Fish: A Short Story in Two Parts — Part One

I am taking a break from painting this week as I help my wife with an apparel store window design gig she’s working on, but I want to try something on the blog: a serialized short story. Starting with this post and finishing with the next, I will show a story I wrote a few years ago as part of a series of fabulist tales I didn’t finish, but am thinking of taking up again now. I think these tales would all work with watercolors, which might be the perfect medium for fabulism. I would love to see these illustrated by different artists, maybe several editions of each story with a different painter.

This story is called “Fish.” It came to me as an image, captured in the first sentence and unchanged since I wrote it in my notebook while eating lunch at work. The rest of the story followed over a few days and was barely edited. It was such a pleasant writing experience.

Please let me know if you like the idea of getting a story this way, or if it’s too much for a blog. I might like to continue this practice if it works out to help me finish off the series.

Here it is. Thanks for reading. I hope you like it.

Fish: Part One

In the days when white cicada shells still hung on the trees, two boys were fishing in a yellow stream. They had never caught anything, but that hardly mattered. They were where they wanted to be. They cast their lines and waited for the current to take their flies. Then they cast them again. Time passed and the water rippled around the rocks.

“You know, yesterday before you woke up, I caught a fish the size of your head,” said the taller one, who was known as George.

“That’s nothing,” said the other, the one called Ant. “Last night, after you went home, I caught a fish the size of your head, and your head is bigger than mine.”

They both knew they were lying, but it was a forgiving afternoon.

Not far upstream, an abandoned railroad bridge slowly rusted into the landscape. Trains used to pass by regularly, smoking into the trees, but the boys had never seen one. Some said that the tracks were blown up on the other side of the hills. Some even claimed to have seen it happen, but no one knew for sure.

“I dare you to climb the bridge,” said George.

“Well I dare you to climb the bridge with one hand behind your back,” said Ant.

The two boys put their hands to the rusted metal. Despite his willed handicap, George made it to the top just before Ant and stood triumphantly upon the rails.

It was then that the stranger appeared, walking down the tracks, backlit by the sun.

“Are you a soldier?” asked the boys.

The stranger looked down at the wildflowers creeping up through the sleepers. “Is there a war out here?”

The boys liked the stranger and they asked him all manner of questions to which he would not give a direct reply. This only made them like him more.

“You know, the planes flew over here once. I saw them,” said George.

“And they had great big shiny wings,” said Ant.

The stranger nodded. “Come here, let me show you something,” he said and reached into his pocket, retrieving his fist. “What do you think I have in here?’

“A gold coin,” said George.

“A grenade,” said Ant.

The stranger opened his palm and the boys took a step back expecting a cloud of smoke to rise. It was a tooth. A human tooth.

“Is it yours?” cried the boys.

It was a molar, a little yellowed with a cavity, but the four cusps were sharp and intact, like a soiled crown or a mountain range.

The stranger smiled, opened his mouth, tilted his head back so the boys could see inside all the way back to his throat. All of his teeth were present and accounted for. The boys were fascinated. They prodded the stranger’s jaw, poked his mouth with sticks, until they determined to their satisfaction that it was not his tooth.

“If you bring me some food, I will tell you all about it,” said the stranger as he took a drink from a flask at his hip. “Only, if anyone asks, you never saw me.”

And so George and Ant returned to their subdivision impacted against the hillside and clad in vinyl against the elements. They opened their pantries and refrigerators and took out all of the food they thought would help the stranger—canned food, biscuits, cold cuts, bread—enough to last him for a long time if he ate sparingly.

As the sun fell over the hilltops and rooftops, catching the chimneys alight, the boys ventured out once more into the woods and by the stream, past the rocks, up the embankment and onto the bridge. They called out to the impending night sky, but received no answer.

George bent over and picked up some rocks scattered amongst the wildflowers on the tracks. “Maybe he was captured,” he said, handing some of the rocks to Ant.

Ant reached his arm back, ready to throw: “My dad said he once threw a grenade into a pond, and when it blew up, all the fish rose to the top.”

“No way,” said George. “My dad told us that. Why do you think I was giving you the rocks?” Somewhere, an owl cried. “Go on, throw it. I bet you can’t make it splash as high as that bush over there.”

“I bet you can’t make it splash as high as that tree,” replied Ant.

One by one, the boys threw their rocks into the stream. “Did you see that?” They said to each other, “My splash was huge!” But of course, they could see nothing. The moon was too far away to light the water precisely.

A voice called out from behind them. “Stop. You’ll scare the fish.” It was the stranger’s voice, somewhere back in the woods. “Follow the tracks,” he told them. The boys were able to make out a fire burning and the form of a man leaning against the tree, chin to chest. “Those fish would have been my breakfast tomorrow if you hadn’t been carrying on like that.”

“Come on Mister,” George told him. “Everyone here knows there’s no fish.”

“Where there’s water, there’s fish. You just don’t know how to find them.” The stranger sipped from his flask. “Did you bring what I asked for?” They showed him everything they took for him. He looked hungrily at the spread before him and thanked the boys sincerely.

They stared in anticipation of the story about the tooth. After another drink from his flask and a few mouthfuls of food, the stranger remembered his promise. “Teeth are the most painful part of the body to remove. That’s why no one does it without lidocaine.”

The stranger’s fire was slowly dying. He spit a mouthful of whiskey and it exploded in front of them. “A trick I learned along the way,” he explained.

“A tooth is locked into the jaw bone with a ligament, and it won’t come loose easily. You need to break the bone. There is nothing louder in this world than the crack of a human bone. Have you ever heard one? And to break the bone, you need tools—instruments—burnishers, calipers, elevators, carvers, chisels, excavators, forceps, condensers, curettes, files, knives, gags, scalers, depressors. You need those and sterilized assistants, all bent over the body.”

The stranger paused again and kicked the fire. “This tooth was pulled with nothing but bare hands and a pair of rusted pliers.”

The boys grabbed their jaws in phantom pain, but they were excited. They asked the stranger all manner of questions. “Did he talk? Did he spill enemy secrets? Did he give you the location of the bombs?”

The stranger only laughed and took another swig. “So, did you believe all that?” They nodded and asked more questions, but the stranger brushed them off. “Well, if you believed that, you’ll never believe the real story about this tooth. You come tomorrow with a bottle of whiskey each, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

(End of Part 1)


Day Five of the White House Painting: Georges Simenon and an Experiment Concluded


A man walking. One man, on a stretch of road three miles long cut slantwise every ten yards by the shadow of a tree trunk, striding unhurriedly from one shadow to the next.
– Opening Description from The Widow by Georges Simenon

As I dragged the shadows across the road–the last major step in finishing this painting last night–I was reminded of the opening description from Georges Simenon’s novel, The Widow. Simenon had an interesting approach to writing. He would start with little more than character studies. His idea was that if you take three people with their own motivations and force them into a situation together the novel will write itself. For him this turned out well. He wrote each novel in about twelve days, some of which were spent cutting out anything literary sounding so he would have a sharp efficient style. In watercolor things are a little different. There is only so much editing that can be done before the paper is ruined, and paint can’t be lifted as easily as words can be deleted. I learned this the hard way when I had to crop out a few inches on the right because my failed scraping attempt damaged the paper too much for me to fix that part of the composition.

This was the first watercolor of this size (12×18) that I have attempted, and working large is a very different experience than working small. It wasn’t just the size of the paper, but the size of the apparent focal object, the house, in the composition. It was too big to be loose with, and I was afraid mistakes in layout at this size would be magnified. I was intimidated by this and a few other aspects of the painting, particularly the foliage masses. When I realized that the focal point wasn’t the house, but the shadows on the house, and I could look at things as shapes rather than objects, I became more comfortable.

I learned a lot from this painting about planning even when trying to be loose. I am reminded of the Oulipo writers who wrote very inventive books while setting strict rules for themselves. I might like to take this idea into a new painting. I know now for my plan for subsequent paintings like this that there are a few techniques I would use that I didn’t use or use as well as I could have this time. For example, I applied masking fluid up front, but not after initial washes were laid down. This could have allowed more compelling value variation and pop in the foliage, which might have helped bring it forward more and frame the house better. I think there isn’t enough sense of space in the foliage. It seems a little fuzzy and distant to my eye now, though that might have something to do with another discovery: the Mister Clean Magic Eraser is as great for removing paint from watercolor paper as it is at removing my kids’ errant crayon marks from walls. I went too dark with the sky, and the Magic Eraser helped remove a lot to lighten It. It’s not so crisp, but I see how to get a better sky into a painting like this next time.

I am happy to be done with this and encouraged by both the results and what I learned. It occurred to me as I wrote this post that I didn’t closely study any of Hopper’s Gloucester paintings in preparation, despite the immediate New England connection drawn at the outset. I think I might turn there next.

Thanks for reading.

Day Four of the White House Painting: Can Winslow Homer Help?

A few things were bothering me about this painting after last night, so before working on it again tonight, I spent some time after work rethinking my approach to the trees given the way things were turning out. I looked more closely at Winslow Homer’s Adirondack watercolors, which have a lot of large foliage masses in the background. He varies his foliage colors a lot, even when they’re generally in loosely defined shapes. This helped me get comfortable with moving forward based on what I had in place. I looked again at my reference photo and my painting, and I realized what had been troubling me. My painting was looking a little radioactive, so I decided to tone it down. In the trees I did this by darkening with a bias towards browns, reds and warmer greens to work with the cooler greens I had in place.

I have maybe two sessions left on this. I need to decide on the tree on the right (I tried to make it a forsythia bush, and darken the right side behind it, but it wasn’t working out tonight with the paints I was using–I will have to pull out my cadmium yellow I think), finish off the other trees, lay in the final shadows, and see what needs to be done when I remove the mask. I also want to try sanding to bring out some light in the background foliage because I have never done that before. This has been a very instructive effort so far.

Thanks for following along.


Day Three of the White House Painting

Tonight I tried to move this painting forward, get some more foliage background in, and start putting in the big tree and some shadows and roof washes. I also wanted to put in a few of the darkest spots as a test to establish the darkest values in contrast with the white of the house. It’s been good to see some depth entering the painting.

Unfortunately, something went wrong with the tree on the right. I tried to scrape out the trunks and branches, and instead of light as I expected, all the scraped lines turned dark. I have tried this before and it never seems to work out for me. I am not sure how to fix this. Maybe I will have to turn it into a different kind of tree. I also tried to salt more of the trees, but the salt didn’t take everywhere I wanted it to.

I will leave it for now so I don’t overdo it. I have a few decisions to make, and it’s too late at night to make them now.

Thanks for reading.


Art, Design, and the Long Conversation: Day Two of the White House Painting

In writing, there’s the adage never to share a work in progress. One could say it’s because everyone’s a critic, and the idea is to insulate the sensitive creative mind from undue outside influence. It’s the artist as genius argument. Another way to look at it is the more cynical view of the writer hiding the influence of the editor. Take Raymond Carver for example. When the true role of his friend and editor, Gordon Lish, came out, something shocking became apparent. That brilliantly stark, concise, potent style of his was the result of significant editing, sometimes up to 70%. This laid bare something that I see regularly in my day job: creativity is often best realized through collaboration. In a sense, it is a conversation with an output in mind.

Graphic designer Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich in his Design Matters interview, distinguishes art and design sort of along those lines: art is something done for yourself by yourself, while design is done with others for others. But how different are they really? I have come to think of art as a long beautiful conversation that spans generations and civilizations. Wouldn’t it be nice to some day be able to move that conversation, even slightly?

All of that was a way for me to lead into saying it is both awkward and exciting to share something in progress. It’s a micro-level engagement in the long conversation with friends.

I have a better feeling about this painting today. I had a realization this morning that allowed me to get more comfortable with it: I was approaching a big project with the tools and techniques fit for a small one. That reads like an after the fact justification for me buying a new brush today–a Princeton Neptune #6 quill. It takes a lot of water and flops around while still holding a point, which allows for both large but controllable washes and some nice foliage shapes for some under painting. I used it for this evening’s work, which included:

1. Adding Prussian Blue over the Phthalo blue in the sky to give it more character.
2. Adding a wet haphazard mix of Pthalo Green (PG7), Primary Red Magenta, and Permanent Yellow Deep to the foliage in front, then salting it.
3. Masking out the fence and window panes, as well as some while I wanted to retain in the trees.
4. Washing in the lawn, and blotting out a place for the tree on the right.
5. Fixing the drawing in a few places. I decided not to get too carried away, and just let whatever happens happen when I paint.
6. Splattering and dabbing in the base layer for more pronounced leaves.

That’s it for tonight as I let things dry. I think I will save the house details for last, so tomorrow is likely to be defining the trunks, branches, and leaves more fully.

Thanks for reading.


The Start of a New Painting: Edgartown, MA by Way of Vienna, VA

On my bike ride this weekend I passed this white house, and had to stop for a photo (thanks to my father-in-law for waiting patiently).

The shadows were so pronounced, the air so clear, and the foliage in the right state to try out some loose approaches to it that will be new for me. Since my sketch on last weekend’s ride I have been thinking about being freer with my painting, and there are areas of this that might warrant a different approach.

There was a little something more to this house that appealed to me, but I didn’t get at the time. Only later, when I showed the photo to my dad did I realize why I really liked it.

“If you had told me that was in Edgartown, I would have believed you,” he said.

I remember fondly the long vacations on Martha’s Vineyard as a kid, and I think, without realizing it, I immediately connected this view to that time. The photo doesn’t do it justice. I hope I can get the right feeling from the painting.

This evening I did the preliminary drawing on a block of 14×20 Arches. Then I laid in some under washes and dabbed in some of the underlying foliage, probably more than I should have. I haven’t worked this large before and the house was giving me trouble–you can probably see how much I have redrawn it as I worked out the basic shapes. Tomorrow I will mask the fences and tighten up the drawing. I still don’t have it at a point where I am comfortable with it, but I needed to see some areas blocked in with color to help me understand what really needed to be adjusted, and where I was over thinking it. I don’t have a good feeling about this one yet, but I am sure tomorrow will give me a new perspective on it.

Here is where it stands so far. Thanks for reading.


Festina Lente part 2: Some Thoughts on Emblems and Still Lifes

If I paint a hammer and sickle people may think it is a representation of Communism, but for me it is only a hammer and sickle. I just want to reproduce the objects for what they are, not for what they mean.

In my earlier post on cycling, I focused on the motto Festina Lente, hurry slowly. I didn’t get into the emblems associated with that motto. There are two that Calvino calls out: A dolphin wrapped around an anchor, produced by Aldus Manutius near the start of the 16th century, and a crab and a butterfly, produced by Paolo Giovio early in the 16th century.



I find emblems very interesting with their incongruous and potent imagery–I even contemplated making a book of new ones. Today we think of emblems primarily in branding–corporate logos or country flags–and we also know them in chivalric terms–every great family has a shield, for example–but in the 16th century there seems to have been a real pursuit of emblems as a moral art (though this could also just be the proliferation of a long-standing tradition now made public by the invention of the printing press). They represented ideas and mottos that have value independent of brand (though Apple’s first logo was very emblematic, and, in todays visual culture, a real dud). They were essentially visual fables. The first formal book of emblems was published by Andrea Alciato in 1531, though it is worth noting that each emblem was accompanied by a poem.

In some ways we can think of a still life similarly to an emblem, and this seems to be what troubled Picasso. This might also be an underlying assumption in the imagist proclamation “no ideas but in things.” Calvino puts that idea differently when he says “in a narrative, any object is always magic.”

But can a thing ever just be a thing? The answer is likely to be no, because all things are interpreted through the lens of culture, but I wonder if that depends on how the thing is rendered and what objects are included in a composition. In the Alessi and Zeke’s sketch I did, the two objects go together naturally, and I rendered them as such. They seem to only convey coffee, with no assertion of value, no tension. Is this true or am I taking an oversimplified look at them? Is there any greater lesson or meaning in them?

Had I painted, say, a hammer and an iPhone together, the resulting incongruity would have taken on a variety of meanings. Would it be a Luddite statement, or a statement of design and build elegance? Would we assign a silly motto like “build through communication,” or something stronger and more sinister? It depends on how we view a hammer, as a sign of construction, or destruction. A nail beside it would show construction. A hole in the wall would show destruction.

So how about this? What do we take away, or are these just things?

20130420-072500.jpg–Hammer & Bananas

Thanks for humoring me on this one. Back to original watercolors soon.

Learning from Winslow Homer: On the Stile

I have been taking some close looks at Winslow Homer this past week, and decided it was time to get into his painting through an attempt of my own–a copy of “On the Stile.” His style is a nice blend of freedom and precision, with a surprising hold to it. Given my last post on Quickness, the timing seemed appropriate.

I remember when I last took up painting in high school before turning to history and literature, I copied a Winslow Homer and enjoyed it very much. That was my favorite class in high school, and I am not sure why I didn’t stick with it. I also started to appreciate classical music during that class, and it has since become a staple in the house.

Looking at Homer recently, I found myself at first wondering what the “greatness” was. I think I see it in the sense of immediacy in his Houghton Farm watercolors. He doesn’t waste our attention on extraneous parts of the composition. I think the pastoral sophistication also has a timeless appeal, at least to me, who spent some time with pastoral literature in my last novel.

I wanted to work on a few things in this exercise:

1. Use a limited palette of Prussian Blue, Permanent Yellow Deep, and Primary Red Magenta (all Maimeri Blu). I have relied on the earth pigments in prior attempts, so wanted to understand how I could get good browns and greens with only this palette. I wondered if I could get a more transparent result without the earth pigments. Also, it seemed Homer worked with these three or similar pigments for this painting.

2. Understand how Homer focused on his subjects and where he got a little more haphazard, or at least opted not to spend so much time, so I could better decide how to do the same in my paintings. I was struck by how much the perception of his paintings can change when viewed over a short period of time. At first they’re compelling, then they seem flat, then, upon closer study they become very interesting, far beyond the first impression. For example, the girl’s dress has a lot going on in his painting, and it seems so effortless.

I am reminded of one of the selling points of creative writing programs: even if you don’t make it as a writer, you will be a better reader. This exercise has made me a better reader of Homer’s paintings.


Festina Lente: Cycling, Leopardi, and Galileo

Speed and conciseness of style please us because they present the mind with a rush of ideas that are simultaneous, or follow each other so quickly they seem simultaneous, and set the mind afloat on such an abundance of thoughts or images or spiritual feelings…
– Giacomo Leopardi

If discoursing on a difficult problem were like carrying weights, when many horses can carry more sacks of grain than a single horse, I would agree that many discourses would do more than a single one; but discoursing is like coursing, not like carrying, and one Barbary courser can go faster than a hundred Frieslands.
– Galileo

I was thinking about Calvino’s essay on Quickness while biking this morning, in particular the quotes from Leopardi and Galileo. Calvino explains that the horse has long been a metaphor for speed of thought in literature. I suppose a road bike is a decent substitute. In both quotes above, it is important to note that the speed reflected is that of reasoning or writing, not speed of execution. They are not arguing for Kerouac-like binges. Much preparation goes into achieving the speed of thought. This is why Calvino likes the motto “festina lente,” or hurry slowly.

In order to achieve quickness on a bike, one must prepare one’s body. In order to achieve quickness of thought, one must prepare one’s mind. The same is true with any visual art, as my gestural sketch below shows. I executed it in about 30 seconds while holding up my bike. This is not an ideal way to go about things, but I wanted to see if I could achieve both quicknesses at once–in execution and in thought or expression. I think not yet, but it was fun regardless. This attempt, as others like it, will enable a better understanding and execution when it comes to painting, at least so I hope.

Watercolor is a medium that perfectly aligns with the festina lente motto in that patience is so important to producing a watercolor that reads like Galileo’s courser, or Leopardi’s style that sets the mind afloat. I think of this usually in terms of avoiding mud and making a watercolor light, so taking time between glazes, etc, but it also applies to the more apparently haphazard methods of painting, such as rapidly poured watercolor moved around with credit cards and other things, that seem so casual, so easy. This kind of painting quickly as performance, like racing a bike, can only happen effectively with patience in advance to learn the way the paint moves.

It has been interesting and refreshing rereading Calvino’s Six Memos in the context of painting rather than writing fiction. As I tried to do in writing, I need to remind myself again in painting: festina lente.

Thanks for reading.


Brubeck, Alessi, and Zeke’s

My dad got me into Brubeck when I was in high school (though it might have had something to do with those Infiniti commercials in the 90’s), and I often listen to him while I’m working. It seemed fitting to put him on while getting a little deeper into the Alessi percolator and bag of Zeke’s coffee. Paul Desmond’s clarinet and alto sax lines go so well with the stroke of a brush. I have found that listening to music while painting helps me stay patient and not overwork areas while they are still wet, which is something I did with the birdhouse over the weekend.

After preliminary composition sketches last week, I wanted to try a basic view of the objects themselves to get a better handle on the shapes and reflections. I worked on a square block of arches, so I went with a vignetted centered composition for now. We’ll see if it should be developed further beyond this sketch. Below are staged photos of progress.

It was interesting to note how the blue changes color in the reflection, taking on some of the aluminum’s color as well, thus muting it a bit. I also liked the raw sienna reflection of the table top outside of the composition infiltrating the picture. Maybe it is all a bit too blotchy and exaggerated to be a finished work, but for tonight, I am pretty satisfied with what I got out of this more in depth sketch.

Thanks for reading.

Stage 1–Drawing and first wash:


Stage 2:


Stage 3–Finished sketch: