My dear Violet:
I must write you about my first adventure as a portraitste in the New World. The mayor of Petalumo invited me to his palacio this morning to discuss painting a portrait of his daughter for her fifteenth birthday. I was so excited I could hardly sleep last night. I spent two hours dressing and checking and rechecking my appearance and my sketchbook. I marked several pages to show the mayor and his wife as samples of my work.
His home was not the grand palace I expected. Apparently, any dwelling facing on the grand canal, however commonplace and shabby, is called a palacio. The old man and his even older wife hovered around me like vultures, while I made a preliminary sketch of their daughter. She was a plump child with a high complexion, as if she had a fever. She posed like a sack of turnips upon a divan, holding a puppy that squirmed and squealed the entire time I was there. I included the puppy in my sketch, but the mayor said, “No, not the dog. She must look like an old woman, with dignity.”
By this I think he meant that he wanted a stiff, formal pose, along the lines of the portraits I had seen in the municipal hall the night before. I crosshatched over the puppy, making it part of a dark background.
Then the mayor added, “And the pearls. Make them more big.”
“Like goose eggs?” I asked.
I pretended not to hear him.
“How much it costs?” he asked, “a picture in paints of oil color?”
“How large a painting do you want?”
He held his arms wide to indicate a canvas over a meter square.
I said, “750 pesos,” and he immediately reduced his gestures to indicate a much more modest size canvas.
“I said, “650 pesos,” and his eyebrows shot up.
“So much?” he said. “Why so much?”
I told him that a small painting takes almost as much time as a large painting. “You are paying mostly for my time, not the paint and canvas.”
He said, “I have to think about it.” He took the sketch from my left hand and started shaking my right hand. He stood up and hauled me to my feet as well, spraying me with rapidfire Spanish: “Thank you so much for coming to our home. It is my pleasure. Mucho gusto, mucho gusto.” He steered me out the door so quickly that I left without my stick of charcoal and eraser.
So far, Alta California is not paradise for a portraitste.
Your disillusioned chum,
© Patrick Fanning, 2012