By Colette Coen
“Is that what you meant to do?” Rhonda asked.
“Of course,” Skye replied, knowing that confidence was all part of the act.
Skye smiled the way she had practiced in front of the mirror.
“Well, it hasn’t worked,” Rhonda said, “not at all. You can’t just throw paint at a canvas and think you’re Mark Rothko.”
“That wasn’t my intention,” Skye said. She knew that the thought behind the piece could be as important as the execution for some of her lecturers. A good title could pull the wool over more than one set of eyes. The look on Rhonda’s face confirmed that she would not be easily swayed. “My intention,” Skye began, “my intention was…”
It had been Skye’s intention to make the best work she had ever created. She had gasped when she heard that Rhonda was coming as a visiting professor this term, and for weeks she had carefully planned, sketched, and played with colours. She had taken photos to inspire her; images that she could examine and distil. She had trawled through the internet and been through her private library of art books. Finally, she had the image clear in her head: every brush stroke, every gradation of colour.
She followed Rhonda’s classes closely; hearing words spoken that she had only read gave them a new intensity. She took a deep breath, and with weeks before the end of term, she began washing her canvas with sepia, drawing fine, sure lines with chestnut brown. Once the figures were formed she started bringing life with vibrant oils, hinting of mortality with muted hues, adding dabs of white showing light reflecting off skin, daubs of deep purple suggesting the regal. She worked slowly at first, feeling her way towards the image in her head. Then her pace quickened, before slacking again as the painting neared completion. Sometimes she wouldn’t look at it for hours, or would just leave her bedroom door open a little so that she could catch glimpses of it when she passed.
Another touch here, a little correction there. She had worked hard. Was proud of it. This was what it felt like to be an artist, to breathe out and realise there is no tension left to be released. Her mum cried when she showed it to her, told her she had never doubted her, squeezed her shoulders, kissed her hair.
“When do you hand it in?” her mum asked.
Over the weekend anyone and everyone, including the postman, were brought into the house to see how talented Skye was.
“My uncle used to sketch,” Skye’s granny said, making a quiet claim for Skye’s gift.
“Should be in the Kelvingrove,” their neighbour said, “better than that Dali any day.” Skye smiled at the pride they all took in her work, especially her mum who had worked so hard to give her the time and space she needed. She allowed herself to enjoy the compliments. From the minute her portfolio was accepted, she had gone from being the best at school to one of the many.
Now, she had done something truly worthy of praise. It might have taken years, but this was her finest moment.
“Happy?” her mum asked on Tuesday morning.
“Happy,” Skye said. But the moment the word was out of her mouth she felt the black clouds coming. They didn’t gather slowly, the way they sometimes did, turning from cerulean to cobalt blue, to indanthrene and on to purple, then finally a gunmetal grey. No, this came like a sudden storm, raging over the waters, thunderous and full of sparkling energy.
She unzipped her black portfolio case and ran to her bedroom. All she could see on the canvas were the mistakes. The nose had too much shadow in one area, making it look crooked; the green of the jacket lacked the lustre it needed; the hand on the edge of the canvas that she had agonised over, looked like schoolgirl conceit.
It mocked her on her easel. They said it was good, but what did they know—the postman, and her aunties, and her neighbours? They said she would go far—but she never truly believed them.
She picked up a tube of cadmium red, the one she had asked for so specifically at Christmas. Slowly unscrewed the top, squeezed a coil of oil onto her palette, lifted a fine brush. But a carefully positioned mark wasn’t enough. Neither was the broader stroke with the thicker brush. The more she looked, the more obvious her mistakes became, screaming out that she was a fool and a failure.
Skye took the canvas from her easel and dropped it onto the floor. One tube of paint after another squirting out colourful worms of umber obscuring one head, vermillion another. She got down on her knees and sprawled herself across her creation, swirling the paint round and round with her hands.
“Skye, stop,” her mum whispered from the doorway, “stop my darling.” But Skye would not, could not stop, until her mum retreated to the landing, ready for when she was needed.
In the cold studio, surrounded by classmates only interested in their own glory, Skye stood and looked at her painting. She could still see the ghosts she had obliterated, still feel the energy it took to destroy them, still feel the pounding in her heart.
“My intention was…” Skye said. “My intention was…” but she could not find the words to describe the demon who had possessed her, or the angel who held her hand steady. Her classmates shuffled as they waited for an answer.
But Rhonda had moved on. “Is that what you meant to do?” she asked.