It is called impasto. I smile when I say the word – or hear it – because it sounds edible, like pesto and pasta. And to me, it is delicious to the eye and the hand, and aromatic for those who spend their days and nights inhaling it.
Impasto is a layering of paint applied thickly, a creation of surfaces that take their time as they are built: One is strewn, dribbled or slathered over another. It is this thickness, its sculptural quality as it moves outward from the surface of the canvas, that so subtly or strikingly serves the composition.
I am a fan of impasto.
Surfaces are more than what they seem
Impasto does not enhance every image. There are those paintings and those materials, surfaces and subjects where it has no place and makes no sense. Instead, there are many fine layers on the linen or canvas, yet you are unaware of the process and how painstakingly it has been applied — gesso, oil, sanding, oil, glazing. I am glossing over the work involved. Nonetheless, this is part of the genius of the Flemish and Italian artists whose jewel-like masterpieces continue to awe; the naked eye may never know the layers that form their matte finish. We perceive the glowing result, and it pleases us.
Yet impasto can serve the ideal flowering of both action and medium; abstract expressionism is all about action and gesture and the joy of paint — it is a celebration of impasto and its rougher, less precious, more spontaneous, more visible, more strident insistence that the viewer participate in its rhythms and structure. We may not realize that we are being teased and provoked, manipulated by method and material to gain easier access to the emotion the work both inspires and suggests. Impasto is a sly invitation to feel — roughly, audaciously, ardently.
The painter who expresses through a meticulous process and a satiny finish is no less worthy of exploration, but his subject matter — or his spirit — requires a more patient and possibly, a more orderly eye in its approach and study.
Impasto is a way of life, or the way of life, or the way some of us live unwittingly; we paint over, and paint over, and paint over. We try new colors and new gestures that we tinker with daily. Whatever our original theme, we change our minds, we assess and adjust, we experiment. Sometimes, impasto is the freedom we exercise to correct an error, a small slip or a larger mistake. The beauty of oils on canvas is that we may use the mistake and proceed; the brush or palette knife works harder and differently, signing another set of strokes and marks we will come to appreciate.
Sometimes, we change course because an area of the canvas — a hue, a shape that forms unexpectedly, a surprise in the composition as it evolves — has thrown off the balance. And we must paint over, so we line up the tubes and squeeze out more titanium white or more cadmium yellow, and we add another layer, another dab, another sweep to the work-in-process.
Impasto is thick and slow to dry. Impasto engenders a rush, a sensation of exuberance or frenzy, an energy that is too extreme to maintain indefinitely, yet we are caught up in its passionate pace, its press and peaks, at least for a time. But patience is required. We cannot call it a day.
Walls may be frescoes, murals, symbols, flesh
My house is old but solid and I feel safe here. My sons feel safe here. It has become home. Our home is a place for believing in angels.
Safety is relative. We build walls to protect ourselves from the elements and to protect ourselves from each other. We build walls to establish boundaries and to define territories. We decorate our walls, even in cave dwellings. We are born to create and once we are no longer cold and hungry we scratch and we paint, we leave our markings and glyphs, we tell our stories and we do so to say that we were here.
My sons’ rooms are tiny; we shed objects when we arrived after losses, finding the heart to seek something new. But we continue to live in a jammed space. My boys do not speak of it.
My younger son’s walls are badly cracked, layers of plaster formed of horse hair and metal webbing and God knows what beneath the surface. The walls hold their own, though he and his brother used to bounce tennis balls and handballs against them. Boys do these things, and because there was laughter I never said no. They jumped wildly on the mattress and slammed their sides and backs and elbows and knees against these walls. Boys do these things, and still there was laughter and I never said no.
My son spends hours in his cramped room with its twin bed and no headboard, bookcases that are filled to overflowing, a full-size easel, tubes of oil and boxes of charcoals, heaps of clothes for which there is no storage because his seven-year old desktop sits on a diminutive desk in the area that was once a closet. He designs model towers and constructs them out of balsa and paper, sitting on a broken chair, hunched over an end table inadequate to the task.
I am perpetually putting up walls and then tearing them down, but I know the reasons. My son is only learning the topography of walls, their variations and services, where and how and why he relies on them. The walls in his bedroom are tangible; they are scratched and gouged and punctured — an eyesore. He doesn’t seem to notice, perhaps because he is accustomed to them as I am accustomed to shadow.
I do not want my son accustomed to shadow. I do not want obstacles that impede his vision. I do not want his hand confined by walls.
A year ago I said “let’s paint this room” and we began repairs. We patched and spackled and sanded. We bought two gallons of paint and inexpensive brushes. We covered most of the damage, so now each crack and hole is seen as a white ripple against a dirty gray background. That is as far as we got.
“We need to paint this room,” I say to him. “Doesn’t it bother you when your friends are here?”
“No,” he says. “They don’t care.”
When I ask if he cares, he says no. But I think he must, and he blocks it out. He walls off awareness.
My right arm aches often these days and it tires easily. It too is cracked in its way, but I block it out. I have painted many rooms in my life and I have found it relaxing and meditative. I shouldn’t be doing it any longer and I’ve suggested as recently as last week that we — he — paint his room.
He shrugs. And while he has told me several times he wants a surface that he can fill with a mural of his own making, the shrug tells me something different — an acceptance of these blank frescoes, this crumbling, his own fatigue, or blindness to it when he chooses; an ability to shift it all to the background and focus on school work, architectural models, drawings, music, and the things that bounce and blossom inside an adolescent about which he never speaks.
He has been sadder, and wiser, and older in recent days. I now know why. It has nothing to do with me as a mother, as a caretaker, as a provider, as an example — and for that, I am relieved.
Perhaps, for the moment, the condition of these walls suits him. Still, I walk away convinced that I need to paint over. If I could manage even one of these surfaces, he would take up the brush and finish and feel more energetic, more hopeful. His young man’s heart has experienced its first crack; he is repairing in his own way and his own time, but I believe he would benefit from the light.
My son was angry with me again last evening; he is caught in the middle of a painful situation and made it clear he does not want to be there. My son’s brave act only a few nights ago brought retaliation. His courage was no less impressive, and I need to let him know that I am not upset with him, that I should not expect him to succeed where I have failed. Of course, I will choose different nouns and verbs and omit the adjectives.
His anger was a dagger and I backed away; later, I kissed his forehead. Now, I would like the strength to paint away the darkness, to give him light, a start at light, a corner of light against the dark, the contrast of this tangible thing for both of us. One wall repaired, one wall like new, this way of seeing differently, the light shining in the act of creating, in the act of painting over, in the result of painting over, in this impossible impasto that is always possible because if writing is my god and my drug, art is surely my assembly of angels and my son, my glorious, mysterious, at times troubled son knows angels of his own.
My gods have given me an artist; raising him is a process of feeling my way. I will offer him surfaces on which to paint. I will cover the cracks in what I become, the cracks in this place where we find ourselves, the cracks in his walls. I will use the malleable medium that is intended for this very purpose.
I believe my son has grown inured to what is broken and disintegrating. Perhaps because he has other priorities. Perhaps because he is more resilient than I know. Perhaps because there are balloons when we least expect and laughter when we least expect and both alleviate his anger, albeit momentarily. Perhaps because this is home, such as it is, though it is not the home I once hoped to build.
I cling to the belief that he will notice and join me if I can just begin, that he will brighten if I can help him begin.
Two gallons of Behr Premium Belgian Cream flat enamel paint sit on the basement stairs. I will fetch the brushes, the ladder, the paint pan. I will lay newspapers on the floor and climb up, reach up, tape off, and just do it. I may not be able to finish, but I cannot live any longer with cracks in everything.
Perhaps I am the one with the vision problem, the one who turns intentionally to impasto, who knows its secrets, its life force that gathers in its building up and its retention, in its capacity to capture light in the folds of paint. It is a surface treatment that is all about action; a noun with the beating heart of a verb; a place, and the path to that place. I say this is for my son, for his well-being so he may feel lightened, so we may both feel lightened. Yet I am the one with the need to paint over and over and over again. I need to do it now.
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