Art by Melissa Mead
Iron Oxide Red
by Gwendolyn Clare
I was working on a still-life when I discovered the paint in my veins.
I had gotten down the pale wood background of the butcher-block, the slick sheen of spilled juice, two half-spheres of a bisected orange, and the folded husks of its spent sisters. The suggestion of a white electric juicer hid in the upper right-hand corner. Fine, dark wood-grain curved across the surface of the butcher-block, painted in with a new liner brush (sable tipped, size one).
I selected a wider brush and began adding in the knife--a long hunting blade sunk tip-down into the wood--when it tilted forward and clattered to the floor. Carefully, I set my brush and palette aside, and I stooped to retrieve the wayward subject.
In my attempt to set it down in its exact former placement, I brushed against the sharpened edge. When I looked down at the sudden pain in my hand, I saw an oozing cut, but it wasn't oozing blood. Looking away, I fought to keep my lunch from making a second appearance.
Left index finger: Cadmium Yellow Dark.
I wrapped it in gauze and medical tape, and tried to go back to work. It bled until the gauze was soaked through with golden hue, so I replaced the dressings, thicker and tighter this time. Gradually, inexorably, the paint worked its way to the surface once more. I bandaged it again, and again, until I understood what it wanted.
It wanted to be used.
I couldn't bring myself to dip a brush directly into an open wound, so I sat in a kitchen chair for a minute, bleeding a glob of yellow onto my palette. But once I got working, that little glob disappeared in what felt like an instant. I wondered how to sterilize a paintbrush. Dunk it in alcohol? I didn't have any vodka, just Goose Island Nut Brown Ale, and I doubted that would work.
Gently, I used my brush to scrape up the paint that had oozed onto my hand, careful to avoid the cut itself. Then my focus returned to the canvas, and pretty soon I was dipping the brush straight into the wound, gathering up the paint as fast as the cut could bleed. It didn't even hurt that much.
And I must admit, the orange pulp looked good after I touched it up with the blood-paint. Better than good. My mouth watered just looking at it, and I might've licked the canvas if there hadn't been a real orange on hand. I had never eaten my subject material before, and I swear that no orange could taste sweeter than that one did.
Anyway, the bleeding stopped when I finished the painting.
I put the still-life away for a couple days and spent some time hanging out with friends, trying to forget about it. The kitchen had become a place to avoid--the memory of the blood-paint still turned my stomach--so I went out to eat a lot. I had almost convinced myself that I imagined the whole ordeal, but then it was Thursday and I needed something to show my Painting III class. What else could I bring?
It was well-received. I could see the hunger in my classmates' eyes. A few of them tried to touch the canvas, and I had to bat away their questing fingers. The instructor licked his lips, surreptitiously, as if afraid that someone might notice.
Carrying the canvas home that afternoon, I thought about their expressions, and I felt a vague unease. It seemed as if my blood was not simply high-quality paint; it had some sway, some kind of power to it. That idea made me squirm in my blue plastic bus seat. I decided not to use the blood-paint again.
But then my friend Mariela from fashion design asked me if I'd be interested in copying a photo taken at one of her shoots. She called the project an "artistic Russian doll"--an outfit nested inside a photo nested inside a painting. Sure, I told her. I'll try anything once.
The photo was from a shoot in the Japanese garden in Jackson Park; the dress was all flowing lines, eggshell and scarlet hugging the model's slim frame, purple accenting her billowed sleeves.
For a while, the painting progressed just fine with the usual materials. I was nearly finished when I put brush to palette only to discover that I had already scraped it clean. The tube, I knew, was empty--squeezed down to the last dollop. And I'd never make it to the store before they closed for the night.
I ran to the kitchen and reached behind the cereal bowls, where I had stashed the knife. It had known what I needed before--maybe it would work again.
Left forearm, two inches above the wrist: Quinacridone Violet.
You should know that I mostly go for guys, and skinny aspiring models are definitely not my type. But, by the time I was done with her, I was quivering and flushed, and that coy tilt of her head could have made a eunuch shiver.
The next week, I began to experiment. Lucky for me, it was October, and winter had already begun to encroach upon the meek Chicago autumn. No one would bat an eye at long sleeves, gloves, or a plaid scarf. Each new blood-color demanded a painting, and the cut would start to heal promptly upon completion of the canvas. There would be many scars to hide.
Left knee: Chromium Oxide Green.
Collar bone: Burnt Umber.
Chin: Titanium Buff.