Female body parts

The naked girl was lovely, a teenage au pair, probably from Paris, earning extra money exposing herself to the intense stares from the crowd around her.

Robert took a last drag from his cigarette and reached for the brush, immersing it in a vessel of turpentine before adding a smear of raw umber. He was a jaded connoisseur of female body parts. “This breast is a different color from the other,” he heard the instructor say to the student next to him. “It’s in a shadow, so it’s less saturated. That means the color isn’t so strong, you can add just a light glaze of gray to it when the paint is dry. That’ll help give it some depth.”

Without thinking Robert rolled his eyes. Everybody knows objects in shadow are less saturated. The problem with breasts is to make them look full and firm with pendulous weight, at least on the younger ladies. His gaze traveled up the body of the model to her face. Was that a smile? He wiggled his eyebrows. She returned the gesture with a grin.

Robert fell in love with all his models and he hated it. Instead of being enthralled with the subtle color and tone of her flesh, he felt a thrill of excitement at the prospect of meeting her. The group would take a break soon and most of the students would leave their paintings on the floor so the others could walk around sneering, admiring, studying and sometimes learning. Robert knew the model wouldn’t be able to resist seeing how he’d painted her. Would she like it? Could he make it more flattering? Would she go to the pub with him?

He tried to quell the thought. Art school was his church and painting took all his earnest energy. His technique was improving. The instructor left him alone during his inspection tours and Robert appreciated it. Pointers from the teacher were for beginners and Robert had left formal instruction behind for his own journey into the world of light and color.

But he wouldn’t find his way if he kept being distracted by pretty models. Maybe they’d get a guy next week or, better still, that old hag who, rumour had it, had once modeled for Augustus John. He wanted to paint like John, in those authoritative brush strokes laid with the sure hands of a craftsman. Robert had brought his girlfriend to an exhibit of John’s paintings a few months ago. “They’re kind of smudgy, like,” she sniffed. In the pub afterwards he’d been distant and distracted, thinking of those chunky brush strokes while she pouted over her white wine. Next day he’d cycled madly from Oxford Circus to the Barbican to spend his lunch hour bathed in the light and shade of his master.

Light, shade, form and color. They were taking over his life. Robert day-dreamed at work. On the street he threw his eyes out of focus and squinted, heavy-lidded at scenes he’d like to paint, trying to imagine how John would handle it.

The model, flesh hidden under a stylish kimono, was approaching his painting. “Eh,” she said. “my grandfather used to paint like that. Big, fat lines and bright colors. But not bad.”

“Your grandfather was a painter? Was he any good?”

“Yeah, he was supposed to be quite something in his day but he got distracted. Kept falling in love with his models. You’re not going to fall in love with me, are you?”

“Hell, no! I mean I hope not! Not that you’re not pretty! You’re lovely, but I’m really serious about painting. I don’t want to concentrate on anything else.”

“Mmm. Yeah I can see you’re trying hard. Those boobs ain’t bad. Shoulders ain’t right yet. Can’t trust the drawing. Ever try some 10-second sketches?”

“All the time. I got more scraps of drawing paper than you’d believe. Make a wonderful fire.”

“Don’t do that– you get famous, they’re worth a potful. My granddad always wished he’d kept his.”

“Do I know him?”

“I don’t think so, he’s dead. But you may have heard of him. Augustus John.”

“You’re kidding! I love his stuff! Are you serious?”

Robin by Augustus John

“Have a look,” she said, scanning through pictures on her cell phone. She found the image she was looking for: a painting of a scowling young woman in a blue dress. She held it out to him.

“That’s me mom. She looked a lot like me then. See the resemblance? Painting’s in some posh gallery around here.”

Robert was stunned. He grabbed the phone and peered at the image. “Robin! That’s called Robin! Was that your mother’s name?”

She leveled an appraising gaze at him. “Yeah.”

Robert used his thumb and finger to zoom into the image, closing in on the lips. “Look at that!” His eyes devoured her lips. “Look, do you see that? Do you see what I mean? Huh?” he showed her the lips on the phone and moved his head next to her so they could both see the image. His eyes bounced between the image and her face. “Oh! You look like that, exactly like that! Let me take a picture and a I’ll show you! Stand right there, don’t move!”

He grabbed her shoulders and turned her side-on to the window light, then with his hands gently cradling her head, moved her face to the left a few degrees. “Now,” he said, “Head down a bit, squint a bit, don’t look at me, look at my hand. Don’t smile, frown a bit like you’re getting pissed off at me.”

The class had grown quiet, students smirking at Robert’s enthusiasm. The girl, flattered at the attention, struggled to frown. She giggled. And then she frowned. And giggled. And frowned theatrically.

There was something about the girl’s lips. They were softer, more vibrant than those in the painting. Her skin was soft, her body felt pliant. He caught a whiff of bath oil and inhaled deeply. He wondered what would happen if he kissed her.

Instead he clicked the shutter and there she was, a collection of electrons on the glass surface of the phone.

“I want to paint you!”

“Yeah, yeah, in your studio. On your bed. Or in your bed!”

She might have slapped him, he looked so hurt and bewildered.

She was sorry immediately. “Oh, well, maybe. I mean at least I get to wear my clothes this time. You can paint me but you have to buy me a blue dress, like the one in the painting!”

Robert was thrilled. Numbers were exchanged, schedules consulted, promises made. Suddenly it was time to get back to work.

Robert attacked his painting with renewed enthusiasm. It was a mistake. In a few minutes his promising brush strokes were obscured by fat, oily blobs as he tried to paint like the grandfather of his new friend. But he didn’t mind. She was beautiful and he was going to paint her. But first, they’d have to shop for a new dress. Before that, he’d clean up his apartment. They could have an evening together. He’d cook dinner. Get a bottle of wine. They’d talk about art. Her eyes were lovely. He couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

The instructor watched his students from behind. So many earnest heads bent to work, coming up only to squint furiously at the model, like swimmers gasping for breath between long immersions into their creations. He’d have to get rid of that stupid girl. She’d ruined another career. Robert had had some promise. He’d been leaving him alone lately, watching him explore the world of light and colour for himself.

Now look at him. Or look where he’s looking. Straight at the girl, and not at her body. Not at her thighs, not at her breasts, not even at her crotch. He was looking at her eyes, her piggy little eyes. Robert had fallen in love. His painting days were over.

1 thought on “Female body parts

  1. I like that this is centred around one specific time and place (though with some background/flashbacks). There’s less summary of time passing than with previous stories which means I get better sense of immediacy, of experiencing the action as it happens.

    Unfortunately, the story overall falls a little flat for me, and I’m trying to work out why. I think … I’m getting that the story here is a guy falling in love with his model and as a consequence potentially ending his painting career before it’s begun. And that’s a perfectly valid story. The problem, I feel, is that because we’re told in the beginning that Robert always falls in love with his models, there’s little sense of tension; what we think will happen also ends up happening, with no real twists or maybes beforehand. No one learns or changes or comes close to it. Or I guess Robert does change, choosing the girl over art at the end but, again, because of what we’re told in the beginning, it doesn’t feel definite enough for me. I’m not convinced that he won’t still come back and give the art another go.

    Some options you might think about are:
    • Make this the first time Robert has been interested in a model, making his fall at the end greater.
    • Make his choice at the end more pronounced, upping the stakes a bit. Could there be something tangible he misses out on because of choosing the girl, something that might have given his career a boost, e.g. a ‘promising artist’ grant, an opportunity to work closely with a professional etc. This could be woven throughout (Robert knowingly rejecting it) or revealed through the instructor’s POV at the end as he decides Robert isn’t the right candidate after all and turns his attention to another promising student.

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