’t sleep out here. I bet she’d never have a nightmare surrounded by these trees.
He frowns thoughtfully as he considers this. Then he gets an idea.
“Catie… I think maybe we should go back to the house.”
Catie looks crestfallen. “You said were OK. And I want to teach you to fish!”
“I know,” Matthew says, “and I’m sorry… but I need to get some things out of my car. I’ve decided I’m going to paint something.”
Catie’s eyes go wide. “What are you going to paint?”
“I can’t tell you,” Matthew says.
Matthew smiles. “It’s a surprise… I’m painting it for you!”
Catie gapes, thunderstruck. Then she races off at high speed. “Follow me!”
She runs all the way back to the house, laughing.
* * *
When he reaches the house, the first thing he does is pop the trunk of his car to take stock of his supplies. He’s been in the habit of traveling with a small “art survival kit” for a while now, but he’s not always good at keeping it fully stocked. He has enough canvas for an 18” painting, and a small stretcher that’ll work well with that size. He also has rabbit skin glue, which will allow him to seal and prime the canvas. That’s a good start.
The easel in the trunk isn’t his favorite, but it was the one that fit in his trunk best. The bottles of citrus thinner and linseed oil are both new. The palette is in decent shape, but the palette knife has a wobbly handle—he should have thrown it away. The bristle flat brushes are in fair condition: one quarter-inch, one inch, one three quarters of an inch, and two half-inch. The four sable flat brushes are a mixed bag… the half-inch is in poor shape, but the quarter-inch is usable, and the two small rounds are almost new.
He doesn’t have a lot of paint, but he thinks there’s enough: the large tube of Titanium White is half empty, but the smaller tubes of various colors—Lamp Black, Raw Umber, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red, Quinacridone Rose, Dioxazine Violet, French Ultramarine Blue, Viridian Green, and Cadmium Green—are mostly unused. He wishes he had more colors, but decides he can make do.
He nods, satisfied. It wasn’t the most robust set of tools to work with, but it would be enough. As he closes the trunk, the front door swings open and Buck steps out on to the stoop.
“Heya, Buck,” Matthew says cheerfully, then stops when he sees the expression on Buck’s face. The normally cheerful man is frowning slightly… not upset, exactly, but definitely confused, and possibly a little concerned.
“Catie says you want to paint her a picture?”
“…yes?” Matthew says. “Is that a problem?”
Buck’s frown deepens. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “It’s never come up before. I mean, it just seems kind of… intimate.”
“What? No, I’m not trying to paint a picture of her—not a portrait—I’m painting a picture for her. A surprise. A present. It sounds a lot more awkward now that I’m saying it out loud, look, Buck, uh, I probably should have talked to you and Ellie about it first. Sorry about that, it was just sort of spur of the moment. I haven’t actually painted anything in a while and I thought a quick project would be good for keeping my skills up. I could start today, have it finished by tomorrow, and it’d be dry enough to hang by Wednesday.”
The concern has eased out of Buck’s face, which is good. He’s listening thoughtfully.
“And Catie’s interested in art, and she’s talented. So I thought it’d be…”
He fumbles for words.
“Um. Nice. I thought it would be a nice thing to do.”
Buck nods slowly. “Where would you do it? Just so you know, I don’t think Ellie would care for you turning the guest room into a studio.”
“Yeah, I figured. I was hoping I could set up in a corner of your shop. Just a corner. I don’t need privacy to work, but I would like a little extra light.”
“Don’t need privacy, huh?” Buck is starting to sound interested. “So we could watch you work?”
“Sure, but I guarantee it will be painfully boring.” Matthew grins. “A lot of me frowning, and dabbing at the canvas. I would like Catie kept away from it until it’s finished. I want her to be surprised.”
Buck’s brow furrows in thought. He looks back at the house, then at Matthew, and finally he shrugs. “What the hell. Catie’s already excited about it, and I guess I can share my shop for a few days. I guess I just wish you’d talked to me about it first.”
“Sorry,” Matthew says. “I don’t really have a lot of experience around children. Or around people who have children. I’m not even an uncle.”
“That’s too bad,” Buck says. “I think you’d be a pretty fun one. Let’s get you set up in the shop.”
Buck’s shop was originally a standalone garage. It was large enough to hold Buck’s truck with room to spare; instead, he’s refitted the space with shop tables, cabinets, lockers, shelves, and is currently stocked full of power tools and boat equipment. It’s well-kept and orderly, which makes it a relatively simple matter to mark out the space Matthew needs in the back. Buck helps Matthew set up a floodlight on a stand that will shine down over Matthew’s right shoulder, falling directly on his easel.
He sets about prepping the canvas, using a staple gun to hold it in place as he stretches it taut across the stretcher. He convinces Ellie to let him use the kitchen to cook the rabbit skin glue into a smooth, thick liquid, then borrows one of Buck’s house paint brushes to apply it—still hot—to the canvas.
“That’s it for tonight,” Matthew says. “Now it has to dry.”
“Then you start painting?” Buck asks.
Matthew nods. “Then I start painting.”
The next morning, while the Gardeners are at church, he starts painting.
He’s decided to paint “wet on wet,” adding layers of new paint before the original layers dry. It isn’t the way he prefers to work—he doesn’t have anything against it aesthetically, but he’s usually very methodical with oil, and likes to finish all his work on layer before moving on to the next. He finds it gives him more control over color: when applying wet paint over more wet paint, some of that control is lost as the paints mingle together while they dry.
Matthew turns on the floodlight he and Buck rigged up the day before and frowns. It’s an incandescent bulb, which means he’s sacrificing even more control over color. Incandescent light makes blue hues look washed out on canvas, and he’d have to fight the urge to compensate or the finished painting will look too blue in natural light.
He starts by marking out parts of the canvas with placeholders. He mixes black paint and citrus thinner, using the solution to draw directly on the canvas. Nothing elaborate, just basic shapes of the important pieces, to help him keep the perspective intact. When all the major elements are represented in rough form, he grabs the palette knife, cursing its wobbly grip, and begins to match his colors.
Mix rose and violet. Add white. Add pale green. Tree bark.
Mix rose and pale green. Add white. Leaves.
When he has the colors he needs, he begins to paint in earnest. The rest of the world drops away as he becomes consumed with the minutiae of the work: the painstaking decisions that need to be made over colors, over strokes, over brushes. Flats for most of the work, rounds for details; occasionally he wishes he’d thought to bring a Filbert or two for softer edges. Time stretches on, and his world focuses on adding colors to canvas, mixing when necessary, keeping them separate when not. He’s dimly aware his arms and legs ache—a hazard of standing in place for prolonged periods of time—but he pushes it aside and focuses on his work. Slowly he sees the scene on the canvas grow ever closer to the image in his head.
By the time he finally puts his brush down, it’s well into the night. A plate food—untouched and cold—sits on one of Buck’s work tables. he doesn’t remember anyone coming in.
Matthew stretches, then winces. He’s been standing all day; his arms and legs are sore, his back hurts, he’s drenched in sweat, and he’s ravenous. He forces himself to clean up, using the defective palette knife to collect the blends of color that are still usable, then scraping the detritus off the palette onto a paper towel he then throws away. He cleans his brushes carefully, using thinner to get the excess paints off the bristles and washing them until no trace remains. Finally, when the brushes are clean and stowed away, he takes one last look at the painting.
A girl stands in the middle of a forest. She’s young, arms outstretched, face turned upwards, laughing at the sky. Her brown pigtails fly out behind her as if she were spinning, and a lone beam of light pierces through the tree canopy, illuminating her like a halo.
The trees—River Birch, Willow Oak, White Ash—encircle her, bend toward her, almost bowing before her, and their branches stretch out like arms. Unlike the sinister, grasping trees Matthew battled his way through on the way to the Manor, these trees are almost welcoming, their outstretched branches a prelude to an embrace. The leaves at the tops of the trees swirl into patterns, and the patterns suggest bearded men looking fondly down at the spinning girl. It wasn’t his most detailed work, but there’s no question who the girl is, or where she is, or how she feels.
I guess it’s a portrait after all.
He turns off the floodlight, grabs the plate of food, and heads into the house.
When I was first researching how Matthew would approach painting (because I am not an oil painter and it’s all magic to me) I spent a lot of time hunting down beginner’s books and running into a lot of brick walls. What finally worked for me was an amazing website called Bill Martin’s Guide to Oil Painting. (Here’s the Wayback Machine link in case the original ever goes away). Bill Martin died in 2008 but someone kept up his site for him, and it was an invaluable resource, especially for this chapter.