I wrote on Saturday about my ailing grandpa: how he’s been getting weaker, how much it weighs on me that he’ll never get to see the family history I’ll someday write. (I also posted a personal entry about him this morning, which is really a Part I to this entry.) On Friday night as I lay awake, fretting, it occurred to me that I wanted to make something for him — something that can stay with him in the nursing home after I leave, something that conveys a sense of the work I hope to do with the rest of my life.
At first I wasn’t sure what form this gift could take. Gong-Gong’s vision, as well as his mental awareness, is not always to be relied on these days. I can turn out pretty cards at a moment’s notice, but I wanted this to be more meaningful, something that would have emotional resonance for me as well as anyone else who saw it. I pulled up some holiday photos from recent years, and started sketching, noticing with some surprise that I can now produce drawings with a passable resemblance to the original.
Using several photos for reference, I created a composition: Gong-Gong seated on the sofa with an open photo album, my sisters and me by his side. This speaks to our family history as well as our family gatherings; I added a notebook and pen on my lap to indicate my role as documentarian.
The tricky part about this painting was always the faces. I was terrified the whole time, thinking I was going to botch the faces and would have to start all over again. So, after getting the basic sketch down, I began to put in the faces, once again working closely with the reference photos.
Gong-Gong’s face proved the easiest to capture, I guess because he has a distinctively shaped nose, eyebrows, and glasses. I had to do a lot of erasing when it came to my sisters, and even so, I wasn’t fully satisfied with the end result. For myself I barely bothered with precision; after doing so many self-portraits, I figured things would just work themselves out. I got all the basic positioning down and then I got antsy to paint.
As I learned last week, skin tones can be difficult to mix, so I took my time. Last week the colors came out too pink, and this time they’re too orange (we all look like we’ve gone crazy with the faux-tan!) — but if it must be one, I prefer the orange. (I also think I need to get some new yellow that isn’t so cool. The ochre is good, but the lemon yellow doesn’t do anything for skin tones.) I mixed four tones and layered them together on our faces, trying to account for the differences in our real skin tones. The result is, I think, kind of creepy.
Luckily, this is where my detail work came in. With my liner brush I added brows, eyes, lips, and glasses, and further defined the facial features. I’m still totally amazed at what tiny markings I can create with this brush; it’s even better than using a pen, as long as my hands don’t tremble! After I added the hair, “we” began to take on a much more lively appearance! (I could have gotten fancier with the hair, but at this point I was starting to tire, and I knew I couldn’t keep up that kind of detail on the clothes and background too.)
By this time it was well after lunchtime, and I’d been sketching and painting for maybe a couple of hours. I probably should have left it, had lunch, rested, and then come back, but once I start something I don’t like to leave it until it’s finished. So I wasn’t as careful with the clothing or the background. Allison’s (at far left) clothes are really bizarre and aren’t anything she would ever wear, Gong-Gong’s lower half is much too opaque, and everyone’s arms look weird. In my very last brushstroke I got careless and made Sarah’s (second to left) necklace too fat.
But all things considered, I’m happy with it. It perfectly fits what I wanted to do; in fact, it’s so perfect, I can’t believe I was stuck for ideas when I started. And I think it’s pretty damn good for my fifth or sixth watercolor ever (as an adult).
As for Gong-Gong, he seemed to like it. I put it in a plastic sleeve and presented it to him yesterday, and he held it in his right hand (the one missing a couple of fingers… I should find out the story behind that) while my aunt helped him hold it steady. “See, Lisa made this for you,” she explained in Cantonese, “there you are, and Lisa, and Sarah, and Allison.” He didn’t say anything, but he looked interested and pleased, and he took his time looking it over. While my aunt fed him lunch, we propped the picture up in front of him, and twice more he reached for it and held it in front of him with the same pleased expression. Later he caught my eye over the top of the painting and we smiled at each other. I don’t know exactly how his thoughts run these days. I don’t know whether, when he smiled at me, he saw his first and favorite grandchild, or a familiar but unidentifiable relative, or just a friendly face. But his smile appeared loving and intelligent, and I was happy to return it. When I left the nursing home, Gong-Gong was napping and my mom had pinned the painting up on the corkboard next to his bed. It warms me to know that it’ll be there day in and day out, maybe bringing his granddaughters a little more into focus whenever he sees it, or maybe just giving his eyes something colorful and lovingly made to gaze upon. Whatever it means to him, I’m glad to have provided it… and as for me, I’m thankful I had the skill to paint it and the chance to give it to him in person.
Tomorrow: my artist date takes me backward in time!