Twilight in Old San Juan Day Two: Finishing the Drawing and Reading Pavese

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After a brief hiatus for Father’s Day and some work that carried on through the evenings, I am getting back into this painting of Old San Juan. Though it’s only been a week, I had to spend time reacquainting myself with the subject, so I focused on the drawing again. I cleaned up the left side and drew in more of the details, then masked some of the areas I want to focus on later.

I am finally ready to start painting, which I won’t get to tonight. I am still wondering what to do in the bottom left corner. The two figures in the photo are actually me and my older daughter, and our presence doesn’t quite fit the mood I want to convey. I will have to put some different figures in, I think. I will make that decision once I start painting. I don’t want to overdraw, and if I don’t move on, I will.

In thinking about that decision, I have been thinking about Pavese, and how well he sets a scene. I will quote one of my favorite beginnings to a novel. Here is the first paragraph of Pavese’s Among Women Only.

I arrived in Turin with the last of the January snow, like a street acrobat or a candy seller. I remembered it was carnival time when I saw the booths and the bright points of acetylene lamps under the porticoes, but it was not dark yet and I walked from the station to the hotel, peering out from under the arches and over the heads of the people. The sharp air was biting my legs and, tired as I was, I huddled in my fur and loitered in front of the shop windows, letting people bump into me. I thought how the days were getting longer, that before long a bit of sun would loosen the frozen muck and open up the spring.

In such a short space Pavese lays out the narrator’s character, the city, and the mood, not just in the present scene, but also for those to come. Look at the last sentence: “loosen the frozen muck and open up the spring.” This is typical Pavese. At first blush, this appears hopeful–the coming spring–but a spring of loosened muck is as foreboding as it is promising. Sure enough, within the first few pages, a failed suicide is revealed, and the narrator gets caught up in the sad affairs of a group of rich women.

This is the trick that I one day hope to accomplish in a painting–all of the details coming together to convey the depth and complexity of mood in a space and the lives that occupy it.

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Twilight in Old San Juan: Starting a New Painting

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The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
-H.P. Lovecraft from The Call of Cthulhu

Two years ago we went to Puerto Rico with the kids and some close friends, and spent some time wandering through Old San Juan. We often returned to this square. For some reason, it was the only place I could seem to orient myself to. Fortunately our friends had been several times, so knew the way around. Old San Juan was a fascinating city of many identities: city of soldiers, rum, and pirates, but also city of churches; cruise ship destination with high end shopping, but also a source for cheap tourist kitsch like body part shaped shot glasses that said Puerto Rico; home to delicious fancy restaurants, but also cheap food, and even Ben and Jerry’s; a city built for walking, but full of cars upon cars in streets to small to accommodate them (not to mention the afternoon trash pick-ups with trucks made for the narrow streets, which led to both general cleanliness and a lingering odor of trash in the humid air as the truck lumbered by); a city loaded with wandering tourists, but also people in doorways and upper windows who called the place home. In short, it was a place of many spatial identities superimposed and syncretized, with an underlying feeling of the fantastic. H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood would have felt just as at home here as a Travel Channel camera crew.

Painting the scene photographed above is going to be a challenge. The drawing alone was a challenge, and there will be so much to incorporate and decide on once I get to painting. I am sure I will learn a lot from this not only on the technical side, but also in terms if capturing those syncretized and layered identities in a way that can be felt by the viewer. I also think I want to draw out that fantastical element (hence the creepy Lovecraft quote). This one may be slow to develop. For now, here’s my rough framing drawing.

Thanks for reading.

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