If any artist were to tackle painting the beauty and quirkiness of a pot of cooked wild rice, it would be Maurice Grosser.
Grosser, a native of Alabama who lived in New York, gained more of a reputation for his paintings in Europe than in North America, where he barely made a blip on the art radar screen. Here he’s better known for his writing on art.
But one show of his in Paris in 1939 met with critical acclaim. It featured paintings of fruits and vegetables rendered in Grosser’s trademark draftsmanship — careful, sensitive, rich. Only these strawberries and peppers and melons were “heroic” in size — two, six or 12 times their natural proportions.
To capture wild rice, it would take this kind of larger-than-life scale along with the kind of sensitivity that Grosser displayed, his appreciation for the brushstroke, and how the paint must be applied. Are the layers added thickly or in a thin wash, or soup, as it was called?
Does the study start with a “dead painting” in black and white to block in the structural elements and light values of the grains that are alternately curled like wee caterpillars protecting themselves from a cold spring rain, or puffed out straight, their tips exploded like ruptured pine needles?
Will the dead painting be left to dry, or is it still slightly wet when we go for the colour on top? If the latter’s the case then the only brush that will do is a large one of pig’s bristle, since wet paint applied with small brushes on top of wet paint would only result in “a troubled surface and a muddy tone”. What we are after is an infinite variety of warm browns, from the lightest — almost the shade of good vanilla ice cream — through caramel and fudge tones, to a deep chocolate brown shot with burgundy.
Also, as Grosser points out, a softer brush of marten or sable wouldn’t be able to provide the loaded brush strokes that will produce the “grain” we need, the swirls and dimples, the wiggly grooves and little rivulets along the sides of each kernel of rice.
As you might guess, I was reading Grosser the other night right after I’d made a pot of wild rice; the two fit together like a lid on a good rice pot.
Unfortunately, unless you’re in Manitoba or Minnesota, wild rice can be hard to find and when we do, most of us are afraid to cook it. Most of the time, you’ll see a pre-packaged blend of wild and other rice. But when you do find the real McCoy, grab yourself a few packages and just don’t look at the price. It’s worth it.