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Giovanni Francesco Romanelli: LivioAndronico [Ceiling in the Louvre Palace] (circa 1650)
"Our home's no masterpiece to anyone but us …"

When The Muse asked if I'd like her to paint the Cut in the basement stairwell, I gratefully accepted her offer. I'd been dreading that part of the job, since I'm basically a slob when painting and I usually only manage to create fine lines by using tape. I had not wanted to tape the freshly painted ceiling. I couldn't quite reach every inch of the line and my ladder, which I could not open all the way on the narrow landing, left me feeling like I was balancing on the head of an unstable pin. She gamely scurried off to change her clothes, grateful for some activity not involving Zoom®.

A Cut line separating wall from ceiling seems the most bedeviling element of painting.
It demands a steady hand and a certain perspective. It matters how the painter orients with the surface. High creates a different Cut than low, and the perspective from the floor will produce varying impressions. What might appear perfect to the painter might look too high or low to the observer, though few ever scrutinize the Cut in a poorly lit basement stairwell. In the moment when painting, though, all attention's finely focused upon what might never be deliberately gazed upon again, adding subtle pressure to really do this step right. A wavering line might not be noticed so much as felt. Even a small imperfection seems to induce a disquieting disorientation which seems to have no source, but probably results from a sloppy Cut.

The Muse took to the rickety ladder, with me spotting. She's essentially fearless with heights. When we painted the peak of the front exterior wall, thirty feet in the sky, she scrambled up the bowing extension ladder to enthusiastically paint the eves, not a quiver in her legs, while I cringed in blind support at the bottom, providing ballast, or so I told myself. This ceiling's hardly lofty, but within that space, with the bottom of the staircase falling below at crazy angles, and with existing color still showing next to what she was adding, produced a dizzying display. In this instance, too, the old color dramatically clashed with the new, making the fresh coat look like an unfolding mistake. A firm medium grey, the new color looked wine grape purple when adjacent to the old electrocuted green finish. The opposite wall, completely covered by then, looked downright patrician in comparison. The new one seemed to belong in a circus backdrop. We might have been laying down a short-lived base coat for another color. One never knows until a job's finished whether the chosen color actually works in the space.

The Muse could reach much less far than I could, had I been up there, so I ended up top with her spotting me, attempting to create the Cut for at least as much of the top as she had. And I had the height to continue the line on down the shadowy stairs. I felt as though I was painting that Cut line in the dark for part of the time. I ultimately employed a long blade used by us rank amateurs to separate wall from ceiling so we can approximate a fine Cut, a form of cheating. She agreed, hesitantly, to wipe off the blade between placements, but I still managed to smear and smudge a bit. Where Cut lines are concerned, It's always an all or nothing proposition. An errant slop and the line's disrupted. The white ceiling screams each shortcoming. A drunken contrail results. There's nothing to be done then but finish up and seek another resolution with a third and maybe fourth coat on the ceiling. The Muse suggested we finish up the second coat on the wall, then put down a tape line before finishing the ceiling, a last resort involving some necessary cheating. Anything to create a lasting illusion of competence.

I felt grateful that we were not gilding anything. Those ornate Rococo European ceilings and the Sistine Chapel required extensive custom-made scaffolding, the design and construction of which might have bested that of the artwork on the ceiling, though that scaffolding was disassembled and forgotten once the gilding was finished. We, HomeMaking, do not consider creating single use scaffolding. Between final coats, I fled to YouTube to watch how professionals create perfect Cuts, but those videos, too, prove misleading. The camera cannot capture the painter's judgement or his muscle memory resulting from decades of sometimes sorry experience recovering and learning from previous imperfections. One cannot learn better by cramming just before the final exam. Our ultimate Cut line will probably upset any professional painter, but, hopefully, few will notice. Remind us when we next invite an old master over for supper, to keep him away from the basement stairwell. Our home's no masterpiece to anyone but us, but man it sure does have backstories!

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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