A fictional story, no drawings. Readers can make up their own picture.Figures in a Landscape
The Barwon River is tranquil, shining silver, but in the distance the landscape is flattened as in a Chinese ink painting, by a mist in the hills, a mist amidst the hollows. Can I replicate that style in my own painting? I put my stool down, easing it into the damp ground then clip rough-textured paper to my board and lay out my brushes and inks in a tray.
Dry-bush reeds will provide a good foreground, the large S curve of river and banks a middle-ground and the foggy banks beyond, a smudged background. The river is barely astir except for a young boy poling his small white boat along. A dot in the mid-ground. I work carefully, drawing outlines in 5B pencil, then brush pale colours as flat sheets of watery ink, not bothering about details and dark areas at this stage.
The girl comes slowly along the path, her lemon dress almost sculptured to her thin body. On her shoulder she has slung a woven bag, the kind you buy from Asian hill tribes – possibly Thailand. It is patterned in yellow, turquoise and white diagonals. Her straight, shiny black hair with a bold fringe is striking as it frames her pale face. She seems fragile, vulnerable, perhaps the way I felt when I was a young woman her age.
I would love to put her in the picture. In her paleness she would enhance the pale tints of the landscape. A Pale Figure in a Landscape.
She walks up to me as most people do, stands behind me and watches me at work. She does not speak, just watches the ink wash become a smudge of distant banks.
Eventually I decide not to be anxious about the intrusion – I am a very private person really and do not like being disturbed.
Maybe she will oblige me. ‘Would you mind if I paint you into the picture? If you stand over there, perhaps look at the water or the distance?’
‘Oh no. Not now,’ she says. Her smooth hair swings as she speaks and her hands lift lightly in a gesture implying she might agree if pressed.
‘Okay, I was just wondering.’ I am used to knock-backs.
She considers the matter for a while and then says, ‘Alright. I suppose so. It doesn’t really matter one way or another. Where do you want me to stand? I can’t stand for too long though. My parents will expect me back at the car-park in twenty minutes or else they’ll worry about me.’
I am surprised because she is not a child. Perhaps in her early twenties, she hardly needs a caretaker. She has a classical face without makeup, small breasts, a lean body, and she wears sandals. When I notice her wrists are scarred and bruised with pin-pricks barely healed, I am dismayed that she may be damaged. An addiction may account for her ethereal look.
She stands quietly for me and then I notice her reflection in the water caught in the stillness so I will paint that too. I work quickly now, aware that she is not a trained model and may become anxious after maintaining a pose for more than ten minutes. Yet she is excellent, her eyes fixed on the distant haze. Now I can see the nearby water is moving ever so slightly. Life often moves so delicately.
‘That’s fine,’ I call out. ‘Excellent. Come and see.’
She throws a pebble into the water shattering the reflection and the rings eddy right into the bank.
‘That’s nice,’ she says, ‘but it’s really not me at all. Not like before…’
I am puzzled by her attitude.
The weather is changing as a rain cloud shadows the river.
‘I’d better go back. You might read about me in the papers one day,’ she says. As she walks she flings her head, raises a hand to pull off the swathe of black hair, and pushes the wig into her shoulder bag.
When I see her smooth hairless head, I am shocked but now understand. The eternal question. Life rips at us and we approach death in fear and trembling.
‘I’m not afraid any more, ‘I hear her say, ever so faintly.