The framed painting stood by the wall. She could have had it hung up, but working with the painting in front of her was easier. And anyways, the frame was too heavy; she doubted if a nail could’ve held it properly on the white, dull wall of her studio.
The studio, like every artist’s abode, was a mess of colors. Splashes of random shades dotted the white-tiled floor, rolled-up sheets were piled in one corner. Practically all of the storage space was taken up by brushes and crayons and markers and pencils and oil paints and used and unused palettes. After cleaning it for the first two times, she had realized it was just a waste of time; the studio was always going to end up like this. She stopped bothering.
Now she sat on the floor, crouched over a canvas she had laid down, with the painting in front of her, right beside the large window that looked out onto the street outside. It was busy enough to inspire her but not crowded enough to disturb her: the perfect spot to work on the masterpiece.
The artist behind this work of art, a well-known, award-winning, middle-aged man on the threshold of old age, had decided to call it Monochrome. The painting had nothing but strokes of black and white. He didn’t speak of the relevance of the title, and no one bothered to ask because they all had their own interpretations and liked their versions better. Plus, what was the purpose of art if not to let the audience fill in the gaps? “What I’ve made is up to you,” he’d said once in an interview with the National. She found herself agreeing with him; so similar were they in mind and interest. She hadn’t seen any of his work, so she looked it up online. All of paintings used only two colors. One used only red and blue; another had two very different shades of green—one was emerald; the other was a shade she could not quite recognize, and it puzzled her for days. She looked up all the color schemes and palettes she’d gathered and searched through them for hours, but she couldn’t name it. The use of shades fascinated her. How could one be so clever and present such serene thoughts using only two shades of the same color?
It had been a very bright day when she came across a picture of Monochrome in the newspaper. The Community Arts Centre was holding an exhibition of his latest works, featuring some of his “most prized and favorite paintings.”
She fell in love when she saw it up close, a foot away from her eyes. Black lines upon white. White lines upon black. The lines could be anything. They could mean anything. She heard them saying a hundred different things to her.
Now alone with it in her studio, it seemed to be laughing at her. She had spent the last week trying to copy down the painting. It occupied her every cell. She went to bed later than usual, and dreamed of the painting. The lines turned into circles she’d sketched in her notebooks. They turned into curves and bumps, like the figure she saw of herself naked in front of the mirror as she studied her own anatomy. The lines waved like water in the ocean, only black and white and…different. It sometimes took weird shapes, forming things that weren’t comprehensible to her. Or they were merely scribbles that held no meaning in the first place. She once dreamed the lines turning into rigid bars behind which stood her shadow that couldn’t cross the threshold between itself and her body—it couldn’t fit in through them. They hurt her and burned her shadow. The shadow melted, but it did not reach her. As if there was a wall in front of it, rather than the bars.
The more she dreamed about the painting, the more desperate she became to copy it stroke for stroke and understand how the artist had done it, and the more she desired to understand this artist’s art, the more the dreams about the painting consumed her. Had her mother seen her in this state, half clothed, hair unwashed for a week and deep black holes dug under her eyes, she would’ve called her a monster.
She took the pencil and looked at the painting for a focused twenty seconds, then scratched the curve on her canvas. This was the third one. The first two had been scribbled all over and, from a distance, the paintings looked same. At least to someone who did not understand art. But she understood it, and she knew her versions didn’t have that effect on her. There was something missing. So she pulled out another empty canvas and sat down to work, taking her time.
It was growing darker; winter was coming closer, and daylight left her studio earlier than before. Still, she worked as evening dimmed the room and completed copying half the picture. Having done it twice already, she was sure she’d perfected this part of the painting to the best of her abilities. Now she moved onto the other half.
When the room grew even darker, she squinted and continued, moving the pencil slowly, making each curve and stroke perfect. But it didn’t come out that way. She looked at Monochrome, stared at it hard in the dark. Her eyes narrowed and the black and white lines merged, turning to grey. They looked like water on a cloudy day. Grey and cold. She could feel the wetness too. The painting blurred. The sharp tip of the pencil dug into the firm, strong canvas and pierced through it. A drop of salted water fell next to the hole.
Next morning, there was thick red liquid next to canvas, and beside it was the body of a monster who had cleanly cut into its nerves with her scraper.
Ratika Deshpande is a high school student from India. She claims to be a true Hufflepuff, and her favorite activities include reading, listening to podcasts, sleeping with her cat, and worrying about global warming.