If we do the same thing over and over again, we’ll get the same results. Most of us will take the same road to our favorite restaurant, choose the same menu items, and call it a night at about the same hour. We are that predictable. A certain structure in our lives is necessary to keep us on an even keel. Mass marketing depends on people like us, since we have reliable and time tested tastes. Great art is different from the decorative arts, however, and it’s unlike the mass produced pieces which are good for covering a section of a wall in an office or residence.
Likewise, if we want to break through from the ordinary to the better, or if we want to improve upon our former work, we have to break our old habits and train ourselves in new habits. Why do world champion golfers reconstruct their swings in the middle of their careers? Their bodies are aging and changing. They can no longer swing with the abandon of younger and more limber persons. To continue playing at a high level, they must learn anew. This learning, forgetting and learning again is related to John 12:24–“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
DIANA—Painting with a Bell Pepper
In art classes, we’re always unlearning our yesterdays and starting over with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit in the morning. The day we start repeating ourselves, we’ve decided we’re good enough. We’ve settled, rather than continuing to push on to see how far we can go. Some of us will do this because we’re finally making a living. No one can fault this. Taking care of our families is important.
GAIL—Painting wit an Okra Pod
Yet if we fail to care for the artist within us, if we aren’t reaching deep within to wrestle with the challenge to risk trembling on the edges of beauty and chaos, we won’t be happy coloring canvases to satisfy the needs of those who see our art as an appendage to their furnishings rather than an object in its own right.
MIKE—Trees Painted with a Sweet Potato
The art class was somewhat nonplussed when I suggested we use sweet potato slices to print or paint with, as well as the big pretzel rods. Gail brought some large okra from her garden too, so we added this to the equation. If we always draw with the pencil and fill in with the paint brush, we get paintings which resemble coloring books. Then they came up with some original solutions. I knew they had it in them!
DUSTIN—Bowling Pins shaped like Sweet Potatoes
Mike used the actual potato as a paint tool, while Diana used the cut okras as textures and patterns. Dustin took the shape for bowling pins, and Gail doubled up sweet potatoes for mountains. I discovered the woven surface I was using wasn’t really conducive to the printing process, whereas the flat papers the class used worked fine. I got enough paint on it to get started and finished it at home.
CORNELIA—(Sweet Potato) Cloud on the Horizon
In Richard Rhor’s book, Immortal Diamond, he says, “Your True Self is that part of you that knows who you are and whose you are, although largely unconsciously. Your False Self is just who you think you are—but thinking doesn’t make it so.”
In art, we practice over and over again, until we can drop all the artifices of the False Self (the constructs which the world rewards) and work freely for the rewards which are pleasing to God. To do this, we need to allow ourselves to be freely loved by God and let ourselves freely love God’s entire creation. If nothing is outside God’s love and providence, then we too are called to love and care for God’s creation. This attitude will show in our art and heart.
In faith and art, we’re always dying to our old self and rising to our new self. Therefore we won’t be imitators of others, but we’ll be conformed instead to the image of God.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
In art, beginners can get so caught up with drawing the forms and representing reality, they lose sight of the emotions and meaning of their work. Small children, on the other hand, will take an idea such as a snowman in a snowstorm, and completely obliterate their surface with white swirls until all sight of the ground, the snowman, the house and the children who built it are covered up. Their work is more about the experience of the falling, swirling snow than it is about the distinctive parts. We hang this on our refrigerators and exclaimed with amazement when they tell us the story.
In a year, they’ll be interested in the separate objects and have a well defined ground and sky, even if their objects aren’t in realistic proportions. The proportions are sized according to the child’s interest, and by age 12 most children want to create drawings with realistic perspective and images. Sometimes as they age, they begin to lose their sense of magic and mystery, and need their imagination primed more, but this isn’t impossible.
Adults often have difficulty using their imaginations, for they’ve had too many years of completing to do lists, getting things done, and unfortunately, much work is mind numbing. Some of them also are products of schools that taught to the test and to the “right answer,” rather than teaching thinking or logic skills or creativity.
The disciples asked, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)
For us as artists or as people of faith, to enter into the humility of a child is a counter cultural act, both today and in ancient times. We don’t find self help gurus preaching simplicity or poverty, but we do find plenty selling the siren call of prosperity and power. Jesus always speaks of the least of all as being the most of all, which is why the smallest child has more honor and greatness in the kingdom of heaven than the most important citizens of this world.
Some of us hear this text as a call to never question the faith we learned as a child. Unfortunately when we hit the stumbling blocks of adulthood, we find our simple faith’s pillars of belief are on shaky foundations. We can either crash and burn, or we can ask the questions of trusted and learned guides who have gone on the path before. Then we can shore up our foundations with mature understandings, or remodel our understanding so we can live with joy anew.
In art, we can either repeat the same forms over and over, or we can critique our work. In the school I attended, we had a routine—the first three comments had to be positive, then the next had to be those which needed improvement. Since we never called anything “bad” or “wrong,” the person on the hot seat never felt diminished. “You could have darkened the background more, so your foreground objects would have been more prominent.” This is better than saying, “You didn’t make the objects in front stand out,” since it doesn’t offer a solution.
It’s humbling to receive criticism, even positive feedback, because we want to be accepted just as we are, especially in faith. Yet Jesus didn’t die on the cross to leave us just as we are (justifying grace), but rose from the dead to perfect us and make us holy, just as he is (sanctifying grace). In faith, we come as humble children to grow in grace before God and to come to full perfection of love of God and neighbor that is entire sanctification. In art, we work each day to join our hand, our hearts, and our vision into one spiritually inspired whole. The more we know ourselves and can connect with the spirit of the creating God, the better we’ll make art with an inner life.
Sometimes in art, we decide to repeat a certain set of forms because we get approval from others for our work. We do this to the danger of our very lives. While we may continue to sell our work and earn the acclaim of critics, if we aren’t pushing the boundaries of artistic creativity, we are stagnating and not growing. The greatest artists–Picasso, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Michaelagelo–never quit growing. In faith, we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Leonardo da Vinci said, “There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.” The task of the teacher is to help the student to see more clearly, not just in art, but also in life.
When I was in seminary, I realized the search for beauty was similar to the search for truth, and each generation had its own notions of what was beautiful and true. When I made this connection, a light came on in my mind and I could see what my professors were showing me. Before this, I was stumbling about in a dark room, banging my toes against unseen couches and table legs. I had the sense of the objects, but not the full understanding of them. Once the light came on, I could see these pieces of furniture for what they were–the color, design, embellishments, and placement in the space were easy to define. They were no longer obstacles, but resting points on the way to the next room on an historic journey.
PAINTING FASTER ALL THE TIME
Some of my compatriots struggled because one philosopher would define truth a certain way and his famous student then would describe it differently. These modern day students didn’t have art backgrounds, but thought of truth as what we know only as true today. Perhaps they also didn’t have much of an historic worldview either.
When Leonardo speaks of those categories of people who see, I think first of children, who seem naturally to see. If we give a child some art tools and a jumping off idea, they’ll run with it. Children love the experience of the materials and get excited when they can use their imagination. They feel empowered when they bring an image to life with their own hands.
SUN, MOON, AND SEASHELL
Older teens and adults are more concerned about what other people think of their work, so they often won’t even begin. Other times they start and can’t deal with the disconcert between their conception and execution. Every artist who aspires to do quality work is always unsatisfied with either the concept or execution! As Leonardo once remarked, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”
I brought seashells to class for our painting experience, but before we began our work, I had the students experience a guided meditation. The seashells were hidden underneath a cloth. This is an opportunity to know the shell personally, rather than to see it as a mere form. This “seeing” involves the inner emotions, which affect the energy and spirit with which we create our art. As the master says, “Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.”
1. Study all the surfaces under the cloth before you begin to put marks on your canvas.
2. Are the edges round, rough, sharp, jagged?
3. Do you recognize this object from experience?.
4. What memories or emotions does it evoke in you?
5. What colors do these experiences bring to mind?
6. Is there a person or place connected with this object?
7. What age were you? Would you want to visit this place again at your present age?
8. Remove the cover and look at the object.
9. Does it look different now from an ordinary object?
10. Does entering into an emotional give and take open your eyes to more of the possibilities of the object?
11. Choose a “pose” for your subject and compose a portrait of its personality.
The creative life and the faith life are not just about following a set of rules, although rules exist in both worlds. These two lives are more about what is good, beautiful, and true, and how we artists as people of faith can be a blessing in the world in which we live. As in art and philosophy, the good, beautiful, and the true may be different in different times and ages, but “one can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” ~~ Job 42:3-4
The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
MIKE, negative image & DUFY, GATE
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
GAIL, negative image & DUFY, Room with Window
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?
Famous artists throughout the ages have chosen apples for their still life paintings. Apples are known for sitting still, they have a long shelf life, and they work for cheap. Moreover, when the painting is done, they make an excellent pie. We can’t do this with our human models, since this involves non ethical principles such as “Do not take a human life or do not murder.” So, apples are good for starving artists everywhere.
In art class last Friday, the adult students learned even a simple apple and its shadows can be challenging, but the fruit of the quest is worth it. Integration of the object and the ground isn’t easy! If we focus only on the form, it’ll float like a butterfly above the ground. The shadow ties the form to the ground and tells us more about object’s shape and location in space. The line behind the objects determines the point of view. It becomes our horizon line, so we know if we’re looking above or below the objects.
We can use our brushstrokes can to shape the apple’s form too. Then if we use the same brush technique for our ground, we haven’t separated the object from the ground. We end up with the famous magic “cloak of invisibility,” which is great in a Harry Potter novel, but not so great if we want to separate our apple from the ground.
These are all areas of growth, however. As my old teachers all said, “There are no mistakes–only attempts to gain mastery over the techniques until you find your own voice.”
Next week we’ll look at negative space. So far we’ve been drawing the objects, but now we’ll look at the space in between them! Oh–who knew we’d pay attention to the empty spaces or they’d have so much meaning!
“Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings…”.
Flowers please us because of their colors and forms, but also because of their fleeting beauty. While the class was painting, I threw some colors on an old canvas. It is a sketch, since never got to the dark accents of the petals. The paint was wet, so I would have had mud, not two distinct colors!
In our weekly adult painting class at church, we talked about Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Gauguin’s friendship with him, and how other artists have approached the subject of flowers. Not painting every petal or detail, but capturing the energy and emotion of the flowers is more important.
This requires a leap of faith! Of course, if we aren’t sure of how to mix a color, or how to draw a shape or make a form, a student is loathe to move off a safe path. Van Gogh had this struggle also. His early paintings were dark and lacking the energy of his late works.
Still Life with Earthenware, Bottle, and Clogs
Van Gogh, Sunflowers
Unfortunately some of Van Gogh’s most iconic floral artworks in the Van Gogh Museum, painted in 1888 and 1889, are now facing the test of time.
Vincent Van Gogh painted his iconic Sunflowers in vibrant yellows and golds, but after 130 years, his bright lemon-yellow hues have begun to wilt into a brown muddle. A new X-ray study confirms what researchers and art lovers have long suspected: Van Gogh’s paints are fading over time. In 2011, Sarah Zielinski at Smithsonian.com reported that chemists were looking into how the old colors were holding up. They found exposure to UV light—both from sunlight and the halogen lamps used to illuminate paintings in some museum galleries—had led to oxidation of some paint pigments, causing them to change color.
A 2016 study looked deeper into the matter to find one of the bright yellow paints Van Gogh liked, a mix between yellow lead chromate and white lead sulfate, was particularly unstable. Under UV light, the unstable chromate changed states and the sulfates began to clump together, dulling the color. Unfortunately, the process is not currently preventable. Currently, the darkening of the paint and the wilting of the sunflowers is not visible to the naked eye.
As the book of James (1:11) reminds us about impermanence:
“For the sun rises with its scorching heat
and withers the field;
its flower falls, and its beauty perishes.”
In class, we talked about light permanence and pigment choice. If we want to make works of art for posterity, we should choose pigments able to stand up to the test of time. I choose lightfastness I when I work. Likewise, if we are going to be in business or relationships, we want to use the highest ethical principles so we can have long lasting interactions and high quality products. Cutting corners with people or resources will always come home to roost eventually.
The rest of the verse in James continues,
“It is the same way with the rich;
in the midst of a busy life,
they will wither away.”
Of course, if we put God first in our lives, rather than our own priorities, we will pay attention to the “first things,” and fading away like a sunflower will be the least of our worries.
Joy and Peace,
To read the whole discussion on paint discoloration and how museums are conserving art works to prevent further damage from light read:
I’m at my annual conference for my church. I have a display of my art work up. I just sold this found object icon.
Icons are not just images of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, but they represent windows into the holy dimension. They aren’t meant to be realistic renderings of the people or the landscapes as we think of western perspective and conventions.
I found all the materials either on the street while I was out for a walk, or at the grocery store. Yes, those are beer tops, a canning lid, a tag from a bag of Mississippi potatoes, and a crushed Mountain Dew can. Some would call these the debris of everyday life, or the castoffs of human activity. I’ve met people in my ministry who feel this way, and some of them come from fine families, but they’re going through a rough spot in their lives or careers. Others have lived on the margins of society most of their lives and don’t know any other way of being.
This icon foretells the miracle of the water changed into wine at the wedding at Cana. What was ordinary became extraordinary when Jesus entered the picture. We too are changed from our original condition into something very much more when Christ enters our life. We are his found objects, made into fine art. Everyone of us needs this change and transformation: some of us so we can meet the street people with compassion and others of us so we can be made whole again.