December 2012 ● About an Old Love

By Federico León de La Vega ● December, 2012

Among the visitors to my Estudio-Café, there was a couple of retired Americans. They sat near the water, overlooking the channel and ordered hamburgers. As many other older couples, they enjoyed each other while looking at the sailboats and the view. From my position by the easel, between each brushstroke, I enjoyed watching them.  They spent hours eating and later drinking coffee. They appeared to be scheming something, as if exchanging views; she looked somewhat reluctant to whatever he was proposing, as if wishing to be begged for.  The sun began to set and they still would not leave. As I walked to the kitchen to order something for myself, they stopped me to chat. They told me they were familiar with my artwork and World like to be invited in to see what I had new to show.

I went ahead and ate while feeling a bit intrigued. Then I ordered a drink to sit with them. After a while talking I invited them inside my studio and showed them what I had on my walls and easels. We finally sat down in the living room; the scene appeared formal in a peculiar way. The true motive for their visit came up: he wanted to commission a portrait of his wife. She was lovely, even at her age and she blushed! I felt privileged to share in this romantic business. This old gentleman was a true lover, one who savored long just sharing together and looking at his woman.

My price was immediately accepted by the gentleman and the lady conceded to pose for me three sittings, two hours each. I received a deposit and we agreed to meet at their house every Thursday for the following weeks.  So once a week I would visit them carrying my easel and painting gear. While I painted, she sat on a comfortable chair, looking at the ocean below. She chose to wear a denim shirt, the kind with pearly buttons, with a bit of a cowboy look, which she kept buttoned all the way up to the neck.  Hours went by pleasantly, full of long minutes, some of which we dedicated to conversing. Such intimacy as the painter artist obtains from his subject is hard for me to describe, I wish I could find a way to share it with my readers. I am sure my fellow painter friends will understand: although photography will always be more precise than any painting, the fact that we put so much time and effort into observing the essence of the subject (and not only its lights, shadows and lines) allows us painters to penetrate a bit of their spirit. In the case of a beautiful woman, the process is exquisite, since it allows for contemplation at one’s will. Enjoyable, as long as success is being met in the sense of accomplishing a good likeness to the person being painted.  I must confess I was rather frustrated with results during the first session. I could appreciate such love and admiration in the couple, that I felt obligated to depict her as the most beautiful.  However, after 60 we all develop features to hide. My quest was to portray this woman, beautiful in her present age, yet without loosing authenticity.

Back in my Studio I did several studies, most of them frustrating. My daughter, then seven years old, tried to help me by doing her own renderings of the fair lady. Then, while taking a break, I came to thinking there really wasn’t any hurry; everything is part of a process we should enjoy step by step.  I looked at myself in the mirror: I was getting old too…and so were the ladies I had liked…and still did. I loosened up, convinced that if portraits were easy to paint, nobody would pay for them. Things worthwhile usually take long to come to fruition.  In my Bible I found a verse to this point:  “…As a bird hastens to the snare, he did not know it would cost him his life”  Proverbs 7:23

When I arrived for the last sitting, I felt already well acquainted with my model’s features. Moreover, through our conversations I had come to know part of her life: the battles she had fought, the joys and sorrows, the facts that had drawn her expression lines. My wife, who is much younger than me, helps hide my  wrinkles with cosmetic creams; I lend myself to this practice since I love to be pampered. While I admit to having my own degree of vanity and then long for remaining young, I have come to learn there really is a certain special beauty about growing old. While I painted this portrait I understood more about old age charm. This subject was not new to mind; I had meditated on it while doing other paintings. On one occasion I did one called “Old Tree” motivated by a Mexican saying “Old? Trees are old and every season they still turn green”. It depicted an old one: branches twisted by age, with bright yellow flowers coming out of them, once again announcing spring. I painted this tree while thinking of  Spanish writer Antonio Machado´s poem, which was later sung by Joan Manuel Serrat:

“Al olmo centenario, en la colina, con las lluvias de abril y el sol de mayo, algunas hojas verdes le han salido… Antes que te derribe olmo del Duero, con su hacha el leñador y el carpintero te convierta en melena de campana, lanza de jarro o yugo de carreta…antes que rojo en el hogar mañana ardas de alguna mísera caseta, olmo quiero anotar en mi cartera, la gracia de tu tallo blanquecino..”

By Federico León de La Vega

By Federico León de La Vega

“To the centenial elm, April rains and May sun brought out some green leaves from it…Before you are brought down by the lumberjack, and the carpenter turns you into belltop, water jugholder or carriage yoke, before you burn red in some miserable cottage…elm, I wish to draw the gracious line of your pale trunk”

As it happened towards the end I was quite calm and self-assured, trusting I would complete my commission satisfactorily and not produce one of such portraits one has to explain who is depicted –my worst nightmare is arriving at a shameful obligation to give back a deposit for not being able to deliver.  I enjoyed looking at this lovely face and paused to admire her little wrinkles; a few of them I blurred on the canvas. While adding on the final touches, I took artistic license and, with the ease oil painting permits, to paint on top of previous layers, I decisively pulled down the brush. Her shirt then became unbuttoned down to mid bosom. “Sorry, but I could’t resist” –I apologized. Her husband fell in love with the painting as he was with her.  I will not reproduce the portrait here, because the lady could object; her being modest. Instead I present “Old Tree”: an oil on canvas painting 40×60 cm, bought by one of my friends, an elder.

Federico León de la Vega
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Author Note:
This is a chapter of a book I am writing about my adventures as a painter artist.

The Federico León de la Vega Estudio – Café is open to the public and is located in Paseo de la Marina 31, Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit. Opening hours are Monday to Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Sundays from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m.

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