May 5, 2015

Doctor of Medicine and Surgery, Ph.D. Ilkka Toivio

30 x 20 cm, pencil on paper, 2015

*private collection

Master and Apprentice

The white gauze curtain before the studio’s high arched window dispersed the sunlight flooding into the room. Two people stood by an easel, gazing at a big oil painting resting on it.

One of them was a youngster passionately dedicated to his art, ready to take the world by storm. The other was a venerable, white-haired master, his accomplishments and thoughts honed again and again in the course of a long and rewarding life.

“My whole life is captured in this painting,” sighed the young artist in despair, holding back his tears only with difficulty. “It was to have been my best, but while I was putting the finishing touches to it yesterday and the day before I simply messed it up. The clear skin and the shadows are a mere memory and the painting is ruined!” The youngster sank gloomily into the nearest armchair and hid his weary face.

The master listened in silence and carefully examined the painting. He took a few steps back, casting his eye over the painting as a whole before focusing on details again.

“Mm… it’s a shame if your life depends on nothing but a mere scrap of canvas,” mused the master after a lengthy pause. “But the art of finishing is a demanding one and I can understand your anxiety. This work really is one of your best. You could rescue it by enhancing the light points and modifying the tone of the background, especially on the lighter side of the face. But generally speaking, you need a clearer image of your next step and objective when a work is nearing completion. Otherwise you’ll just drift and you’ll daub here and there until your work resembles wet mud.”

The youngster had raised his head and was listening attentively to what his teacher said.

“I suggest that you now go and paint a spring onion,” the master went on in a seemingly innocent tone.

“A spring onion?!” cried the ambitious budding artist in a vexed voice. “I want to get this big painting finished, and the sooner the better!”

“I still suggest that you put it aside for now and do as I advise,” replied the master with a straight face.

The youngster gazed at his teacher in disbelief while at the same time putting his coat on.

“If my fellow students get to hear that I’m painting a spring onion instead of my triptych, they’ll laugh me out of the Young Artists’ Forum, he spluttered to his teacher, offended and frustrated.

“Really?” the master replied. “It so happens that I’ve heard some of your discussions. The endless monologues in which you all gabble on, trying to flaunt yourselves in the most ridiculous ways… as if you were playing badminton all on your own. Is that what you call discussing, my boy? I could add one more thing for you to do.”

“And that is?” asked the youngster, promising himself he would no longer be surprised by anything.

“You could go and see my gardener and tell him you want to hear everything he can tell you about spring onions. Ask and listen. You may learn something.”

The embryo artist departed, shaking his head and taking his unfinished painting with him.

Two weeks later, the apprentice returned to his master’s studio. The fat spring onion with its long green shoots looked nice and fresh on the by now familiar easel.

“Excellent,” commented the master benevolently. “The freedom and precision of the brushwork go hand in hand. And did you talk to the gardener?”

“I know a lot about spring onions now, about gardening and the natural round in general, and to my surprise it was fascinating. He’s a nice guy, that gardener of yours,” replied the apprentice with a smile.

The silver-haired master gave a resounding chuckle and continued:

“You’re probably ready to finish the last part of your triptych now. Think back to your talk with the gardener and listen to your painting with as much patience and curiosity. Don’t use your brush until you realise what stroke you want to make next. The result may be a rewarding, interactive dialogue between you and your painting.”

The apprentice’s face began radiating new hope and enthusiasm.

“And most important of all,” the master continued, lowering his voice to a virtual whisper, “Don’t over-respect your painting. It’ll only make you afraid and your concentration will flag. Try to approach the finishing stage of your big project as you did that nice spring onion of yours, the one that turned out to be quite delightful. This way you can scotch futile fears and expectations, and you’ll end up being successful in your bigger painting, too.”

The master gazed out of the window, affectionately watching his apprentice as he dashed back to his demanding project.

* * *

Much, much later, art-lovers gazed in wonder at the magnificent work of art, the triptych that had demanded so much work, hanging on the museum wall. Beside it, inseparable and just as famous and loved was the little painting of a spring onion. Luckily, its story had become widely known, and the oil painting of an artist who lived long ago encouraged, again and again, those who saw it to face their own personal challenges.


English translation by Susan Sinisalo

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