Brushes With Greatness

Short of partaking in a café au lait and croissant on a sidewalk in France, I can think of few better ways way to prepare for going to see a masterwork than to spend a few hours brushing paint onto a canvas. My friend and I took two spots at a long table for 16 on the sidewalk outside Croce’s Park West in Bankers Hill for my eighth social painting class in San Diego. Saturday’s painting subject was a forest of birch trees.

My friend, sitting to my right, studied art at the University of Wisconsin and became an accomplished photographer, sculptor and painter before finding a paid career as a design engineer. My formal art education ended in junior high school, the only work I specifically recall being a portrait of The Monkees’ Peter Tork.

Our birches painting began with a turquoise sky. My friend veered from the instructor’s monochromatic base with a gradient application of paint; my tendencies lean toward less fluidity. Next came the tree trunks. I thought I was doing a pretty good job, until I compared mine with my friend’s. While everyone else moved on to adding small branches and leaves, I was attempting to perfect tree trunks.

Eventually, I got to the yellow, orange and red blotches of fall leaves, but I’d have liked to apply them more leisurely. The result was OK, but I foresaw a bit more fussing in my near future.

In any event, we loaded our paintings into the back of my car and walked with our turquoise-tinted hands to the Timken Museum in Balboa Park — specifically to see Johannes Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, on loan from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and on exhibition through Sept. 11.

As soon as I my eyes caught sight of it, the Dutch master’s painting drew me into the room like a magnet. I walked as close as I could to study the work close up, then, aware of my selfishness, backed off so as not to block others’ view. From every vantage point, I appreciated the artistry.

When I read on an exhibition placard that Vermeer finished about three paintings a year, I thought that I should be happier with my three-hour birch trees. Then again, I was painting in 2015 with premixed acrylic paint. Vermeer, in the 1600s, began with an undercoating of copper green, then used a thin blue layer of lapis lazuli before moving on to the top layers.

Studying the mood the Dutchman conveyed with the woman’s slightly parted lips in conjunction with the light on her face, hands and the letter gave me a sense that I would remember this moment. Such is the power of art.

In exchange for Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1663-64), Timken Museum loaned to Rijksmuseum its own Dutch master’s work: Rembrandt’s Saint Bartholomew (1657).

There are only about 36 Vermeer paintings known to exist, so the opportunity to view one in Balboa Park is not one to bypass. In fact, there are guest lectures and gallery talks for those who want to learn more. Admission is free, though donations are appreciated.

As for the burning question about my birch trees, yes, I did a bit more work on them at home before hanging the canvas. It’s no Vermeer, but I’m almost a quarter of the way toward matching him in number of paintings.


For more information about the exhibition and related events, visit or call 619-239-5548.