Dear Charlie: I have your horse.

He woke me from my sleep.

I don’t want to get coarse

But you promised me you”d keep

This beastie from my calves.

He won’t be kept at bay

By any common salves

Indeed, he just says nay

When asked to take a hike.

He’s turned this poor old hag

He’s chosen to strike

Into a crippled nag

Who cannot stand the pain.

So Charlie, try and see

If you can’t take him home again.

Okay? Sincerely, Me.



My eight o’clock cat

Comes to me after dinner

Expecting some love.

An open letter to my friends.

My darling friends,Please be warned.Having painted all my kids, my husband and myself, I am now out of household humans whose portraits I can paint. That means I may soon be painting you.I won’t make you sit for me, because I think it would be awkward as hell to scrutinize your features face to face. It’s even a little weird when I’m working from a photograph. After all, when was the last time you stared at a loved one’s picture to ascertain the size, shape and color of his or her nostrils? It’s skeevy!Also, I fear that those of you whom I have known and loved the longest are no longer twenty. Me neither. Sadly, those of you who kept your figures (stinkers) developed wrinkles. Those of us who got chubby may have grown new chins, or cavernous folds and creases.I kind of prefer the way we look now. We’ve earned the creases and folds; we’ve worked hard to get God to frost our hair.I’m not skilled enough not to paint you as I see you, but please know that every brushstroke will be an expression of my love and admiration for you. I promise not to post any completed pictures online without your permission; your likeness is your property and will not be shared unless you’re okay with that.I am also available to paint your kids, your pets, and your significant others; if there’s anyone whose picture you’d like me to attempt, just let me know.The finished pictures will be yours to keep; I’m all out of wall space, and the sunroom is starting to stack up with canvases.I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this, but it sure is fun right now!Thanks for your indulgence, as always.Love,A

Hasta pronto, mi primo.

My cousin Werner passed away yesterday.I can’t believe how much it hurts.Werner and I were inseparable for the first seven years of my life, while I lived in Cuba. Every weekend, our mothers, who were first cousins, sent us to the home of their aunts Aurora and Quelita, who’d never married or had children of their own. These beautiful, loving, selfless and unforgettable women treated us like gods and spoiled us without reservation. They encouraged us to play, to explore, to listen and speak freely… to thrive… and we had a childhood that was nothing short of magical. We played with marbles and jacks. We had tiny baby chicks that inconveniently grew into big, bad-tempered chickens. We played doctor. We wore funny hats and cardboard tiaras. We sneaked cigarettes and gorged on home-made ice cream.He said I bossed him around. Could be. He was the first boy to kiss me on the lips. It was probably my idea.When he and his brother Conrado started learning archery, he stopped me from holding Conrado’s target.I was a bit of an idiot.He loved me anyway.And then Castro came, and my parents brought me to the US. Werner’s parents stayed in Havana.We never wrote or anything… I found letter writing onerous, and would only write to Quelita and my grandfather, usually at my mother’s insistence. Their news of Werner grew less and less detailed as we got older. He had become a very handsome boy. He was a champion fencer. He was a model. He was passionate about the ballet. And then my mother died and it became agony to speak or write to Quelita, so the influx of information ended.How many years passed?I don’t know. At least twenty. Maybe twenty-five.All I know is that one day I was thinking about him, and decided to Google him.And I found him. Werner Walther Luhrsen Sorondo. There couldn’t be another person on the planet with that name.He was living in Colombia, teaching economics at the University of Cali, and on the staff at Incolballet, a prominent dance company.I emailed him at the University, not knowing whether he would reply.He did, almost instantly. His reply was full of love and acceptance; he wanted to know where I was, who I’d married, where I worked, whether I was happy.He also said he’d never thought of me as a cousin, but as a sister.My Werner.We stayed in touch by email, and then by social media.Then, about five years ago, he had a chance to spend a day in New York.We arranged to meet in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying, right across the street from Penn Station.I walked in… no longer a bright, energetic toddler, but a tired, obese middle-aged woman walking with a cane.And I saw him walking toward me… no longer a red-headed urchin, but the spitting image of my beloved grandfather.We hugged… and hugged… and hugged…We talked as though we’d seen each other yesterday.We grabbed a seat on a double-decker tourist bus and proceeded to ride all over Manhattan, seeing nothing but each other and speaking only of ourselves, our families, our childhoods, the loved ones who were gone, the way our fates had overridden our dreams. We had Chinese, we shopped for shoes, we went into the Waldorf and photographed each other pretending to be grand, and then we went to the Met to see Giselle. When it was time for me to get on the train back to New Jersey, we pledged to see each other soon. He’d return to the States; I would visit Colombia.We’d see each other soon.Except we didn’t.And now we won’t.There’s no one else who shares my earliest memories.No one who put up with me as a bossy kid, and still cares for me as an oft-defeated old lady.No one whose red hair was still evident to me, even when masked by a thick white mane.I got the news on Facebook.It was hard to focus on anything I looked at for quite a while.Then, out of habit, I closed Facebook and opened my Scrabble app.My first seven tiles spelled out COUSINS.They should have spelled SIBLINGS…We were soul mates.

A revelation… and its aftermath.


I don’t know how long it’s been. Maybe a week, but I don’t think it’s been that long.

I attempted to do something I had neither the skill nor the experience to accomplish. Once I started, I felt as though another hand had taken control of my own.

I wanted to paint a selfie I had taken of myself with my cat, Hermione, who passed away last month. In this picture, Hermione is very prominent; I can be seen in the background, and only in shadows.


There were a number of reasons I didn’t think I could pull it off:

  1. My only previous attempt to paint a cat had failed miserably.
  2. I’ve never been good at painting anything in shadows. In fact, I stink at anything dark; a friend once called me a member of the Kodachrome School of painters, since everything I produce looks like a flash cube exploded in front of it.
  3. In order to paint this in any size bigger than a post-it note, I was going to break a cardinal rule of portraiture: never paint your subjects larger than life size.
  4. In the original picture, there were certain details I could not make out: my left eye, the left border of my nose, the actual contour of my chin. My right eye was nothing but a shadowy smudge. My lips were visible, but nearly colorless. Only my glasses showed up in any great detail.

Common sense should have told me to chuck the whole idea, but I decided to go ahead and paint the picture.

Normally, at the start of a portrait, I cheat. I put the original photograph into Power Point, and project a table on top of it, so I can graph out the details. Then I draw a graph on the canvas, and proceed to draw the picture, using the fields in the graph as a rough guide, so I don’t make noses too big, or eyes too far apart. It’s not a foolproof method… my fields are big enough to allow for approximation… but it’s a help.

This time, I did my preliminary sketch, but I was so afraid to put paint on canvas that I kept adding more and more detail. Soon, the shadows and values of the pencil drawing were so developed that they resembled a detailed grisaille. Instead of covering my pencil drawing in black and white paint, I just covered it with a coat of liquid medium and decided to go right into color.

I swear I felt as though a greater power were speaking to me, and guiding me as I started painting my face.

“Paint the lights and shadows. Don’t think about the forms. Look for the darkest shadows. Where do they fall? Paint them in. What colors do the shadows produce? Are they purple? Reddish? Blue? Don’t make them pretty. Make them real.”

“Now for the lights. Which ones shine brightest? Which are more subtle? How do they flow?”

I didn’t look to see whether a particular ray of light belonged to my nose or my cheek… I painted it as a beam, as an active streak of energy. I saw shapes not as they corresponded to physical features, but as they resulted from the interaction of lights and shadows.

When I started painting my glasses, I suddenly saw how very little of the gold appeared yellow. It reflected light, and looked much more silvery than I would have expected. Even the little rubber nose guard had a light play of its own; it’s the kind of detail I would normally not have even seen, let alone incorporated into the picture.

I don’t know how long it took me to cover “my side” of the canvas with paint… but when I was done, I stepped back and I was floored.

It was me. Without detailed eyes, I could see exactly where my figure was looking. Without definition, I had captured the contours of my nose… my chin. I could make out the bone structure under my brows, the muscles above my lips.

It was the best damned portrait I had ever painted in my life… and all I had concentrated on was the simple play of lights.

Painting Hermie was simple and quick. Much of her face was white, but the front of it had a warm tone, and her cheeks were bluer. I was able to achieve these effects with an underpainting, then slashed on pure titanium white on top to suggest the growth of actual fur. Her tabby markings were easy; I just loaded a fan brush with white, black, yellow ochre and burnt umber, and the colors mixed themselves right on the canvas.

The only feature which I painted deliberately and consciously was Hermie’s eye; I followed the lights and shadows that appear in the original picture, but made the color much more vibrant, as I remember it. The effect worked; Hermione’s eye is unmistakably the focal point of the picture.

The entire painting was completed so quickly and with so little paint that if you look closely, you can still see some of the graphite grid marks hiding under the pigment.

Am I going to add paint to correct that?

I wouldn’t dare. I didn’t paint that picture; Someone Else did, manipulating my hands as surely as I manipulated the brushes.

I spent at least a day staring at the picture, and asking myself, “what have I learned?”

The answer was simple. “Follow the flow of light.”

The flow.


Don’t paint static shapes, or figures.

Paint the movement of the lights.

It’s just like when I studied acting.

You don’t act “words.” You act “action.” Movement. What is your character DOING? How and why is your character DOING the action of the moment?

The revelation came.

Art is action.

Action is energy.

Action moves.

Art moves.

I went back and looked at the paintings I had produced two weeks ago, and compared them to the photographs from which they’d been sourced.

I was appalled.

In painting what I thought should be there, instead of what the camera had actually captured, I’d thrown four cartoons on canvas, instead of four people I really love.

The painting of my son was the worst, and I realized it when I looked at the ray of light on the bridge of his nose. The actual ray of light had been angled; by painting it straight, I had not only misrepresented the shape of his nose but its length.

I also saw that I’d completely left out the ray of light over his upper lip; to put it in, I’d have to raise his moustache and shorten his nose, confirming what the previous ray of light had revealed.

Next to him, my boy Derek looked better, but his hairline was wrong and his cheeks were too dark. Also, he looked bearded; Derek should have nothing more than a shadow, a stubble. You should see hair trying to grow in, not asking to be cut.

It took me two days to rework them, but this is what I have now:


Then I proceeded to “fix” my daughter and her husband.

Ben’s nose wasn’t right. It looked cartoonish, like a little potato. His eyes weren’t right either; they were SO defined that he seemed to be wearing eyeliner. Amanda had fared better, but her head was too round, her forehead too short, and her lips were too dark; this is a girl who puts on Chapstik and feels like a painted lady.

Again, I went back and looked for the lights. Not only did Ben need a light above his upper lip; he needed an upper lip! In the original picture, you could see it vaguely under his moustache; evidently, I had just plopped dark hair under his nose and proceeded to fuss about his teeth.

In order to give him a lip, I had to raise his nose, and noticed two things I hadn’t seen before: he had the tiniest reflection of light on the side of his nose, which defined its width, and he had a very specifically shaped shadow surrounding his nostrils, which gave orientation to his face.

His eyes were too big, and the area surrounding them had neither shadows nor creases; by concentrating on the light play, I was able to paint features which were much more realistic, and infinitely more attractive.

It took two days to get them to where they are now.


I think I’m finished with these three paintings.

Churchill once said it took two people to paint a picture, one to do the work, and someone else to say, “Stop messing with it!” I’m hoping to hear that voice; I’m tired of waking up at three and thinking, “the right cheek needs a glaze of umber.”

Also, I miss writing!

I bought a few more canvasses yesterday and a couple of good brushes, but I’m scared to death to start on any new pictures. Painting is so all-encompassing, and I’m so bloody obsessive!

But I’d hate to quit now, just as I’m finally getting better.

And there’s something transformative about connecting with your muse.

Please help me interpret this dream.

It’s somewhere around three in the morning and I just woke up. I dreamt there was a poet whose words were as powerful as images and whose paintings were as poetic as words.I don’t remember exactly, but I was trying to harness this person’s magic without copying; it seems that everyone I knew who wrote or painted shamelessly appropriated this person’s technique. It was the best thing about their work, but a pale and artless shadow of the original.In my dream, I was painting lips, and this person’s words were guiding me toward the precise shade of crimson that would bring my image to life, and then I woke up.I tried to stay asleep. I knew I was on the verge of learning something important; something that would become essential to my writing, my painting, and my actual development as a human being… but I just couldn’t hold on.What could it have been?