Returning to Oil: The Inspiration

by Brenda W. Clough

As I recall, I received a set of oil paints for my birthday. They came in this exact wooden Grumbacher box, which has an address label on it with an APO New York address. Which allows me to deduce that I probably received it for my 17th birthday, while we were living in Munich, Germany. Although I painted with oils at that point in my life, it’s an expensive medium, what with the linseed oil and the turps, and water-color is much more portable and less messy. So I kept this box but didn’t paint in oil much. I did continue to paint: some elaborate water-color landscapes in Munich, a good many walls in latex paint, some furniture in enamels, some book covers and protest signs in acrylic. But not oil.

Until this year, when a course at the Smithsonian Institution organized by their Associates program titled ‘Painting from Your Favorite Photograph’ caught my eye. Because I do have a photograph, this one: 

You may remember it, from this very blog a few months ago. It’s the ruins of the Roman bridge at Ambrussum, in the south of France, and I visited it in September. At that time I was powerfully struck by the notion that I had seen this bridge, this view, before. It surely was in a painting, probably by Sisley or Cezanne, seen in a museum. The painter set up his easel on this exact spot. I took this photograph and went off to the internet to look. And, no — no Impressionist has painted this, only one Gustave Courbet, a minor artist of the Realist school from decades earlier in the 1800s. His painting, done when the bridge was less ruinous, does not look at all like this. Of all the tiresome things. What on earth was Cezanne thinking? How come Albert Sisley wasn’t more on the ball? This is a natural, a lead-pipe cinch, a no-brainer.

And that’s the key moment. Something’s not there, but it ought to be. You stumble across an empty socket in the universe. Something is not right. The proper order of the world is missing something. When that notion seizes you, then the answer is simple and perfectly logical. If it’s a sweater you knit it; if it’s a painting, you paint it; if it’s a novel, you write it. That naggy notion is the Muse, shoving an elbow into your ribs and telling you to step up and bring something into the light that wasn’t there yesterday. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Immediately I signed up for that class. I dragged out the old Grumbacher oil paint box, and discovered all the 40-year-old tubes of oil paint dry and hard as bones. I threw them out, bought some new brushes and a starter set of oil paints on Ebay, and loaded them into the old box ready to go. I am off, to be an Impressionist.




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