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Watercolors reveal lessons for international relations

I'm studying watercolor painting this winter, but the nature of mixing and overlaying colors has largely eluded me. My careful landscapes feature shades of rancid mustard and other unappetizing hues not often seen in nature. When it comes to portraiture, I can render a finger with all the sensuality of an Aphrodite, but the head seems to have been modeled after an earthworm's.

Still, the fact is that I delight in my materials almost as much as if I knew what I were doing. Watercolor has taught me two important truths already. One is that nothing is ever finished; at some point you just let go of the balloon and watch it sail away. I suppose children are like that, too, and one's own soul.

The second truth is an open secret among artists: Objects take on a little of their neighbor's coloring. Green grass near blue sky needs to contain blue-not to be blue, mind you, but to have a kind of blue shadow, a subtle pigmentation, or a transparent glaze. Blue ties grass and sky together, reflecting nature's holism. Incidentally, the use of blue also appeals to an immutable law of physics that says you can never really get all the paint out of your brush anyway. In this way, synergy occurs among the parts of an art work-or rather the stage is set in such a way that synergy could occur.

Harmony happens. Winslow Homer painted a beautiful redhead reading in the grass: her face has a greenish cast, which looks odd under a magnifying glass but seems eminently sensible at three paces. In oil painting you see this wonderful chameleon effect in Tintoretto's rendering of glass.

In real life, is there green in that cheek? Do people reflect each other as parts of a subtle whole? There's more at stake here than a dog looking like his master. Our brains love to suppress information as a way of simplifying the huge task of perception; we regard each other as hard-edged, separate entities out of convenience.

Look closely and you see that men and women of different nationalities, races, and ethnicities, if they are permitted to stand together and work side by side, take on a bit of each other's coloring and a bit of each other's character. National or provincial loyalties are not entirely thrust aside-there are still chauvinists in the United Nations Security Council and racists in Congress-but they can be modified by exposure, their burred edge sanded, their beauty intensified. This is why every student ought to spend a year studying or traveling abroad, regardless of where home is.

And what happens when you forget to add that wash of cobalt blue in the first half-inch or so of sky this side of the horizon? What then if we cast no shadows on each other?

A couple weeks ago, I attended a conference over at Fuqua, invited as a token adult whose years of accumulated wisdom might benefit mock trade negotiations between groups of Duke students and their counterparts from Japan's Keo University.

We began with lunch, we Americans chowing down on roast beef while our visitors chose plates of salad, an ancient Asian business practice for keeping the wits clear. A likely looking blonde guy across the way introduced himself to his Japanese tablemate and, the formalities safely behind, demanded, "So what do you think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?"

I quailed before this parody of the scrutable Occidental. No wonder the world finds us callow. Sure, we have plenty of reason to discuss our history of respective atrocities in a spirit of mutual grief, but not on the first date.

I turned to my neighbor, who had averted his gaze. "Shoichi-san, do Americans always do this?" He smiled. "Don't you get tired of it?" He bowed. I paused to recall a visit to a London theater with a passel of German friends who were confronted by rowdy American tourists wanting to know nothing more than their names and what they thought of Hitler. "ADOLF Hitler," one Yank prompted kindly. "You know, the Third Reich." What better topic for warming up new friends than a genocidal maniac who had made war on half the Western world and had been dead for 40 years? I pretended not to speak English.

But to return to Fuqua. The blond American boy was talking again: "And do you feel sorry for doing that?" The Japanese put down his fork. In the silence, someone started a conversation about car commercials.

I studied our lad. There was not a trace of borrowed pigment in his countenance, no reflection of his neighbor in his eyes. He might have been pasted into the scene, clipped from a photo of a different conference. An unsuccessful one.

Paul Baerman is a University employee.


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