Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cooking Things You Don't Want to Eat

I studied to be a painter. I really wanted to actually be one, but then... I had my year of living as a starving artist. And I decided that I like, in no particular order: washing machines, driers, indoor heating, and shoe repair (that may seem frivolous, but you walk in frigid rain/snow with holes in your shoes and then tell me it seems silly to want enough money to repair them). Okay, and enough money for a sometimes purchase at the Barneys sale and/or the Mario’s Superbowl sale.

Did I sell out for shoes? No. Did I mention what a huge plus interior heat and washing machines are? Chilblains, that seemingly medieval ailment, really suck. I’ve had them. I can't say I want them ever again.
As it happens, I’m not sorry that selling out resulted in some fab shoes.

One thing I loved, though, even without interior heat, was the cooking. Not the cooking for eating (although that too), but the recipes for painters— learning how to judge when gesso is at the right texture for applying to a panel (like milk), and when it needs a little reheating so that it doesn’t get too thick (when it seems like thickening cream, and is literally starting to form clots, although little plaster clots instead of dairy ones). I loved the rhythm of grinding paint, of decanting all the powders, gums and resins into their own little jars. I loved, and love, the smell of a good art store. The competing smells of paper and varnish and paints are almost as appealing as the smell of my children’s hair. Not quite, but even so, I could stand, just smelling, in a good art store for quite a while.

This fall, after almost 15 years off, I’ve started painting again. I finally realized I wasn’t going to return to painting on my own and signed up for a class, to give myself a schedule that would make me paint.

I knew I missed painting. I knew I was rusty. In both cases, I hadn’t realized the extent.

With a real reason to return to the art store, I took a quick look at the prices of pre-made canvases (and I don’t really like to paint on canvas, anyway), and knew that I would be doing some cooking.

My cooking would be project cooking, not unlike, say, lasagna, or a complicated dessert. I would have to plan ahead for it, since multiple (although inexpensive) ingredients were involved, which involved pharmacies, art stores and lumber yards (Home Depot would have worked, too), and a time block big enough to string it all together. I needed to watch my recipe closely, since it involved a fair amount of labor, and just as one is hardly going to make a single serving of lasagna, one is not going to make a single-panel recipe of gesso. With a soccer game to coach (I do love my Pink Piranhas) in the morning, I had a relatively limited amount of time to work with. And... I mostly planned for it.

I got my gesso cooked and applied, and now I have 9 panels (that’s 18 sides, since with so much work involved, one may as well make sure to keep the panels from warping by applying gesso to both sides). My house smells like salmon (dinner, thanks to Stumpy) and hot rabbit skin glue (disgusting, but a normal side effect of cooking dead animal skin as glue). My drop cloths and work clothes are coated in rubbery curds of drying gesso.

And I am exhausted, aching and deeply, deeply content. It may be that you want, yourself, a recipe to make a plan old wood (or masonite, or plywood) panel into the most unimaginably perfect painting surface. It is like painting on the whitest stone, and it holds the paint perfectly. And so... I've included the recipe. You don't want to eat it, but you might want to try it.

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