Emma’s twilight: How to save a painting

The studio space at the back of the house had grown a little cold with abandonment over the Thanksgiving holiday. When I finally wandered back there to pick up a painting I had started before the first of a few family crises hit, I realized that the space in my head that wonders about color, graffiti, composition, paint, and architecture had grayed out and felt distant. I usually have a plan that I carry with me between sessions. This time, I could not remember. I looked again at my favorite past creations and bowed my head back over the paint-spattered table. I prayed for recovery with spatulas, paint knives, and brushes. I made promises with a can of cold wax and a tube of Galkyd gel and a half-dozen tubes of Gamblin. The floor became littered with wax shavings, drops of color, and shards of torn papers.

I produced things I did not like until last week, when out of frustration, I purposely killed a piece of art. Initially, the painting had been constructed to show Richmond’s bucolic outskirts against its urban, modern center of downtown. It represented past and present, and it was all too much – cluttered, clunky, pasty, forced-feeling. Better on Instagram, but terrible in person. Stronger in concept, but a disaster on substrate.

So I dipped a drywall scraper in solvent and aggressively stripped off layers of paper, paint marker drawings, and paint, leaving behind stain and a few smooth fields of pigment. Suddenly, this was workable. I had somehow uncovered an abstracted image: river and bog and reflection. City was a mere glimpse in the back corner now. I built up patches of deep green among still waters, and I recaptured an RVA from the original design in gold and red, a scrawled stamp on pink sky before it collapses into night, my “you are here” moment. It works.

There is a metaphor in moments like this: the work that seemed broken could be revived. Our big dog is walking again after a bout of paralysis (although he may never be 100 percent). Since her bad fall on campus, my daughter has moved from crutches to a walking boot and will be dancing boot-free by Christmas. We have answers for her other struggles too, an issue that has cast light on how hard she works to do some of the things I take for granted, and a workable plan to make her skies pink and gold again. “I’m here,” I tell her ­– in this painting and in this house – to catch her before nightfall.