And when you come to stay with us, you may be asked to pose.
I wanted to seize the opportunity to make a portrait while Dia was still in Berlin, before they headed off to New York for a new job doing important work protecting civil liberties.
I am as giddily pleased with this rock-solid powerhouse portrait as I’ve ever been with anything I’ve done. I think it’s a good indication for the New Year.
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I kept glancing at them through the crowd. Wearing thick, homespun-looking clothes with worn leather trim on the pockets and cuffs, broad-brimmed black hats, and one gold earring, they were romantic and mysterious.
Their waistcoats and coats had rows of huge mother-of-pearl and horn buttons, mismatched and full of character. Their thick trousers had vertical double zips where the buttons on a sailor’s pants would be.
They wore pintucked white shirts of what looked like cambric, and scarves of rough loose-woven cotton, and heavy leather boots that had seen the hands of a cobbler.
They had walking sticks that were gnarled and smooth, like roots that had been polished. They seemed relaxed, at ease, comfortable with each other and the East Berlin night. I had to know more.
I asked, as you do here if you are polite, “May we speak English?” He said yes, and words spilled out of me: “What is the story, you are rocking this amazing look, is it like cowpunk or something, are a you a troupe, what ARE YOU?”
“Oh no”, he said, “We are journeymen. For three years and a day, we must be within not a certain distance of home. We are gardeners and a joiner.” “A joiner?” I asked, amazed. “Like a carpenter?” “Yes”, he said, “We are craftsman on a journey.”
I desperately wanted to paint them. I had my sketchbook with me, and I showed them my U-Bahn sketches of a sleeping Russian teen, of a Turkish guy playing the banjetar. I had my Moo cards in the hot pink carrying case Daria got me and I gave them cards.
They nodded consideringly, said they would be in touch, and debarked at Schlesisches Tor. I went and taught class and after I told my friend Skye, who was in the class, all about them. “I met these amazing people!” I drew the clothing of the ginger as best I could remember.
We would like to come tomorrow night, he said in the direct fashion of Germans. I was terrified. I had looked up the journeyman tradition, and got my brain around it a bit, but basically we were talking about homeless strangers coming to my delicate sacred house of precious things. I muscled through the fear and confirmed. I offered to make some simple vegetarian food, which was a good plan as it turned out the fourth of their company is a vegan.
I sauteed peppers and onion with chunks of smoked tofu, baked a dish of refried black beans (ordered from Amazon, totally unobtainium on the street here) with chipotles in adobo and olive oil, and made this no-fuss vegan cornbread.
I substituted full fat coconut milk for the soy milk, olive oil for the canola, white balsamic for the ACV, German “strong” 1050 flour for the all-purpose, and four tablespoons of date syrup for the sugar. It came out really well!
The journeymen arrived and we ate food together. They were intrigued by our weird house and I could hear them muttering, “Ah! Halloween!” as they looked around. I immediately knew that I had been right to push through my paranoid, everyone is out to get you New Yorker mindset and that these were truly good folk.
I didn’t have a canvas on hand and wanted to get as much detail as I could in the time we had, so I painted on cold press illustration board for the first time in at least twenty years. Boy howdy, I forgot how easy it is!! I made good progress in the amount of time my strength held out.*
After the painting, we hung out for a while and Ben, one of the journeyman joiners, pulled out a battered plastic Coke bottle. He had recently been in South America, in Brazil, living with indigenous people and weaving and building. He’d brought this bottle of scary indigo fluid back with him, through German customs. (Imagine being that unafraid of your government!). It was jagua, a traditional skin dye or tattoo pigment made from Genipa Americanus, which is an edible fruit.
You can learn more about the journeyman tradition here. Although the part about not using transit doesn’t apply to all journeyman groups, obviously.
This whole experience was so mellow and yet so fucking magical I almost can’t describe it.
One of our friends from the Bay Area, a very handsome and dashing fellow, was in town. I was super excited to paint him, as I’d never had a chance in Oakland.
He came over, dressed in a sharp suit, and I gave him some wine (we still have tons left from the housewarming) and set to work. He posed extremely well, with great brio, but I couldn’t get a light source that worked. And once I started painting, the situation devolved.
I can draw myself or paint myself out of just about any corner in an additive-subtractive medium; my knowledge of anatomy, structure and values is sufficient to recover from most wrong directions. But with watercolor, you can’t go very far down the wrong road.
I tried everything I could think of to resolve the portrait, including opaque white to recover lost lights, but it was a no-go. Eventually I called it and we started over. I asked my model to change his pose, I changed the light source, and I switched to drawing, only lightly tinted at the end with watercolor. I captured his Leyendecker profile this time.
So I was able to produce a decent likeness that had a good sense of the sitter, but only by divergent means. I scanned the horrific failure, excerpted here, but only my Patrons get to see it 🙂
It’s our neighbor neighborhood, just to the East and a quick bus or subway ride. Blixa Bargeld, Marlene Dietrich and Helmut Newton were all born there. Bowie, Iggy Pop, Klaus Kinski and Christopher Isherwood lived there. It’s old-fashioned and not uptight, with lots of amazing food and lots of relaxed mature bears.
Daria decided the Cafe BilderBuch, or Storybook Cafe, is the perfect meetup place for us because it’s halfway between her place in Neukölln and our place in Wilmersdorf. We met there for the second time yesterday. I love to walk from the M29 stop at Nollendorfplatz, through the ancestral queer neighborhood and down towards the new hip specialty food joints.
The ice cream is American style, with big, soft chewy American cookies also available. This time I had lemon ice cream with blueberry jam and lemon-mint sorbet. The day before I had cucumber and tonic and pink grapefruit/Earl Grey. All are amazing, although the cucumber and tonic is some particularly next level business.
Here’s a girl I glimpsed on the subway platform and had to draw because something about the way she delicately picked a strand of hair out of her face reminded me of my friend Victoria’s daughter Dalia when she was younger.
And here’s a note I left for my middle-aged German biker furniture movers, who don’t speak a word of English but can be relied on to go anywhere in Berlin and collect something I bought on eBay, then deliver it and gruffly mock me for “kaufen, kaufen!”. We would have no furniture without them.
This watercolor thing is getting to be FUN. Probably if I’m gonna keep doing it I should buy a better watercolor block than this one from the stationary store around the corner, and maybe some real watercolors. Maybe even a new Windsor & Newton Series 7 Sable, nobly though the one I bought when I was at Parsons thirty years ago has served.
I had one class where we had one watercolor assignment, in school. Unfortunately I didn’t think painting in colors was worth my time, then; it was just an useless tangent for a person who was going to be a comic book penciller and have a colorist to take care of such things.
My teacher was furious. I felt at the time that he was furious about the banal quality of the green grass I’d painted. It seemed like he was just really disgusted that I’d painted such bad grass. But I know better now. I still think the grass really bothered him, but I bet it bothered him more that I had wasted a priceless opportunity to work and learn.
I forgive you for yelling at me, Parsons teacher whose name I’ve forgotten. I forgive you for being a medium I didn’t know how to use, watercolors. I forgive you for being drunk and sloppy when you were 20 years old, Suz.
My Never-Muse comes to Berlin all the time. I had been planning watercolors of her since she went pastelgoth last year. I hadn’t painted a watercolor portrait in a very, very long time- 25 years. I did do a little watercolor experimentation to warm up earlier this summer.
I started the painting above, then set it aside to dry for a while and did this other one. When I came back to the first painting, we were talking about some very heavy things, and that’s why she looks so sad.
I feel like sadness is a part of life and sharing it with friends is a way to make peace with it, so I don’t mind that she looks sad.
I’m glad we did two though.
I was so happy to spend a day making art with my Never-Muse again.
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