I made my niece sister a painting for her bat-mitzvah. So of course I would be doing the same for my nephew. I don’t paint much these days, but making a gift of a painting for a major life event has become a bit of a tradition for me. It’s not the cheapest present–oil paints are expensive–but it gives me a project. I always feel good when I’m working on a canvas.
A few years ago, figuring out what, exactly to paint for my niece wasn’t easy; her torah portion was all about laws and rituals, without much of a plot or anything visual. But this time I was luckier. My nephew would be reading a bit of the Hebrew bible with a good story, from near the beginning of Genesis. (Most of the good stories are in Genesis.) This portion’s name is sometimes translated as “go forth” or “leave”. “And YHWH said to Abram, ‘go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I’ll show you.'” This is the bit where Amrab/Abraham is told his descendants will be many, that they will be a “great nation”. God speaks to our hero thus:
And He brought him outside and said, “Look at the skies and count the stars–if you’ll be able to count them.” And He said to him, “That is how your seed will be.”
When I read this in Hebrew school, I always had an image of two figures looking over a night sky stretching out into infinity. I was never a deep believer in the literal truth of the bible, but this image is beautiful. I decided that my nephew would get a painting of a deep, starry night sky. But the sky is nothing without the ground. And so I started with the horizon.
I wanted the land to be a bowl for the sky, for the entire image to have depth and direction. I knew that a flat, midwest-style horizon would be dull. While there are no mountains in the text, I knew that mount Sinai–closer to Egypt–would come much, much later in the story. The text doesn’t say the land was flat, so I put a mountain with a Sinai-like profile in the picture. (I figure that Genesis contradicts itself in plenty of places already, and a little artistic license won’t hurt anyone.)
In art school, more than one teacher told us to never, ever use black when painting. In printing, four color black is the deepest black. I wanted this sky to be very dark, but I also wanted there to be beauty and depth to the color. And oil paints are so easy to blend and mix on the canvas. So I started with some brighter colors, meaning to mix my way to the night sky.
Going along with happy accidents is the my favorite part of painting. I really don’t know why I kept the huge orange glow around the tent. I meant for it to be a small campfire, but it ended up being much bigger and larger than I intended. It looks almost as if Abram and Sarai’s tent were burning. But an instant after regretting this conflagration of orange, I decided to go with it and see what happened. Now, I like the result. The shapeless glow suggests something otherworldly.
Then, with each layer, I made the sky darker.
I now had a white, mountain-shaped gap under the sky. Before painting in the land, I decided that maybe the wind would be blowing. So, using a dry brush to hint at a cool night wind, I again mixed mountainous terrain with the motifs of the desert.
Stars are easy to do; I thinned some white paint and dipped a toothbrush in it, flicking the paint off of the bristles and onto the canvas. The sky was quickly covered with thousands of stars. So were my hands and my clothes, and the carpet around my dropcloth.
I started painting the under-colors of the ground now. It took me a while and a few false starts, including an ill-advised attempt to have campfires flickering on the plain. I wanted to balance the otherworldly glow around the tent, but what I got looked more like the fires of hell than campfires, not something I’d want on my wall. So I painted those over.
The final result is richer than the photographs here show. The land is a dark, dark shadow that seems like a presence, not simply an absence of light.
My nephew liked the painting, despite having to wait a couple of weeks for it to dry. I’m happy with it, and I hope to visit the painting when I go and see him and my sister’s family.
But, in the end, I made this painting for myself, as I do with all of the paintings I give as gifts. The occasion is an excuse to start and finish a project, and a good one. I may not be filling my own walls with art, or selling my work. But someone’s getting it, and that makes me happy.