Friday, January 07, 2011
I sand the edges of a large enamel painting, removing lumps and puckered surfaces caused by high humidity. I hold the frame with my other hand, making sure my fingers don't press against the canvas and cause a dent. It's taken two weeks in a heated room for the paint to dry enough to be abrased back. The combination of rain and subtropical summer heat has raised ambient moisture levels to over 80 per cent. When water isn't bucketing from the sky it's evaporating from the saturated ground in a steamy vapour. Usually a coat of enamel dries within 24 hours, although I usually wait twice as long because I'm cautious. Now each coat is taking a week and all I can do is sand, smooth and re-paint those areas that are affected by moisture. Of course, I can't start working on any new enamels yet and I've paused all works on paper, which is prone to excessive moisture absorption, causing blotting and fluting. I work for several hours on the enamel-coated canvas, using increasingly fine grades of sandpaper. Afterwards I remove the dust with a tack cloth, a square of folded, sticky gauze. It leaves no residue or fibre particles and seems to last forever. I close all the windows and switch on two heaters so that they blow hot air into the centre of the room. I leave the painting horizontal on two aluminium trestles so the sides can harden equally. The warm air hits the back of the canvas as well, drying the paint from both sides. I want the recently exposed layers to cure properly before I re-apply the final coat of enamel. The room is small so I can control the temperature. Fine mesh screens cover the windows prevent insects flying in and getting stuck in the wet paint: mosquitoes and flies are as attracted to enamel as they are to blood. I mix a new tin full of custom-made colour then strain it through pantyhose to remove particles of dust, fibres or minute lumps of dried paint. I label it by the area to which it'll be applied – 'crawling girl shoe sole', 'red dress', 'sitting girl background' – and note the colours and ratios I've mixed. The process is disciplined and rigorous. There is very little thinking involved. Every step on every enamel painting is performed in the exact same way. My studio work is purely technical and mechanical – and not creative at all: days pass sanding, straining, and painting. I find it hard to get back into it after even just a few days off. I lose the rhythm of dogged routine as well as the impetus to continue. The work is exacting, tedious, and uncomfortable. A rubber air-filter mask vaccuum-sucks over my face and mouth and seals in a film of grimey perspiration. The enamel fumes dessicate my nasal cavities and eyes and make me nauseous. My back aches. Worst of all, it's boring. I have been through this process so many times, I could do it in my sleep. But I still care that it's done flawlessly, beautifully. My energy increases the more I work. And as long I'm working, I know that, at some point, each painting will be finished.