Anatomy of a painting


Cheryl Cheung

With swollen joints and numbed fingers, he proves how fallible even the most perfect of bodies can be. 

His parents are both doctors, his brother a doctor-to-be. Their family thrives on the shared narrative of what the human body is and can become. He is the exception. To me, he is exceptional. Practicing pure math with a penchant for writing, his body works for virtues more abstract than the maintenance of good health. 

While he carries himself with certainty toward his mathematical research, my body reacts to a perceived reality in constant flux. Today, I am living to deliver a presentation on populism next April. Last summer, when I took that photo of his profile, I was bidding for ads while touring southern Italy. If my personhood is akin to an amorphous mass, then his is a sharply defined impossible object.

An impossible object: an optical illusion in which the viewer interprets a two-dimensional figure as a three-dimensional object. For one to truly exist, the laws of Euclidean geometry would have to be violated. His existence violates the laws of intellectual limitation, but no one is above the fallibility of their health and fortune.

I rendered this painting last September as an act of defiance. His mother was cross with me for having used a photograph of his shirtless profile (it was only shoulders up) for my photography portfolio. So, I removed it and made something new — this time, for my fine arts portfolio. I wish I could explain this style, to provide an artistic rationale for why the edges were so rough or the colours so deep. In truth, I would have liked to render the photograph differently as a painting — what you see is what I tried to make do with as a novice painter of mountains and trees.

There is no hair in this painting, only the intersection of dark and light along the perimeter of his face. The inspiration was drawn from Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” The execution is self-explanatory: save for a few paint strokes over the forehead, whatever hair you see is only imagined. If this sounds like a sloppy excuse for cutting corners, then I admit you are partially right: I was too lazy to paint hair. But I was also afraid of painting someone else’s hair instead of the wet umbrous locks I photographed. Though hair has no expression of its own, it is an important aesthetic accessory.

I completed this painting in a two-and-a-half-hour sitting, making it a work of alla prima. In Italian, this term means “at first attempt.” Although there are likely better means of applying wet paint onto wet paint, my strategy was to slather thick paint in broad strokes to minimize the number of layers used. I first mapped out the contours of the face, then mixed and allocated my peach tones, then used a flat brush to fill each section with its designated colour. To transform a peach mosaic into something that vaguely resembled a face, I used a fan brush to blend together each section of colour. I blended haphazardly, applying more colour for highlights to add definition. This is most prominent on the bridge of the nose, and on the left half of the forehead. Later, I applied a dark umber to create a clean outline of the face and nose bridge.

His neck is not really quite as wide as that of a professional wrestler, nor does the surface of his chest resemble the topography of rolling hills. The body was a slate welcoming experimentation, and from that experimentation, it evolved into a prismatic block. I used highlights and shadows to add definition, with broad strokes giving little way to curvature. I spent little time painting the neck and upper chest, and little blending was needed. The lack of detail draws greater attention to the focal points of the piece: the tilt of the head, the lowering of the eyes, the small, slightly smiling lips. The body ties together the style and narrative of the painting. Its slight turn to the left suggests the subject is turning either toward or away from the audience. 

This painting is, in sum, a characterization of my interpretation of anatomy. It is angular and mechanical, but also soft and warm in the aesthetic sense. It can be inclusive of hidden items, and exclusive of minute details. Each person is a representation of what anatomy can be, and each person has a different experience of their own. The life I am leading suggests that anatomy is at the core of everything we do and aspire to. Art imitates life.

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