In December I started an art project based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel REBECCA. I don’t know when I’ll finish it. It’s more like a book than an art project in that way: I can finish a painting in a day or two, but a book takes years, and it’s always an open question whether I’ll be able to finish a book at all. These paintings are like that.
Unlike a book manuscript, there’s no way to save earlier drafts. Most of the art I’ve made for this series is gone already; these photos are all I have to remember what I’ve done so far. I decided I ought to document it before I forget where I’ve been and what my intentions were.
Last fall I discovered cold wax medium, a soft, waxy paste that mixes with oil paint to change the texture and make it spreadable, like cake icing. Cold wax painters build up layers and scrape them back, as the paint hardens gradually to the consistency of a wax candle but remains pliable. I thought that was interesting, but I wasn’t sure what I would do with it.
Then I went to a cold wax painting demonstration where the artist mentioned that she layers collage papers into her abstract cold wax paintings. I knew immediately what I wanted to do: I wanted to paint on book pages.
I wanted to paint on my book pages.
But the prospect of layering oil paint over the words I’d written seemed too…fraught. What was I saying, exactly? What would it mean to look back over twenty years of work, rip pages out of books, obliterate them with paint, and scrape them back to reveal what was left? What would be left? What would I be trying to say about my own life’s work?
Better to start with someone else’s book, I thought.
I had a galley of Courtney Maum’s wonderful novel COSTALEGRE floating around my office. Surely Courtney wouldn’t mind if I used her book as an art experiment. Her book IS an art experiment: it’s an absolutely gorgeous, vividly imagined telling of the time Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen, spent in Mexico. It was a novel about painting.
So I painted on it.
There are a few ways to apply oil and cold wax. One way is to use a brayer, which is a type of roller that printers use to apply ink. A brayer puts a thin, delicate layer of paint on a surface that cold wax painters call a “veil.”
I glued a page from COSTALEGRE down to a masonite panel with acrylic gel medium, gave the top of the page a coat as well, so that the paper wouldn’t entirely absorb the paint, and then rolled the brayer into a mixture of cold wax and Quinacridone Magenta.
When that first veil of paint went down, I knew I had something. It was spellbinding, to see a clean page of type marred by paint. I sent some pictures to Courtney right away (I kind of/sort of knew her through a mutual friend) to make sure she didn’t mind me turning her book into an art project.
She didn’t mind.
The COSTALEGRE project continued for a while, as I considered the possibilities of this book-and-cold-wax combination. The process of covering all those words with paint, and then scraping the paint back to find them again, was, of course, just like the process of writing. Paragraphs get submerged. Pages disappear. It’s easy to forget what was ever there. Finding the right words is a matter of digging around, excavating, and rediscovering what you’d put down or thought of or dreamed of months or weeks or days before.
With any luck, something worthwhile comes to the surface.
I kept after COSTALEGRE for a while longer (and in fact I’m still making paper collages from the book, but that’s turned into another kind of project entirely), and I sent a few of those crazy cold wax experiments on to Courtney (who said she wanted them, in case you’re wondering if I forced weird paintings onto an author I barely knew)
and then, once those were gone, I thought I was ready to clear the decks and start on one of my own books.
But I wasn’t ready.
As soon as COSTALEGRE left my studio, it occurred to me that the book that really called out for submerging and covering up and peeling back and resurfacing was Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA.
I mean, Rebecca herself is submerged. And we all know what happens to her. She surfaces.
I’ve always loved the book: in fact, when we moved to Portland and radically downsized our book collection, I managed to pack two identical copies of REBECCA.
But I didn’t want to destroy one of my two copies (both well-worn paperbacks, one of them pictured above and the other exactly like it), so I went to Powell’s and bought yet a third copy–the cheapest, most dog-eared, well-worn copy that didn’t have writing in it. I didn’t want to destroy a new book, but I also didn’t want anyone else’s marks on the pages I was going to cover in marks.
I had some idea of what I was doing this time: I knew that the first order of business was to get some paint down on top of the pages so that I’d have something to scrape back. Some of those layers of paint looked interesting to me in their own right, and some of them didn’t.
I kept going.
I didn’t have any ideas about a color scheme at first. I knew I’d be scraping some layers away with an ordinary paint scraper–the kind you’d buy at the hardware store if you needed to scrape paint off your house. I thought about the way the paint scrapings on an old house are so discordant: there was that era when the house was painted lime green, and then the years when it was beige, and then some mad woman painted it purple. All of those discrepancies are revealed by the scraper. That would happen here, too.
You can also drizzle solvent over the surface of a cold wax painting, which eats into the paint in drippy, watery shapes, and sometimes causes the colors to run together. I tried making some drips as well. I didn’t know how much of that would ever be revealed again later, after more layers went down. What you see here is long gone.
As for the book pages underneath…I had no hope of scraping back to any particular piece of text. What pages had I even buried under all that paint? I had no idea anymore.
But there was one line, of course, that I knew I had to preserve.
The unforgettable first line of the novel.
I wasn’t sure what to do about it. In a strange way I didn’t want these to be paintings that you’d walk up to and read. I didn’t want any particular words to stand out: I just wanted the text to be a visual element, along with the paint.
But there was that line.
At one point I covered the painting that contained that first page in paint, and then took a bamboo skewer and used it like a pen to scratch that line into the paint, over and over.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
It wasn’t intelligible writing: it was more like asemic writing, which is a form of writing that has no particular meaning behind it. It’s abstract writing. So of course it ended up looking like a painting made by a crazy person.
Later I covered that up, too.
Next it became this. I left the first line, but then I painted in a tiny rendition of the mansion in flames, and I let the words come through like tree roots. The whole book is buried under that house.
I’m not happy with it at this point. It seems too much like an illustration, and that wasn’t what I was aiming for. I might cover it up with paint again.
On some paintings, other bits of text came through that I couldn’t resist preserving. This was all random, of course: I was just going after the paint with a scraper. I had no idea what I’d find.
Here’s the whole painting.
Honestly, sometimes this project scares the bejeebers out of me.
The one pictured above might be done, I’m not sure.
I’m particularly fond of this one. I’m sure you can guess why. These are all close-ups from one painting.
And here’s what the whole thing looks like–or what it did look like in some earlier incarnation.
This one has changed since I took these pictures, too. I decided it was too chaotic and I smoothed some grey paint over it to calm it down. That might’ve been a mistake. I’m thinking about scraping it back again.
Revision! So much revision.
I scraped away at this one until I uncovered two phrases: “I could not be silent” and “a blank step into the future.” I think I ought to pick one and cover the other up, but I can’t decide which so here it sits.
That’s about as far as this project got before it occurred to me to make an archive.
By this time, I’d overcome my fear of ripping up my own books and I’d started making collages on paper with some of the research materials from my novels, along with book pages and paint. (Of course, none of these old documents and photos are original–I was printing out digitized versions from my files.)
So it occurred to me that if REBECCA had been based on a true story, Daphne du Maurier would’ve had an archive, too.
And then it occurred to me that I could make my own REBECCA archive. So I did.
All of this is found material: scans of vintage photographs of Danvers and de Winters-esque people, postcards from Monte Carlo, images of rhododendron gardens, newspaper clippings about women drowned while boating (it happened a lot), handwritten letters, and photographs of old burned houses (that happened a lot, too.)
I started layering all of these documents from my imaginary archive into the paintings. By this time I had about fourteen of them on the go.
I didn’t want to impose a design on them at this stage: I wanted the design to come later, from the act of scraping back. But sometimes designs happened anyway.
These paintings no longer exist: I’ve covered them up already. What I do is I put down a layer of paint and cold wax and give it a week or two to harden, then I add a layer of archive and book pages, also coated on both sides in cold wax, and let that harden, and repeat.
Sometimes I scrape on them a little just to see what’s cooking under there. The phrases I uncover are usually pretty loaded. I mean, the book is pretty loaded.
As much as I resist making these paintings all about the text, they seem to want to be about the text.
Sometimes images from my imaginary archive come through, too, and they are creepy as hell.
All of what you see here has disappeared under the next layer. I have no idea where any of it is, which painting these were, what I’ve covered them up with. Every time I go excavating with my paint scraper, I don’t know what I’m going to find, or what I left where.
Sometimes the paper rips when I scrape at it. I don’t mind that-in fact, I like it. At some point in the last many months, I learned about the French décollage artists of the mid-twentieth century who made art inspired by posters ripped from walls. Now I like to tear some of these layers away, to see which layers peel off easily and which layers resist being ripped away. Some of them cling very stubbornly to the surface.
I’m saving some of those scraped-off bits in case I want to add them back in later. Did I mention that this process is a lot like writing?
Today (we are now caught up, I’m writing this on the first day of August), I took a scraper to three of the 14 paintings, all of which were covered in about 4-5 layers of paint and as many layers of book pages and archive papers. They’re interesting at this stage. Sometimes entire pages or documents peel away, leaving just a shape behind in whatever color was underneath. Sometimes I uncover a face (is it Mrs. Danvers? The second Mrs. de Winter?) and sometimes I see a woman walking through a rhododendron garden.
I don’t know how I’ll decide when they’re finished. I don’t know if I’ll keep scraping back or add some more layers.
I’m considering taking a power sander to some of them.
That’s where it is at the moment. More as I know it. Watch this space for updates.