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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Light and Dark (05/21/09)

TITLE: En Plein Air


My mother was a second-rate artist, but that wasn’t my chief thought as I trailed behind her, box easel in one hand, three-legged stool in the other. She’d been itching for days to get us out in the open air to paint like we used to. A waste of a perfectly good Saturday morning. “We’re almost there,” she called over her backpack.

We had parked the car at the bridge of the second bend of the river, where we had caused a stir among the old fishermen. Mom was a sight in her capris, orange-gingham shirt—tied at the waist, and white scarf wrapped around her head, flipped over her shoulder. She was channeling Jackie O, I was sure.

According to mom, the spot was just beyond the third bend, next to the ruins of a small, brick furnace. A mile of following a foot path along the river, and I was sweating. At seventeen, I didn’t want to sweat—unless it was with Cory Schliemann. There lay my chief thought. And though I’d kept him a secret from my parents, I didn’t feel one iota of guilt, being nowhere close to doing what my friends were doing.

“We’re here!” Mom made her pronouncement from the far side of a strand of oaks enveloped in mountain laurel. I caught up with her, and we stepped out into sunshine. Wow. She hadn’t mentioned that the spot was at the foot of a brilliant green ridge that jutted dramatically overhead. It was so lush and fresh, the trees having just acquired their foliage.

I couldn’t give it to her, though. I said, “This is what you dragged me all over hill and dale for?”

“Actually, no.” She pointed with her stool. “There, to the right of the furnace.”


“Don’t you see that humongous clump of white peonies?”

“Well, yeah, but barely.”

“Come on; they’ve just blossomed.”

Their beauty and delicacy became apparent as we moved closer in the tall grass. Moments later mom had her easel unfolded and set up. From her backpack, she pulled two large squares of cloth, one black, one white. “I’ve been studying a concept called, chiaroscuro—the Italian term for contrast between light and dark,” she said. “I thought we could try it here.”

I’d survived the surrealism of her Salvador Dali phase, and the pointillism of her Seurat phase. I figured I’d survive this, too. She handed me the black cloth. “Hang that from the tree branches behind the flowers, like a backdrop.”

I did as I was told and when I stepped back, I was truly amazed. The petals had appeared white before, but against the dark background they actually popped as mom liked to say. “That’s what contrast between light and dark does,” she observed.

We had stretched our paper onto plywood the night before, so we were ready to paint—beginning with the negative space. Hardly any color would be needed for the positive space as the white of the paper would serve as the white of the blossoms. We squeezed dark pigments from miniature watercolor tubes onto miniature palettes. Mom handed me a bottle of water after pouring a few ounces into her basin.

A half our later, we checked one another’s paintings. Mom’s had a modern flair; she was an open painter. Mine was more traditional, tighter. But we had both chosen the same cluster of three exquisite blooms.

“Now drape this one.” Mom handed me the white cloth. I draped while she cleaned palettes, washed brushes, and poured fresh water.

I was seated and ready to start when I looked back at the peonies. I turned to my mother who was waiting.

“Well?” she asked.

“They don’t look as white anymore. They’re tinged with green.”

“How about that?” She wet her flat brush. “You know, there’s nothing wrong with using a dark backdrop to make a subject appear lighter than it really is. When you’re painting.

“Huh?” She was going somewhere, I just didn’t know where.

“That’s not the case when it comes to relationships and personal behavior.”

She may have been a second-rate artist, but that sharp eye saw right through me, nothing hidden. I couldn’t give it to her, though. I said, “So you think I should use phalo or sap green?”

“Oh, sap,” she laughed. “Definitely sap.”

I said not another word. Not until we were bidding the old fishermen goodbye, their smiles impossible to resist.

Sort of like Cory Schliemann's.

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This article has been read 982 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Lynda Schultz 05/28/09
Mom sounded a little daft in the beginning, but she was one smart cookie by the end. Really good story—obviously written by someone who knows something about painting as well as writing.
Loren T. Lowery05/29/09
Mom a "second rate" artist? I think not! She notices everything; and though her style might have an avant garde flair it still makes one pause to stop and consider the depth of her work. Your young protagonist reminds me so much of my own daughter at that age. You captured the teenage angst of an obedient, smart daughter slightly "tinted" with just the right color of curious, explorative, respectful rebellion. Sap green, what a glorious color. Your word choices throughout strongly reminded me of a Monet. I could see the entire scene neatly framed.
Bryan Ridenour05/30/09
Your story was so good...vivid...realistic and it revealed the wisdom of a mom. Well done.
Catrina Bradley 05/30/09
Teenagers never realize that moms know all. (I know I didn't as a teen.) Love the details - they make your story POP, as mom would say. :) Very good!
Myrna Noyes06/01/09
Oh, this was excellent--a very creative way to deal with the topic! :) I loved your colorful descriptions, the clever bits of humor, and Mom's wisdom!

GREAT writing! :D
Sonya Leigh06/02/09
Now why can't I be a mom like that? She knows how to have fun and still manages to turn that fun into a life lesson. I would take comfort in it being a figment of your imagination, but I actually know moms like that :) What a great story, and so well told!
Jan Ackerson 06/02/09
That mom is one wise lady--and as always, your unique writer's voice astounds me. You're a genius with the little details...the peonies, the orange gingham shirt...these are what distinguish writing from typing.
Lollie Hofer06/02/09
I didn't know you knew my mother. That's exactly what she would have worn on this type of outing. And peonies were some of her favorite flowers (mine too for that matter). Every aspect of this story felt genuine. You let it unfold in an unhurried manner, which is difficult sometimes with only 750 words. Thanks for writing this delightful story about this wise momma.
Karlene Jacobsen06/03/09
Oooooeey Lisa, I love this. Mom notices everything. She sees right through! Very good.
Connie Dixon06/03/09
You did it again, you caught me hook,line and sinker. I loved this. I enjoyed the fact that a 17-year old would actually make the effort to go along (even reluctantly) when she really didn't want to. And it's a good thing, she would have missed out on a great lesson(s). Good job!
Patricia Herchenroether06/03/09
Watch out, Lisa, your well-rounded knowledge is showing as well as your creativety! I much enjoyed this piece. Jackie O retro stuff. teehee.
Chely Roach06/03/09
I loved the little details, and the tie in to the topic was genius. Perfect last line; perfect title:)Loved the whole thing.
Carol Slider 06/03/09
Absolutely wonderful!! I was so hoping someone would think of writing about chiaroscuro. Thanks for a vivid, entertaining, and very well written story!
Sara Harricharan 06/03/09
Ooh, GOOD! I absolutely adored this! Glad I didn't miss the read. I liked the Mom and I liked the way you painted the Teenage MC. Boy, can I relate to that. lol. I loved how you described the flowers and how they painted together. Great stuff-and a very cute, catchy title!
Colin Swann06/03/09
Found this interesting - made me think about my kids and their self-will when they were
Thanks for the reminder - they turned out wonderful!

Beth LaBuff 06/03/09
I like your exquisitely woven story from the French title to the "channeling Jackie O" sentence! :) Great, great work!
Betty Castleberry06/03/09
More! This reads like a chapter in a coming of age novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Tow thumbs WAY up.
Mona Purvis06/03/09
All about the relationships and you give the reader a POV from daughter to mother and mother to daughter. Pulling that off is difficult. But, it made this one so rich and classic.
Loved it.
Loren T. Lowery06/04/09
Bravo! This is so good to see, though not entirely unexpected. Beautiful piece, exquisitely told.
Janice Fitzpatrick06/04/09
I loved reading this. Very wisely written with just enough ingredients to make this one stand out from a dark backdrop.:0) Great job!!
Janice Fitzpatrick06/04/09
Congratulations too on your win-EXCELLENT!!
Rachel Rudd 06/04/09
You captured a "real teenager" and a "really smart mom!" Very well-written...congratulations!
Myrna Noyes06/04/09
Lisa, I knew I was going to see this in the winner's circle today when I first read it! It is a masterpiece painted with your wonderful words!! :) CONGRATULATIONS!!
Sharon Kane06/04/09
Excellent writing! I was totally caught up in the scene and you portrayed the mother/daughter issues superbly too. Congratulations Lisa!
Charla Diehl 06/04/09
Loved the voice of the MC-very real and typical of teenage girls. I never have time to read all the entries before the rankings come out--glad yours placed as I always enjoy your writing. Congrats.
Connie Dixon06/04/09
Congratulations, Lisa. Superb writing as usual!
Pat Guy 06/04/09
What a masterpiece! I wanna paint with words too...you got it girl!
Verna Cole Mitchell 06/05/09
Congratulations on recognition for this wonderfully written piece. Your writing never disappoints. Your details flesh out a tremendous story every time.