When he opens the tube, the paint hurts his eyes. It’s like staring into the sun, except the sun never had such a sharp, acid tone. Or smelled like linseed oil. He squeezes a dollop onto the wooden board that serves as a palette and with quick, practiced movements, cuts and mixes his colours.
He has to work quickly. He has been finishing a painting a day for weeks on end – manic, when once he laboured for months on a single canvas.
Against all the rules of colour theory he works up layers of paint. Yellow on yellow. He can only paint what is in front of him, what his heart sees, so rules be damned. Rules are supposed to be broken anyway. Theories reformulated.
He builds up the sunflowers’ centres, capturing their form with thick gobs of paint. Is he a painter or a sculptor? He shakes off the question; he can’t think too much about process or he’ll get bogged down. The sunflowers though. They fascinate him, caught between states of growth and decay. Life and its decomposition. Saffron, sulfur, mustard, buff. He thinks of the word luteous, he thinks of citrine. He thinks bilious and keeps on working.
The sunflowers are set against a yellow wall. The cross-hatching of the background is done so thinly. In places the paint barely covers the weave of the canvas – doesn’t matter, the flowers are the thing. They push out from the canvas, all thirteen of them. He thinks of unlucky thirteen, of the apostles and their leader. Of the yellow house and dreams of it one day containing an artists’ colony, of the thirteen chairs purchased for this very purpose.
His hand is slowing, his arm is tired. He stands back and looks at what he’s done.
He’s miscounted – there are fifteen blooms. But the idea is still there. The flowers may take two or three days to harden completely. All it needs is a thin line to mark the edge of the table, to accent the shape of the pot. He mixes paint the colour of the Mediterranean sea.
And the signature, not tucked away in the corner where tradition would place it, but proudly, splendidly, on the pot itself, practically in the centre of the picture. No surname, just Vincent.
He steps back from the easel, drops the palette on the wooden table that holds his brushes and tubes of paint. It is crowded with pots of sunflowers, all different varieties, all at different stages of decay. Some have dropped petals on the museum postcards and art books scattered there – books on Impressionism and the south of France.
The painting emits its own glow, warmer and stronger than the sunlight trying to penetrate the grimy windows. Good enough, he thinks, to fool anyone.