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art by Melissa Mead

Artist's Retrospective

David D. Levine is the author of over fifty published science fiction and fantasy stories. His work has appeared in markets including Asimovís, Analog, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy. This is his fourth appearance in Daily Science Fiction.

David D. Levine has won or been nominated for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Campbell. His award-winning short story collection Space Magic is now available as an audiobook as well as in hardcover, paperback, and ebook. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Kate Yule, with whom he co-edits the fanzine Bento, and his website is at daviddlevine.com.
I can't take my eyes off the customer's back as he approaches my gallery. My emotions are strong and mixed: satisfaction, a sense of completion, a little sadness. I hope he is happy with the painting he is bringing me.
The bell over the door jingles as he enters, and we shake hands with big smiles. He hands me the painting, wrapped in brown paper, and with care and attention I unwrap it. It is one of mine: an abstract suggesting a bowl of fruit, pear and banana shapes in teal and turquoise. I regard it with pride and, again, a little sadness before I hang it in a blank spot on the wall.
There is some negotiation over the price, but we reach an agreement. At this point I am all business, my artistic emotions suppressed.
We discuss the painting for some time, and I point with pride to some of its more subtle visual touches. Then we shake hands again, and I leave him to wander around the gallery by himself for a time. Eventually he departs; I hear the bell as I sit reading the newspaper by the cash register.
Days pass. I find myself glancing at the abstract more and more frequently, then contemplating it for many minutes at a stretch. It is a lovely piece, yet something in it is not quite what I would wish.
Finally, one fine morning, I take it down from the wall, remove it from its frame, and place it on an easel in my studio. I touch the surface, finding it cool and hard.
I turn off the light and leave the painting alone for a few hours. The next time I touch it, the paint is stiff but slightly tacky. Not quite ready.
Evening, two days later. I am tired, drained of creativity, but the painting is ready for me, the paint glistening in the orange-tinted sunset light. Wearily I prepare my brushes, scrub the palette, bring out the tubes of paint from their tidy drawers. I scatter the tubes around my workspace seemingly at random, placing each where it will be needed, before standing and regarding the canvas for a long time.
Very nearly perfect, I realize. It has a few imperfections, to be sure, but it is eminently satisfactory... entirely representative of my best work.
Good enough, though?
No. Not good enough.
I begin by removing shadows and highlights, pulling slim lines of pure black and white from the canvas with a fine brush, wiping the paint from the brush onto my palette. Minutes of careful contemplation pass between strokes. Exhausted though I am, it's a delicate time in the painting's life and must not be hurried.
With those details gone, the painting seems fresh, vibrant... maybe a little amateurish, but otherwise satisfactory. I feel somewhat energized as I regard it, nodding slowly, knowing a long day's work is ahead of me.
The next step is to remove a few small areas of blue and yellow around the edge which suggest the table and room. The bowl of fruit now floats in a void. Not bad, but not quite what I'd envisioned. I grab large brushes and pull away paint in broad strokes. My lips pull back from my teeth in a creative fervor as I strip away the bowl, the banana, the scattered grapes, and finally the pear that sits at the center of the composition. With a few swift brushstrokes the paint composing the pear, a large and angular shape of pure teal, becomes a glistening, hefty blob on my palette, which I then suck into the tube with a firm decisive gesture. I seal the tube and place it back in the drawer.
Now the canvas is empty, an unadorned swath of glossy primer white. I stare at it, breathing hard, vitalized by my exertions... yet still very tired and wholly unsatisfied.
Something is wrong. Usually at this point in the creative process I am calm, energetic, pensive. Yet I must continue. My artistic vision insists upon it. With my broadest brush I strip the primer away, drops of paint flying as I slop it from the brush into a large bucket.
Beneath the primer gleams another, earlier painting. A similar abstract, also resembling a bowl of fruit, but this one in somber earth tones of tan, umber, and ochre.
The earlier painting angers me. It is my own work, to be sure, but it betrays my ambitions--it fails completely to represent the best that I can do.
Again I pull out my finest brushes and remove highlights, shadows, details, stems and branches and leaves. But these changes do not rescue the painting from its essential inadequacy. The whole thing will have to go.
The umber, the ochre, the tan... in a frenzy of creativity I strip them all from the canvas, creating a hideous brown mess on my palette. I take a moment to carefully separate the paints into their component colors before sucking each back into its tube and replacing the tube in the rack.
As I work I become happier and happier with the painting.
At last the clean, dry canvas rests fresh and inviting in the morning light.
My heart thrums with creativity and energy as I stand before the blank canvas, imagining the perfect bowl of fruit it is meant to become.
My work here is finished.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 18th, 2013


I don't usually write short-shorts, but this story was written as a "kickstarter" to break a long fallow period of not-writing. It was suggested by a line from a Barenaked Ladies song about a window washer: "A crystal clear canvas is my masterpiece." This line led me to consider the emotions of an "unpainter" in a world in which time runs backward. Sometimes undoing the wrong work is as satisfying as doing the right work in the first place!

- David D. Levine

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