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The Painting Lesson

Dust motes catch the slanting light, moving in and out of frame. They alternately settle and bounce off the two figures bent over the table. A large sheet of paper covers most of the surface, yet untouched, while a young girl and an older woman evoke composition. The former is holding a pencil, hovering in the air. Her grandmother wraps a hand around her grandchild’s and leans forward, inviting a first line.

Her elbow bumps into a mug holding brushes. They scatter on the floorboards, unnoticed. The two minds are focused on the pencil tip, from which anything could appear. The woman starts a sentence, falters, then lets her hand speak for her and draws a few light strokes to suggest a horizon of hills. The girl responds by taking the pencil to the centre of the sheet and tracing a circle. Before she has time to add neat rays of light, the wrinkled hand takes control to turn the shape into a sail that she quickly attaches to a flying boat.

An excited giggle rises. The small painter inhales deeply the smells of dust and turpentine, along with the familiar old lady’s perfume. She can feel her grandmother’s cardigan buttons pressing gently against her back. Together they add a merry-go-round of clouds. Then, it’s time for paint.

The girl pulls on the drawer handle but the heavy wooden compartment won’t slide. Her grandmother knows the trick, though, and reveals an array of colourful tubes. The young artist’s mouth puckers as she makes an important decision before her hand flashes in and out of the pile. She has picked a vibrant moss green.

Her grandmother reaches for a deep red and a lighter green. Laying them side by side, she hints at colour theory and complementary tones. The girl is torn between a will to know more and the song she can hear coming from under the stopper, as the paint lulls her back to the table to release its magic.

Before she has time to make her mind, the explanation is complete and she can put her new knowledge into practice. She picks a brush. The handle is as long as her forearm. As she spreads chromium oxyde green onto her palette, a stronger whiff of turpentine reaches her. She wrinkles her nose but keeps her focus on the deep, inviting drop of colour in front of her. In the blink of an eye, she lines the belly of a cloud with it. Undeterred by the less-than-orthodox choice of hue, her grandmother applies a first coat of burgundy to the hills.


This piece of flash fiction was partly written during Kimberly Taylor-Pestell (Lacelit)’s online guided creative retreat dedicated to the theme of memory. It was completed and revised in the days that followed. Its starting point was the room I took the workshop in – my grand-mother’s painting workshop in Burgundy.

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