ON PROGRESS, STRIFE, AND MY LARGEST PAINTING TO DATE.
By isabelle perkins
Fifteen months since I stretched a 5’ x 4’ canvas over a frame I got from a guy who lives in my building. After I left the studio that day, my roommate Sarah and I went to Home Depot and impulsively bought a gigantic palm tree. We somehow maneuvered the towering plant through the spinning subway turnstile, onto the G and L trains, then up the 50 stairs into our apartment.
It was April 2021 and the sun was streaming in through the warehouse windows, casting big squares of light across the wall. Arelis, our third roommate, snapped a picture as we rested the tree on a side table in the corner. As soon as I saw the picture, I knew I had to paint it. I knew it would need to be large enough to encompass the viewer, invite them to experience a physical confrontation with the plant that danced as we took it home, to take a dip in the bath of light of our apartment at golden hour in the summer months.
On May 11, 2021, I primed the canvas with white gesso and then a thin, bright yellow tonal underpainting. On June 11, I projected the image onto the canvas to draw a rough outline of the perspective. I’d never projected before and I haven’t since—it felt like cheating and was less helpful than I’d expected. The drawing was a crude starting point, a vague gesture toward the long road ahead.
June 13, 2021
There were so many issues, complex puzzles to solve: there was the architecture of the space, which seemed dull and tedious before I even began: the intricate black metalwork of the window panes, bricks on the ceiling, a doorframe, and the whole interior of Sarah’s room through the door. There were all of Sarah’s joyful little trinkets covering every surface, evidence of her ability to take delight in colors and shapes: a swirly plastic pink flower plastered against her window, plants coating every surface, little plastic animals adorning every plant, tiny photo negatives resting on the bar of the window. There were our clothes, our long bodies. There were the trees outside, the cat bed suctioned to the window, two of my paintings hanging on the wall—one of which was almost entirely obscured by the leaves of our new friend, the other of which was barely visible
I didn’t have the patience to give myself a good starting point, to sit there and grid the whole image and draw out all these dozens of problems. I only wanted to paint. So I dove in, painting for hours in my sweaty studio, standing in front of the giant canvas since I couldn’t reach the whole surface from my stools and chairs,
The first layer was both discouraging and promising.
It showed me that the scale was a good choice—I already felt the presence of the room coming to hold me, could tell it would force people to understand the magic of those hours when the sun streamed in, the gift my apartment generously gave us.
August 10, 2021
Everything was so, so, so far away from where it needed to be. So I kept going.
I painted another layer, growing more uncertain each time my brush touched the canvas. My arm wanted to seize up with fear that each movement would make my painting worse instead of better. Painting is an act of faith, and it’s not easy to trust that it will be okay, that I will accomplish what I’m trying to do. Most of the time, I want to do anything other than touch my brush to the canvas—sit there and stare, stand up and walk around, chug my water bottle—anything to avoid the moments when I have to be brave enough to place paint on the canvas.
But there’s no other choice. The only way out is through.
It still feels like an act of unforgivable audacity to squeeze the expensive paint out of its tube. No going back now. And what if I fuck up? What if I waste the paint? What if I mix a color, and it's wrong, bad, I have to just go over it? And then I do. I fuck up, I mix the colors, and they’re wrong and bad, and I just have to go over them.
But each layer brings me closer to an understanding of where I’m going.
I feel like a cartographer, building a map to my destination, slowly understanding the light, the shapes, the shadows, the sizes of my objects. First, they need to be laid out—accuracy isn’t important. Just getting them on the canvas is all I can do. And then I feel guilty, careless, because they aren’t accurate. It’s as if every error reflects on me in some deep way, proving my incompetence, taking away from my worth as a person.
Guilt and shame are paralyzing, and if I let them take over, I would never be able to prove myself.
So I kept going, kept building, and the colors I achieved weren’t colors I could have made without the base I laid down for myself. I mixed colors with my existing layers in mind, knowing how the paint would react to being layered on top of whatever was already placed down. In Still Life with Lemons and Oysters, Mark Doty “[imagines] coming to this kind of knowledge, a very speciﬁc, long practice of perception alloyed with a knowledge of materials—how to commingle oils and pigments just so, to the right texture, how to apply them in particular layers so as to translate this knowledge of the appearance of a particular gleam into paint.”
For months, I chased a specific gleam, acquiring more and more knowledge, and it felt like an act of translation, a way to communicate the importance of this specific light, these specific shapes and colors.
September 14, 2021
Once there was a general placement of everything, it was time to reckon with shadows and light, which yield a sense of depth and allow the viewer to feel that their own body is in conversation with the objects and bodies and spaces I’m sitting in a basement agonizing over. I overcorrected when it came to light. I added opaque whites mixed with transparent yellows and oranges for highlights, and highly contrasted blues and purples and browns for the shadows. Before correcting these colors and reducing the contrast, I had to wait for them to dry. This can take weeks, which can be a relief, like I’m being temporarily released from the punishing grip of my need to make this painting.
R: December 7th, 2021, L: September 3rd, 2022
Sometimes portions of the painting go untouched for months. I once knelt to work on the shoe rack and hadn’t touched it in so many months that a layer of dust had accumulated. Despite how humiliating it feels to allow people to see work that is nowhere near the caliber I know I will eventually work it up to, I share these early layers on Instagram.
People react to it so positively. I hate that in their minds, it’s finished. As soon as there’s no blank space on the canvas, no one can imagine the amount of work that remains. “Nothing will look like it does now, I swear, I’m going to fix everything, it’s not going to look like this, it’s going to be so much better,” I’m desperate to say. “It’s not finished,” I chirp instead, as they look at a small, pixelated version of the giant canvas I’ve spent months fighting with. And I know the only way to prove this is to sit in front of it for months more.
The only way out is through. So I keep going.
Throughout the long winter months, I bundled up in sweatshirts and continued working. Most days after leaving the studio, I felt stupid and inadequate—like I had gotten nothing done. It’s such a huge painting that sometimes hours of exhausting work yielded very little difference, and I kept making mistakes, inadvertent detours on my journey to the finish line. I would fight to fix things and not know how, and force myself to keep trying anyway.
In March 2022, I pushed myself to focus on the room behind the thick leaves—if the background wasn’t right, I’d have to try to work back through the tiny leaves in order to make it make sense. All I wanted was to get these leaves in place, to carefully communicate the shadows and light and motion of each tiny palm leaf stretching from the dancing stems. But I had to reckon with the architecture first—the boring, straight lines, the annoying perspective that took layers and layers to correct. I tried to get as much done as I could, because on April 1, we hosted an open studio night: dozens of my friends and my studiomates’ friends piled into our space to see our work. We drank wine and talked and I was astounded by the number of people who showed up. My chest was glowing by the end of the night, and people loved the painting, but a small slice of my heart felt sour like a lemon in the midst of all the warmth.
I was frustrated and embarrassed that the painting people were admiring was so far from the piece I knew she would one day become. I tried to set this aside and focus on the joy expressed. “The light!!!” Everyone exclaimed. “Just wait!!” I wanted to retort. Instead, I said thank you, and tried to internalize their praise as proof that I was on the right track, like a little stored strength in my chest that I could use to push away the doubt that still paralyzed me each time I sat in front of the canvas.
In May, I continued pushing, wanting to finish it before I left for a trip at the beginning of June.
It didn’t happen—it was delusional to think it would, but the fake deadline spurred me to work quickly, something that (evidently) does not come naturally to me. It started getting warmer, and I longed to spend time drenched in real warmth after an awful dark winter where I fed myself with the pigmented sunlight touching the curves of Sarah’s shirt, outlining her hair, suffusing the entire painting with glowing, golden light.
June 3, 2022
I showed my friends and roommates pictures of my progress. I grumbled to Arelis, blaming her as the photographer for this picture that captured me by the throat and refuses let me go until I do it justice. Her imposter syndrome bit back that she didn’t do anything; she refuses to see herself as a photographer despite the absolutely astounding images she takes with very little effort. Usually, I work almost exclusively from images I take myself. I do not consider myself a photographer, and most of my images are mindless documentations of what I do in a day. They’re not spectacular in their own right, and by the time I’m a layer or two in, I’ve easily surpassed them. This time, though, my reference danced ahead of me, miles out of reach, waiting for me to catch up.
It was the end of June, over a year since I started. My studio was flooded with natural light after the renovations from the year before, and I no longer felt my heart shattering in my chest every time I sat in the studio working. I went on runs to try to increase my endurance, my ability to stand in front of the canvas for hours on end. I dragged my lovely studiomates into my space, Dillon and Jack and Tom and Tin and Naava and Sonia, so I could work through problems out loud and hear their responses to what I’d done so far. Jack pointed out a highlight I had never noticed, a reflection of the yellow wall that cast a triangle into the top-right square of the window. When I added it in, it connected the windows to the wall in a way that made the room marvelously more cohesive. Tin pointed out the way some of the bricks leading up to the ceiling had a yellow cast from the light of the wall.
Dillon stood there while I pointed out each of the things remaining on my list, explaining them all: the pot needs to be darker, Sarah’s shirt needs another layer to make it flow better, the leaves in the middle of the plant need to be layered more thickly, there are highlights on the window panes, the suction cup and string holding up the cat bed need to be added in, the swirly pink thing in Sarah’s window needs to be brighter, on and on and on. The next day, too exhausted to make decisions, I made him come in over and over to pick out which thing on the list I should tackle next.
lists and studies from May 2021-September 2022
Every night before I left, I took pictures of the painting as a whole and close-up photos of whatever I worked on that day. When I sprawled out on the couch with Arelis at night to watch TV, I zoomed in on the photos, trying to plan out my next moves, figure out what I accomplished and what I should prioritize next.
I spent so long looking at this painting and feeling like I was in the middle of an ocean, swimming and swimming and swimming—if I stopped for too long, I would drown.
Sometimes, I think about how sharks keep moving even when they’re sleeping. It felt like I couldn’t see land for months—nothing, not a single part of the painting was up to par. Nothing was even close for over a year. People often tell me that I’m talented, and while I appreciate it, I can’t help but think of James Baldwin’s quote: “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”
Now, fifteen months later, it feels like I’m sprinting, but the sprint keeps getting longer. I know I can make it better. I know I can go farther. I could call it finished, and one day very soon I will, but not until there’s no important light left unexpressed.
It’s now September, and I just got some new paints. The most exciting of these is a pigment called plum grey that’s very similar to a purple I’ve spent years mixing myself on a regular basis (cadmium red deep + ultramarine blue + titanium white). I haven’t been able to find a premade pigment that gives me this type of purple I need so often: a purple that mixes as well with orange as it does with blue without turning greenish or grey. My first painting professor told us to try to mainly use primary colors. And I did so for years. Only since watching Naava use whatever pigments she wants did I realize I could just simply buy orange and purple paints.
But orange and purple paints are trickier to find, harder to use without turning things grey.
So much of my painting revolves around finding as much color as I can—shadows are blue and purple and reddish-brown, not grey. Lights are pinks and yellows and oranges. Everywhere, I try to add more color in a way that, hopefully, ultimately, becomes inconspicuous, as if it’s entirely natural for the world to be so filled with color.
I see the world in orange, and in order to truly see orange, blue and purple have become increasingly important. It seems almost too poetic that my best friends’ favorite colors are purple and blue.
Putting things about painting into words is always strange. It’s such a physical act. I exist in such a specific way when I’m painting because of how demanding it is—emotionally, mentally, physically.
And I think about it, constantly. It lives in my body and in my brain, but it’s strange to put it into words and into the world. Conversations with my friends who are painters feel surreal, like we all speak a language I didn’t even realize I was fluent in. But writing, even more than talking, draws attention to things that are mundane, mindless, instinctive.
Painting is endlessly repetitive; the movements come to live in your body—the movement of brush to the canvas, then to a palette, then to a towel, on and on and on. Manipulating the thick, physical colors around with a palette knife around over and over is demanding, but somehow never boring.
I have never worked this hard on a painting. It’s taken a lot out of me. So many things have changed since the day this image was taken. And as Keith Haring said, “I think, feel, act, conceive, and live differently every day... I paint differently every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every instant.”
I spend a lot of time in my head, and painting has always brought me back into my body. Sometimes, I look back at my memories and don’t feel that they actually happened; there are versions of me I don’t remember being. Standing with a version of my past self and existing with her as I’ve moved through life at its frantic pace has been painful at times but has grown to feel peaceful. Keith Haring describes learning to accept constant change as learning “to live in harmony with that knowledge and co-exist with it instead of working against it.”
June 15th, 2021
With a brush in my hand, I’ve reached out toward her, co-existing with a past moment, a past version of myself reaching for a plant that died a few months after we got it, but feels more alive on the canvas in front of me than it did even in that glowing moment.
I’m not making a still life, but it feels sometimes like I'm proving that life can be still.
Just because a moment stops happening and instantly becomes relegated to a tiny square in the camera roll of my memory doesn’t mean that it wasn’t once real and physical and colorful and glorious and hard all at the same time.
Living in the world of my canvas is not the same as existing in the actual moment.
When people stand in front of it, as I have for so many hours of my life, I don’t want them to feel as though the moment is actually happening.
I want them to remember warmth, remember that the things that have happened to them were once alive and bursting with color, to co-exist in harmony with the confusing reality of change.
Painting is an act of stopping light in a moment. I spend months of time rendering a single instant, convincing myself of the permanence of light in a world where everything seems terrifyingly tenuous.
Even as everything I know shifts unsteadily beneath my feet, the light in certain moments will live on forever, because I took the time to make it so.
September 20, 2022