Muted Tones

Thursday 8 – Monday 12 November 2012

The small barn-like building resembled any other former backyard shed that had been converted into a studio. Externally, it was weathered having suffered the elements poorly; the once brown wood had silvered, and the slate tiles on the roof were chipped in many places but for the most part, they kept out the weather. Rusty nails held the wooden planks that made up the walls of the building in place, although many of the nails had been replaced over the years. Small, practical windows, which once served only to provide ventilation, had been removed and replaced with much larger windows, the sole purpose of which was to fill the room with natural light.

Inside, the studio was a mess. Make-piece tables constructed from old doors were cluttered with works in progress, paints, dirty rags, brushes and other assorted painters’ tools. Drop cloths that had previously covered the floor were bunched up in one corner, crusted with dried paint and no longer used. A large wooden easel stood quite centrally, bathed in the sunlight streaming in through the windows. Charles Dittman had his studio exactly as he wanted it.

The canvas that rested upon the easel was the artist’s latest work, all pastels and muted tones. He had decided that this piece would symbolise the epitome of his life’s work. It would be the pinnacle of his artistic achievements, after the completion of which he would gracefully bow out of the limelight and live the reclusive existence he had always dreamed of. Fame, fortune and power were never what Charles wanted out of painting. He was old school; painting for the love of it, because he woke up every morning and needed to paint. He despised the younger artists who created simply for money, deeming their works unimaginative and droll, loveless.

‘Art’, he told one young artistic admirer, ‘is feeling. You cannot create beautiful works of art, whether they are paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, lithographs, literature even, without feeling, without love, without passion. If you try, you only end up with soulless rubbish that isn’t worthy of shitting on.’

He had come to an impasse, struggling to find any sense of form within the painting, and had adjourned to the battered armchair in front of the window. He sat, hands on his knees, gazing at one of the many chipped cups that he used not for drinking but for washing out and storing brushes. This one was currently empty, and he regarded it with the same familiarity that he would an old friend. The sky blue former drinking vessel looked out of place amongst the half-used and discarded tubes of paint that Charles had carelessly tossed on the door-table nearest his easel. With a little bit of a struggle, Charles stretched out an arm and took a hold of the cup, resting it on his knee as he returned to his slightly reclined position in the armchair.

He caressed the cup with his thumb. To Charles it was very much an old friend; a long-time fixture in his creative world, Charles had found the cup as part of a mixed set in a second hand shop. He was positive that these cups were more like fourth or fifth hand than second, but he had immediately fallen in love with its colour, different from any blue he’d seen in crockery before. He thought that anyone else would see it as an item that belonged at a rubbish tip. In his eyes however, it was a simple work of art, all smooth lines and pleasing curves. Today, for the first time since he had owned it, Charles saw the cup for what it had become: no longer useful. It was at the end of its life.

‘Just like me,’ he said to himself as he considered the cup.

The canvas drew him back. It needed to be completed, and soon, but as Charles knew well, art could not be rushed. Creation happened at a pace of its own, and the more he pushed the less likely it was that he would produce a work that he genuinely liked. No, he thought, today it is definitely best to let this painting reveal itself of its own accord. Charles believed that he owed that much to his talent, and he wanted this final piece to be resplendent and awe-inspiring.

Charles nestled further into the armchair still clutching the old cup, and examined the paint that he had already spread across the canvas. Oils were his favourite despite watercolours being his biggest sellers. The art critics agreed with the masses about the work of Charles Dittman. Everyone was in agreement that his watercolours were extraordinary – everyone except Charles. This final painting was his attempt to emulate the success that he had found with his watercolours but instinctively, Charles knew that something was missing.

He inhaled and closed his eyes, seeing the finished product in his mind. Exhaling, he tried to maintain the image as he opened his eyes and focussed again on the canvas. The occasional tingling that he had felt in the fingers of his right hand came to visit once more. He clenched his hand into a fist and then flexed them open several times, then lifted his arm and rotated his shoulder back and forth a few times. The stiffness in his shoulder released and the tingling subsided.

‘Damn pinched nerve,’ he chastised himself. He gripped the cup in his left hand a little tighter.

As if his body was apologising for aging and causing him pain, a picture flashed through Charles’ mind allowing him to see a solution to his painting problem. He rose with renewed enthusiasm and strode back to the canvas, promptly picking up a clean brush and swirling it through a pastel blue he had mixed earlier. Gently, he applied the brush to the canvas in sweeping motions, stepping back to view the whole picture after each stroke.

Again, the tingling in his hand returned. Unable to hold the brush, Charles let it drop to the floor, and watched helplessly as it bounced twice leaving blue blobs on the wooden floorboards. Feeling his throat constrict, he vainly gasped for air and fell to his knees. There would be no more time to complete this last painting; Charles Dittman’s time was up.

When Marie Dittman found her husband lying dead on the floor of his studio, he was still holding the old cup. And above his body, the final composition he’d ever paint sat squarely on the easel as if awaiting his next brush stroke. She smiled at the subject of the painting. Replicating his work with watercolours, Charles’ favourite old blue coffee cup was brought to life in the muted tones and pastel colours of his oil paints.

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About Danielle

I like to write. What more is there to know?
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