how to prepare a wood panel

The other day, I got into an argument with an ex-boyfriend who I’m friendly with now. We were arguing about whether some displays of suffering deserved to be called more beautiful than others. Beautiful wasn’t the word we used, but that was the gist of the argument—that some suffering was more artful. I thought some sadnesses were more sophisticated than others. No, that’s not quite right. I thought some displays of sadness were more sophisticated than others. He thought that wasn’t fair of me to say, being who I was, with all my life’s advantages laid out for me. We were sitting at the bar at Ervs. I was having some kind of happy hour cocktail, something with grapefruit and tequila.

I have the mind of an ascetic. It doesn’t make me happy, but it does make me feel noble, so I accept it. If I could, I would strip my whole life down to a shelf of books, two plants and a suitcase; that I can undertake this ritual and choose not to means I’m not as ascetic as I’d like to believe. Still, in my mind’s eye, I’m a swan with a long, white neck, feet paddling frantically under a sheen of glassy water. Still, I deny myself—little things, big things. Like meals, kindnesses. It seems so much easier to be good to others.

I was wrong, of course, in that argument. Very wrong. It couldn’t possibly be fair of me to decide what suffering merits art. I can say I don’t like something, which is why I am a critic, but it’s not my place to decide how people make it, and what they make it from. And who am I to declare what best way to suffer when I have been known to plunge headlong into my own sadness; when I treat my sadness as an engine, feeding it and penning it simultaneously, like some poor imitation of a fire.


A wood panel is a sturdy support for oil painting. With a deep edge, three-quarters of an inch or more, a panel is a handsome object, inherently more finished-looking than a canvas, which may need to be framed. The panels I buy on a whim at the Blick in Chinatown have a birch surface and a pine cradle. They come in a value pack of six, like family size. I like the word cradle, so I read it over and over on the copy of the packaging. It makes me feel held.


I used to be good at writing about sadness; then I got happy; then I got used to that, too. Plus, sometimes it feels silly to be rooting around in your sorrow like a pig snuffling for truffles. At lunch with my friend Henry at the Nom Wah on Doyers, we catch up over rice rolls and a plate of noodle stir-fry. I’ve known him since we were children, but we don’t see each other more than a few times a year, which gives our friendship a familiarity that sometimes feels unearned. I’m trying to explain to him how I feel now—how I feel as though I’ve taken my whole life and upended it, and still I’m surprised that nothing is the same. It’s like I pulled the rug out from under myself, except the rug was really the floor, and now instead of just me falling, all my referents are shifting too. When I try to pick out the reasons, the answers seem obvious—no job, new projects, a crisis of faith—and yet it seems too simple to put it like that. Too pat, like the plot of a short story or worse yet, a novel.

Henry thinks it’s chemical; he says the phrase, “a chemical change,” more than once, and I have to ask for clarification. When he explains it, I understand it to mean, roughly, “inevitable.


The panels will need to be prepped for oil paint to adhere; you can buy them pre-finished, but it’s more expensive. Instead, I buy, along with the panels, a foam paint roller, four inches long, and haul it all down to my studio in Sunset Park. On a table in the common work area, I array my panels in a grid. To prep a ground for oil paint, I use a basic studio-quality acrylic gesso. It’s flexible, so I can use it on stretched canvases, but has enough coverage to build up a surface on a panel. With the roller I put down four thin coats on each 8x8 panel, until the wood grain is no longer visible. I let them dry between layers, touching the surfaces gently with my fingertips to check if they’re wet, patting them like children, or my own face in the mirror.


I told you once I get scared when my life begins to look less like a field and more like a hallway. There are so many doors here, and where are all the horses that were just running around? To be honest, it wasn’t just once. I’m scared of a lot of things these days. Of my parents dying, and of being unable to take care of them when they grow old before that. Of being bad at the things I want to do. Of being an inattentive friend, an ungenerous lover, a selfish daughter. Of being unable to pay rent. Of never having ideas, or never having any good ideas, or never being able to make my ideas come out on paper the way I want them to. I am scared of failure. Of my addictive tendencies. Of my own drinking. Of my life changing faster than I want to admit, or allow.

I get scared that this is it, that this is the life I’ve chosen, whether or not I really chose it, whether or not it’s really mine; I get scared when I think about the heat death of the universe. I get scared when I realize I am so small and there is so much suffering around me, and every action of mine like feels a drop falling into the sea; I get scared of the void, of the creeping darkness that follows me without my blessing nor my guidance, hovering at the periphery like when I look over too quickly and think there’s someone standing in my empty bathroom.

Sometimes, I tell you, You’re beautiful. And you look up at me, and you say, No, you’re beautiful. And we repeat it to each other, inanely, and that’s not how I know that I love you, but it’s a good way to bring it up.


Apparently it’s best practice to sand between coats, but that doesn’t really make much sense to me, so I don’t do it. By now, the panels are touch-dry and opaquely white, with little runnels of gesso on their handsome sides where I forgot to tape them off before I started. If you like your ground with a little tooth to it, you can even start painting now. But I paint thin, with lots of linseed oil and gamsol, and so I like a preternaturally smooth surface, like a sheet of printer paper. To achieve that, I spritz water on the panels, gently misting, and sand with the angled sanding sponge I picked up at a hardware store in Crown Heights. Something miraculous happens in this step; it’s like alchemy, how the gesso coagulates up on itself as I sand in small circles, the white paste rolling into little slivers that I brush off with my hands, leaving behind a perfect surface without blemish or flaw. It reminds me, a little, of the peeling gel I exfoliate with in the shower, scrubbing off the dirt to make myself more and most pure.

And then that’s it. What a change has occurred. The first time I do this, I can’t stop marveling at the surface, its pristine hardness, its matte finish. I run my fingers over and over the finished panels, incredulous that such perfection can be had, and made by me, a mere mortal. Outside the studio windows, the sun has already set. The sky is quickly turning deep blue.


I once described you as more perfect than me, actually. When I think about that now, it seems to say more about me than anyone else. At times it seemed impossible that you could love me the way you do, or that I even deserved it. But I know that wasn’t really the question. I wonder what the question was, or is, or if there is a question I can ask of the world at all, though I do keep trying.


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