Part IV – Flesh Tones
Iris took me by surprise when she padded up behind me entirely nude. She stood so close I could have reached out to touch her, and I did, in fact, spill wine on her in my discomfiture.
It had been years since I had worked with a model and I was expecting some modesty. I expected her to come out from behind the screen wrapped tightly in the kimono I had provided. I had pictured her sitting for me wrapped in the robe, gradually letting it slide from her shoulders as my professionalism and the wine made her more comfortable.
I had anticipated that gradual unveiling — the transition from shy girl to wanton woman that I hoped would take place in front of my easel. I was well aware she was young, but I planned to look and not touch.
After all, she had the sweet, milk-fed look of a high school cheerleader. The kind of looks that are polished with Breck shampoo and Dove soap.
So the thing that had surprised me the most was the contrast between her open, scrubbed face and the steel rings in her nipples.
I had to peel my eyes away as I handed her the wine.
I paused and asked “You are old enough to drink, aren’t you?”
She smiled that small-town grin and nodded.
“Where would you like me?” she asked, fingering the bunch of irises on the table.
“Over in the gold chair.”
As she turned to walk away, I saw the tattoo covering her back – a huge image of Kwan Yin, riding the back of a dragon through the sea. The waves spread out across her hips.
I swallowed hard and again felt something flip, this time lower than my stomach. This girl was full of surprises.
“Is that Kwan Yin?” I asked casually.
“It is.” She sounded pleased.
“It’s a coincidence,” I said, attempting to make small talk. “I just saw an interesting poem about Kwan Yin on Craigslist.”
“Was it ‘Kwan Yin Is On My Back Again?’” she asked.
“Uh-huh,” I said, busying myself arranging art supplies and adjusting my easel.
(Read the original Craigslist post here.)
“I wrote it,” she said, simply.
I stopped and looked at her.
Our gaze held.
She broke away first.
“How would you like me to sit?”
“Just make yourself comfortable,” I said, kneeling down to adjust the knobs on the easel.
“How much time do you have? Is it okay if I paint rather than sketch?”
“My evening’s free,” she said.
“You remember I’m an abstractionist, right?” I asked. “This won’t be a portrait.”
I saw her look around the studio at the finished and half-finished paintings on the walls and stacked up in piles.
“I’m sure whatever you come up with will be great,” she said. “I’m really in it for the experience.”
I straightened up and turned to face her.
She sat, sort of slouched into the chair, her body draped across it. One hand balanced the glass of wine on the arm of the chair; the other rested on her thigh, which was flung across the chair’s other arm, spreading her legs wide toward the easel.
“How’s this?” she asked.
“It’ll work for me, if you can hold it.”
I was determined not to let her see how rattled I felt.
“Oh, I can hold it,” she said.
I turned on the stereo, loaded with k.d. lang’s “Drag” c.d., and set about mixing paints.
“I haven’t heard this in years.” She leaned into the chair with her eyes closed, the wineglass empty in her hand.
Looking for a color that could approximate her smooth, tawny skin, I blended titanium white and bismuth yellow with ochre and a dab of cadmium red.
I turned to the easel and began to paint, brushing color into the middle and out toward the edges. The scrape of my stiff-bristled brush on the rough canvas sounded rhythmically in the room. I reached for the enameled tray that served as my palette.
Soon I was lost in the painting. The room began to darken and I adjusted the lights.
I added warm colors to the palette. I changed to a softer brush. I scratched lines into the surface with the end of my brush. I traced them with a 6B pencil and rubbed the graphite into the exposed canvas. I painted out a section and mixed colors to approximate the dusky mustard color of the chair.
Finally, I stopped, exhausted. I put my hands on my legs and bent over, stretching out my back.
The room was quiet; the music had stopped. Embarrassed, I realized she had been sitting there for hours without a break.
Yet, still she sat, watching me.
“Are you finished?” she asked softly.
The room had cooled a little with the evening. I saw goosebumps on her arms. Her nipples, held partly erect by the rings, began to harden then. She breathed in deeply and rhythmically, waiting for my answer, which didn’t come.
I stood looking at her, as though after those hours, I was seeing her for the first time. I watched her belly rise and fall with her breathing.
Still spread in the pose, her excitement was clearly visible.
Her voice was huskier then.
“May I look at the painting?”
Slowly, she began to move her arms and legs. She rubbed the stiffness out of her elbows and ran her hands down her legs. She used her hands to lift her raised thigh off the arm of the chair. Standing, she interlocked her fingers and turned her palms upward, stretching the length of her spine.
Finally, she came to stand beside me.
I could feel the warmth of her body next to me as she surveyed the canvas, which was a mass of swirling flesh tones, grounded on the mustard color of the chair. The flesh tones warmed and cooled, lightened and darkened, but across the three-foot canvas, they looked like they were lit from within. A line down the canvas may have hinted at a waist, another, the curve of a breast. Down near where the chair was represented was a gentle streak of deep, dark rose.
“I like this part best,” she said, pointing to it.
“So do I,” I said, reaching for her.