I became a painter on an impulse my freshman year of college. My paintings reveal that I have tenacity rather than training.
Recently my mother asked me to paint a portrait of my deceased Norwegian grandfather as a gift for his 94-year-old widow, my grandmother. "She would love it," mom said.
"Yes," I answered, after some hesitation. I thought the task beyond me.
I tiptoed up to a blank canvas one midnight, praying aloud for intelligence while I assembled a squadron of brushes and 50 acrylic tubes. I sketched the beginnings of the man's head.
I was, after all, presenting the portrait to his widow, his other half. This explained my fear. She knew his every detail and remembered him reciting Longfellow to her until she fell asleep. It left no margin for error.
Usually at some point in the process of painting I receive a vision for the face I paint. Suddenly I know what I will make and how, and become a hurtling locomotive. When I finish, I feel I have had a child whose toes I could stay up all night counting.
In time I saw the man's head subsisting in a backdrop of green. His collar was plaid. His brows lent a character he did not possess in life, one brow jutting out beyond the top of the eye toward the center of the face, in a way I invented and found winsome.
The portrait looked cartoonish and nothing like my grandfather. But my mother then emerged in her red robe, came to the canvas, and said, "He's in there."
"Really?" I asked.
The next morning I added wrinkles, sharpened the nose, and softened the left ear a little, for it previously came to a woeful point.
When my grandmother arrived I walked her by the painting, pointed it out, and waited for her to say anything that betrayed recognition. But she asked, "Who is it?"
Ashamed, I wouldn't tell.
"He's too old for you," she joked, and I herded her back to the living room.
When she had gone I sat before the portrait again, grateful I had not told her whom it was supposed to resemble.
I stared at my creation and imagined the man stepping from the painting (something like breaking out of an ice-cube tray, shoulders crack-crack, one at a time). He would stand wretchedly skinny, a pointy-eared old man.
I loved the face and could not paint over it.