Portrait of Us
I couldn’t quite get the color of her hair right.
I stepped back from my oil canvas and tried to eye the painting with a fresh, unbiased perspective. I’d already blocked in the background colors for my portrait, soft hues of green and blue that complemented the model’s flowing peach dress.
Maiko sat facing us, her long hair a rich brown-black that draped across her shoulder like a dark river. Her perfect skin was creamy, pale with blushing undertones, and her small hands rested on her lap. She was a great model, motionless but somehow still filled with life, drawing our attention to her naturally.
I’d totally captured the gentle emotion on her face, the relaxed lines of her body. But I wasn’t pleased with the tones I’d mixed for
her hair. They didn’t feel . . . warm enough, somehow. What was I doing wrong? A bubble of frustration welled in me.
“Coming along great, Corinne,” Teni Achebe, the local artist-in-residence who ran our summer workshop, said as she slipped behind me. She studied my painting, head tilted, taking in everything.
I suddenly felt like she could see every flaw, and I fought the urge to cover the whole thing with my hands. “I don’t know what I’m messing up about her hair,” I finally confessed, my face flushed hot. I rubbed the back of my neck with my clean hand. “It’s falling flat for me.”
“Hmm. Take a close look at the shades in her hair,” she instructed, pointing me toward Maiko, who sat serenely, staring off into space. “You have the browns and blacks, but do you see a hint of red, too? That’s the warm tone your painting is missing.”
Wow. Now that she pointed it out, I could see a touch of red where the soft light hit the crown of her hair. How had I missed that?
“Thank you,” I said, pouring appreciation into my voice.
“Just a thin layer over what you’ve already painted. Make it light, almost transparent, and I think you’ll see that warmth you desire pop right out.” She smiled at me, her dark brown eyes crinkling in the corners.
Teni, a tall slender African woman, was in her forties, with only a few hints of gray threading through her many braids. She wore gold bangle bracelets, her dress bearing an abstract batik
pattern in bright red, green, and purple. Teni had moved to Ohio from Nigeria as a young girl and had worked in retail for a number of years, but her art had exploded a few years ago when she’d been featured in a New York gallery opening. Her five paintings had sold within a few hours for jaw-dropping prices, and things had gone uphill for her ever since.
Last year Teni had opened a summer residency program for local Cleveland area high schoolers, grades ten through twelve, who were interested in seriously studying art under her tutelage. I’d spent much of my tenth grade year waiting in nervous anticipation to see if I’d made the list. When I’d finally gotten the call from her right before the school year ended, I’d squealed for about an hour.
“Keep up the good work,” Teni said with a smile as she moved on to the guy at the easel beside me. He looked up at her in desperate hope as she leaned closer and started whispering tips on how to make the face more realistic.
I turned my attention back to my painting, created the thin red wash, and layered it over her hair. It was a subtle touch, but it made all the difference. I couldn’t fight the smile that crept over my face. After a few more minutes of fussing with minor details, I paused and put my brush down. I needed a small brain break.
Curiosity finally overtook me, and I scanned the rest of the room to see how everyone else’s projects were going. Being in the middle of the room, I was able to check out a number of other
students’ artwork. Our studio was roomy but not too big, with a dozen stations spread throughout.
Sunlight poured in from rows of large windows, sending rays across our art—Teni had insisted from day one that the key to amazing art was good lighting, no matter what your media was. So she kept all the blinds open every class. Fortunately, she also kept the air-conditioning kicked on to prevent the room from getting overly hot.
There were a couple of people scattered around who were doing classical oil paintings like me. I saw a guy working with watercolor as he painted Maiko’s hair. One of the girls near the front was doing her piece entirely in pen; she painstakingly drew hatch marks for shading and created 3-D tones that awed me.
I had to admit—her artwork looked fabulous from where I was standing. She’d captured Maiko’s almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones, the twinkle of life in her irises, despite it all being black and grayscale. Maybe I needed to work on deepening my darker tones.
My attention then caught on the tall guy standing beside her, wearing long black shorts and a plain white T-shirt. His brown hair was tousled, as if he’d run his hands through it multiple times. Matthew Bonder—he attended my school and had also just finished his sophomore year, a basketball player who generally hung out with a bunch of jocks. I bit back an irritated sigh and looked at his . . . painting, I guess you could call it. It was very postmodern, with strokes of abstract black lines I supposed were meant to represent
the model’s form. I could hardly find a face on the page.
I knew it was kind of snobby to think so, but that just wasn’t real art for me. I liked actually being able to discern features, to see the meticulous effort of re-creating life around us. Abstract stuff was confusing—it felt like the artist was trying to pass off something that had taken all of five minutes to create.
How had he even gotten into this class?
I think I’d talked to Matthew a total of five seconds our entire freshman and sophomore years. Needless to say, we ran in different circles. I was captain of the mathlete team, president of our school’s French club. My friends and I didn’t really hang at any sporting events except for the occasional football game. It took a lot of academic focus to maintain my 4.0 GPA, but I did it.
Matthew, on the other hand, had sat in the back row of our few shared classes, barely speaking a word. Who even knew what grades he was making? From what I could tell, he funneled all of his discernible attention into sports—basketball, baseball, golf. I’d never seen him show any interest in art, so it had floored me when I’d walked in the door a couple of weeks ago and there he was.
As if he could sense my thoughts, Matthew looked over his shoulder and locked eyes with me. My face burned from getting caught staring at him and his work, and I swallowed. He simply raised an eyebrow and gave the smallest shadow of a smile, his dark blue eyes sparkling just a touch.
I tore my gaze away and fixed my eyes firmly back on my own painting. Crud. That was awkward.
The rest of the class session went pretty fast. I worked on adding small details to my painting—her fingernails, the thin brows above her eyes, the lace on the bottom of her dress. I was almost done with my piece, which was good; we’d been working on this particular project, our first as a group, for a solid couple of weeks now.
What would be our next big class project? I was excited to move on and do something new and challenging.
“Wow. I’m so proud of your progress,” Teni said as she moved to the front of the room. Her dress swirled around her slender legs, and she propped a hand on Maiko’s shoulder, giving her a grateful smile. “Before class ends for the day, I wanted to discuss an opportunity I think a few of you might be interested in.”
Opportunity? I found myself perking up. I put down my paintbrush and gave her my full attention.
“Every year there’s a nationwide art competition, with artists like myself sponsoring promising high school students to enter. It’s hard work—you really have to push yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of, because you’re competing with the entire United States.”
There was a collective “ooh” from the class. My stomach tightened in anticipation. I knew right then that whatever it was, I wanted in. Nothing excited me more than a good challenge, and growing in my art craft would be a bonus.
“This year’s competition is . . .” She paused, gave a smile. “Well, it’s unique. But I have a feeling my students will rise to the occasion. The prize is five thousand dollars, plus an all-expense-paid trip for you
and your family to New York City to see your artwork on display in a real gallery at a notable exhibition. Plus, that artwork will be featured in a full-page spread in a national magazine—and I can’t say which one yet, because that’s still in the works and nothing is finalized. But you’ve all heard of it, I’m sure.” She winked.
I was fairly certain my heart stopped beating for a moment. All the blood rushed to my ears, and when my pulse finally kick-started again, it roared in my head.
Wow. That was a huge prize.
“Miss Achebe,” the line-drawing girl in the front said, raising her hand, “when does the competition take place? And how do we enter?”
“I’m getting right to that, Natalia,” she said with a smile. She turned her attention to all of us. “I spent these first couple of weeks here evaluating your art, getting a sense of who you all are. What skills you have and how you need to grow. I firmly believe any of you would do a fantastic job in the competition. But the timeline is very short.” Her face turned serious. “I need you to present to me your best work of art, the one that most represents your style and technique, by Friday after class. The judging for the competition will take place just over a month from now.”
There were a couple of dismayed gasps.
Teni held up her hands. “Look, I know that is a very short turnaround, but if you want it badly enough, you can do it. You have a few days to either find a piece in your oeuvre or create something new. And it can’t be the piece you used to get into this workshop,”
she added with a regretful smile. “I’ve already seen that one. Push yourselves to dig deep and wow me. I’m only going to sponsor the best, because it’s a time and money investment for me. But I know it’ll be worth it.”
I scrabbled through my memory to see if I had anything in my room, in my portfolio that might work. There were a few pictures I’d drawn—but of course, my best piece I’d already used to get into this class.
No, I would just have to create something new. But what?
“If you have any questions for me, I’m available to talk more after class. For now, go ahead and use the remaining time to finish your work for the day and clean up your stations.”
The guy beside me muttered, “No way I’d be ready in time. I barely got into this class to begin with. Are you gonna enter?”
I nodded. “Not sure what I’m going to paint though. I’m not quite satisfied with the stuff I already have.”
He gave me a big grin, picking up his brush—loaded with acrylic paint—and rinsing it. He was gawky, with a shock of black hair and thick brows, and wore trendy horn-rimmed glasses. His smile was friendly. “Well, good luck. I think you’ll do a great job.” He nodded toward my painting. “That looks amazing. Just like her.”
“Thanks.” With dismay, I realized I’d never introduced myself to him. “I’m Corrine, by the way.”
“Henry.” He stuck out a hand and shook mine. “I go to Berea High School—I’m going to be a senior. You?”
“I’m here in Lakewood,” I said. “I’ll be a junior.” Wow, it still felt great to say that.
“Nice to finally ‘meet’ you.” He finished rinsing his brushes in his small cup and took his palette to the washing station in the corner, where there were several big sinks.
I used turpentine to clean the oil paint off my brushes, straightened my station, and gingerly stepped around my painting, not wanting to disturb the still-wet paint. I ran smack into a tall, lean chest. “Oh, sorry,” I said, holding up a hand and stepping back.
Matthew peered down at me, one side of his mouth upturned. “No, I’m sorry. I was just barreling right through here.”
I gave a tight smile and moved past him to toss my paper towels. Then I told Teni I’d see her on Wednesday, grabbed my backpack, and headed out the door, stepping into the hot sunshine. June in Cleveland could be surprisingly humid, and we were in a particularly dry spell right now.
I was extra fortunate that the art workshop was only a mile away from my house, so I hoofed it down the sidewalk blocks here in Lakewood, past small consignment shops and mom-and-pop diners. I loved the vibe of this neighborhood—the eclectic mix of people, the art galleries and jewelry stores scattered around. The sun beat down on the back of my neck, and sweat dribbled along my collar, sliding down my spine. Wow, it was a warm one today.
I turned my focus back to the issue at hand. What art project was I going to do? The pressure wrapped itself around my chest,
squeezing my lungs. I was excited—and petrified. Maybe Grandpa could give me some ideas. Yeah, I wasn’t going to be helping at the bakery until Saturday, but maybe I could give him a call.
Grandpa was a bit of an artist himself, though his focus was on food. He’d opened the bakery about thirty years ago, and it had grown into a staple in our neighborhood. His cakes were to die for—rich, decadent, with decorations that blew my mind. As much as I loved painting and drawing, somehow I could never get the hang of using those little frosting bags. My work always turned out too lumpy.
He would take the bag from me with a laugh and fix the mistakes, making them look like they were intentional. I was in awe of his skills.
I let my gaze wander around the neighborhood, watched kids playing on the street, drawing with hot-pink chalk and giggling. One little girl had fat braids on both sides of her head. Her skin tone matched mine, a dark brown with golden undertones. Reminded me of when I was a kid, sitting with my younger brother at the park, both of us wearing brightly colored outfits and posing for Mom’s camera.
I stopped in place. That would be fun—maybe I could paint a picture from a photograph of when I was younger. It would certainly challenge me. And my mom had hundreds of pictures in her albums. Surely I could find one that would work. I could paint it in acrylics or watercolor so it would dry in time. Not as challenging
as oil painting, but either medium still gave me the ability to make something worthwhile.
My heart fluttered. This was going to happen. A chance for me to do something big. Yes, I’d had a lot of accomplishments in my life, things I was proud of. Academic achievements that I’d worked hard for. But nothing would compare to winning a nationwide art contest.
Being in a gallery. In New York City.
The stakes were high, and from looking at the artwork of several of the fellow artists in my room, the competition was stiff. But I had to make this work. I’d spend all my free time working on this piece.
I wasn’t going to fail. I would put my heart and soul into it, and pray, pray, pray that it was good enough for me to qualify.