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Brushstrokes of light

IT'S strange that it should be ears rather than eyes that I think about first in remembering my grandfather, Charles Hopkinson. His painter's eyes afforded him enjoyment all his long life as well as providing him a measure of fame. But his ears, when I was very small, seemed enormous. In fact, when I was 3 or 4 and encouraged by him to draw, the ear in the profile I did of him filled up most of the side of his head. He said he was very pleased I had drawn him so well. Again I think of ears when I remember how sometimes he would cup his hands over my ears as I hung onto his forearms. I would swing my feet off the ground, convinced that it was the strength in my ears that was holding me up. I enjoyed being with my grandfather. I did not have to be especially nice to him just because I felt sorry he was old. He seemed to be glad about so many things: that I had just come home from school; that the clouds were particularly interesting that day; that something nice had happened to someone he knew.

He enjoyed many things: his family and friends; sailing; poetry; when younger, an early morning swim off the rocky shore just below his house; years later, singing old songs around a piano. But the abiding source of his interest and enjoyment was always light. It was his pleasure to acknowledge the association of light and shadow in everything he painted.

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His attic studio with windows that looked out on the Atlantic Ocean smelled of turpentine. Bouquets of paintbrushes in jam jars stood on available surfaces. Partly used tubes of paint and paint rags lay near them. There were canvases leaning against the wall, some finished portraits, some only sketches. A cool, impartial light fell on everything from the skylight above.

Posing was a fact of life for all of us. My mother once said that as a little girl she thought all fathers stayed home and painted pictures of their children. I don't remember that anyone minded. Perhaps receiving his undivided attention made up for having to sit so still. He would walk back and forth to the easel, concentrating in silence. From time to time he would close one eye and hold a paintbrush at arm's length before him, using his thumb to mark some measurement. Sometimes when I sat for him, my mother would read to us. Every so often he would say, ``Would you like to rest now, dearie?'' understanding just how much work it can be to do nothing.

Grandfather always carried with him a sketchbook for pencil drawings. In those evenings before television when we sat around reading or talking or playing some game, he would draw one or another of the people in the room. I would often sit beside him to watch, and sometimes he would stop and give me a short lesson in perspective, or shading, or composition.

He was in his 80s when he used to pay long visits to my childhood family. Most days he would go out and paint watercolors. He might sit on a garden chair, in summer an old brown sweater around his shoulders, or wearing an overcoat and hat if it was fall or spring. In either case he would be wearing old gray sneakers, with dabs of white paint on them as a gesture toward smartening them up. His painting bag of brushes, paints, painting sponge, and water would be beside him on the ground and his block of painting paper propped on another chair in front of him.

He would sketch in lightly the important shapes of his picture. Then he would put in his luminous colors, the lights a little lighter than reality, the darks a little darker, and the sky-reflecting shadows purple-blue. When he brought his paintings into the house, they seemed to glow.

Today his legacy for me is the light of a long-ago moment caught in a watercolor on our wall, a backyard fence that recedes into the shadows because it is a bluish-purple, and memories of a man who was happy because he did what he loved best.

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