watercolor and pencil by N. Wait 1987
As the din of gunfire around us grows louder and more outrageous with no end in sight, I think of the illustration I once did of the man and the bear.
The client said, “I want a picture of a bear and a man drinking beer in the bear’s cage at the zoo.” He added that the man was more of a caretaker than a zookeeper, the cage was more of a stage set, and the bear was really a man in a bear suit.
When I showed him the preliminary sketches he said, “Can you give it an air of enchantment?”
I looked up enchantment in the dictionary. To attract, delight, cast a spell over.
If I had been given the assignment today no doubt I would have waved my digital wand at one of the many filtering options at my disposal on phone and computer. But this was thirty years ago. Back in the old days I had to manipulate the image with paints and brushes and colored pencils. If there were to be any special effects, they would come about with actual water dousing actual paper, an actual eraser rubbing that paper. A sensory, touchy-feely exercise geared towards “attracting, delighting, casting a spell over.”
Now, being that my goal was actually to delight the client, enchant him with my artistry, I had to get myself into the right frame of mind. Which is to say, I had to align myself with his intention. This meant getting into alignment with the idea of being enchanted. I knew exactly what to do first—put on the right music—the music that enchanted me—the record of medieval choir singing that sounded like a chorus of angels.
This angelic music filled the room when I took out my watercolors and a fresh sheet of paper. Angelic voices filled my ears as I began putting color in and taking it out, over and over again, creating layers, a feeling of depth, a sense of mystery. The angels continued to sing as I smudged and softened the borders between things, creating a diffused space where anything might happen.
(The picture above is a photo of a photo…of the original, and as such it is darker and more dense here, which cannot be helped.)
As the voices guided my brush, painting felt like an act of surrender. I abandoned myself to the picture, submitted to the client’s desire. He, after all, had given me the idea, planted it in my brain, as it were. To give him what he wanted I had to make it my idea too. And so I went on smudging, defining, then smudging again. When objects became too fuzzy I used colored pencils to add definition, then softened the lines again with a wet brush. I toned down the light at the edges, making it more shadowy. I went as far as I dared with the blurring and the smudging and the softening of edges to give it a dream-like quality, the sense of a different dimension.
But in the end I think it worked because of my sincerity. My commitment to making this unreal scene look absolutely real. So that I could believe in it too.
I am still in alignment with the idea of being enchanted.
As the din of gunfire around us grows louder still, and still more outrageous, I still think of the man and the bear. I think of bearing. I think of what must be borne, and what cannot be borne anymore.
(I would like to turn all those deadly metal bullets into flakes of snow. Let the snow fall—not the bodies. And let the snow melt, and create a new stream. And let the stream nourish the fields where the flowers bloom…)
The man and the bear are drinking Amstel Light. It was my favorite beer in those days because of its name, Amstel Light, which to me meant, I’m-still-light.
I drank in the fact that I was still light. I gave it to the man to share with the bear (in his bowl on the ground), and now I give it to you.
They can’t shoot the light.