My nephew is a funny guy. You wouldn’t think it just to look at him, because straight-faced humor is his forte’. For example, we’re all at a family party a couple of years ago. I’m standing with the adults, chatting about my new Rav4, comparing its mileage with that of my old Honda. Little guy is nearby, listening to all the adult conversation. He decides to chip in. “I get pretty good mileage on my bike!” he announces. “Yeah?” I reply, “What kind of mileage do you get?” “Oh….to the end of the street and back.” We all start laughing! The glint of a smile in his eye is the only hint that he’s not serious. He knew he was being funny. Not long ago my sister signed him up for drama club because she realized we needed to put this wit to work. So, last spring I went to see him and his older sister in their school’s production of Lion King. He played one of the hyenas and could be seen enthusiastically scratching his fleas on stage.
Well, a few weeks ago I needed reference imagery for a portrait demonstration in one of my classes. I’ve painted some of my nieces before but haven’t tackled any of my nephews. So, I found a good photo of him and used it for the project in class. We were studying color schemes. I showed my students how to play with filters and colors in Photoshop to simplify their reference imagery and change their original photos to something that fit one of the color schemes we’d studied. For mine, I went with complementary colors. Complementary colors are “opposites” on the color wheel. I tell my kids, think of “opposites attract”…the quiet guy is often interested in the talkative girl. Each of them brings out the best of the other. The same goes for colors. If you put green next to blue, the two colors (being similar) will kind of blend into each other. But, if you put green next to its opposite (red) the two visually have nothing in common. So, each makes the other look brighter/more vibrant. For this painting, I shifted slightly from the red/green pair to red-violet and yellow-green. When I’d basically finished painting, it needed something to really finish it off and tie the segmented colors together. I took my brush with a pale yellow-green on it, and added just a few swipes of that color into sections of the eyes, eyelid, hair, and background. That did it! When you’re working on a painting, look for ways like that to bring color from one section of the design into areas that don’t have that particular color. Even little touches can help tie everything together and balance the composition.
When I sent the finished portrait to my nephew, I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be. He might think it “weird” that I’d painted his face in shades of purple. But he LOVED it! He apparently walked around saying, “This is Sooooooooooooooooo Good! It looks just like me!” He showed it to the family chiropractor that day at an appointment. And, he sent me a photo, waving at me with the painting in front of his face. Fun reaction! Well worth the effort of painting it.
A couple weeks ago I had an opportunity to do something I’ve never tried before: a time-lapse video of painting! I’ve seen videos of sand art that morphs and changes from one scene to the next. I wanted to try that with a series of 3-4 scenes, painted in acrylics. I chose acrylic because it dries quickly. Once finished filming one scene, I could move right on to the next, painting directly overtop of the first scene. When the project was complete, only 1 painting would exist…the other 3 scenes being buried in layers of paint. This concept intrigued me as an artist. Artists usually create with the intent of longevity. It’s rather freeing to paint something that will only exist for 2 minutes. In fact, the snapshot shown above is only a screen-shot of the paused video. I took only footage (no photos) of each completed piece. Thus, this artwork is all about the process and the story that unfolds from scene to scene.
Though nothing was sketched out on canvas (I did what we artists call “drawing with a brush”), the process began with an evening of brainstorming and sketching. Looking at reference images from online, I chose 4 traditional nativity scenes and planned the layouts in pencil on computer paper. These pencil sketches were placed in front of me while painting, as a guideline for proportions. A friend helped me set up lights for filming. We used my camera, set on a tripod in front of my workspace. The footage is actually filmed upside-down and flipped during the editing process. This allowed a straight camera shot without trying to film over my shoulder or above my head. The scenes are simple, with stylized characters, partly for the sake of time and partly for the sake of children who would be in the audience. Color was also simplified down to monochromatic blues, white, greys. You’ll see me adjust to a brighter blue or darker grey as I’m painting characters, always working toward a balance of light-on-dark or dark-on-light. This way, forms and details stand out against the surrounding colors.
This project was done for my church’s Christmas choir presentation. Our worship leader planned a Chris Tomlin song (Noel, performed by Lauren Daigle) as the background music. Though I’d heard it on the radio before, I hadn’t noticed the lyrics until now. The 2nd verse says:
Son of God and Son of man
There before the world began
Born to suffer, born to save
Born to raise us from the grave
Christ the everlasting Lord
He shall reign forevermore
Come and see what God has done
The story of amazing love!
The light of the world, given for us
Personally, I’ve often pictured in my mind that transition from Creator to creation. Few books or songs talk about it. Christ was there with God, helping to create stars and moon and earth. Now, he slips into fragile human skin: sleepy eyes, tiny toes, and wholly relying on human parents. Meanwhile, his Father sets a new star in the heavens to proclaim the royal birth. “Noel” is from the French for natal – literally: birth. “Born to suffer, born to save” – you’ll see a momentary foreshadowing of this in the final manger scene, though I wasn’t thinking of the song’s lyrics when I painted it. Here, I’ll give a shout out to Jose, who edited footage for me: cropping, adjusting exposure, and timing it all to the music. Watching this video, I hope you’ll enjoy the transformation from scene to scene. More than that, I hope you’ll enjoy the story as a whole: a story woven from before time, when the “light of the world” first made plans to come to earth.
The time has come to say goodbye to my 2016 grads. Yes, their graduation was months ago. But this is the week when most of them head off to new states, new adventures, new “freedom,” and new pursuits. Some have already filled their parents’ living room with Rubbermaid storage bins, bedding, perhaps a borrowed mini-fridge. Others have procrastinated (a skill they honed throughout high school) and will pack the day before they leave. Having written a blog post last year For the Grads, I decided to write a post for this year’s group as well. This was a tough class to say goodbye to! Some I’ve known since they were in elementary school…eager, bouncy personalities whose older siblings were in our church youth group at the time. Some I taught in public school for both 6th-grade and various high school art courses. Others I’ve coached, mentored, sponsored in school clubs, helped with portfolios and letters of rec, or all of the above. One of my students once told me she could never be a teacher because it would be too hard to say goodbye to the kids you care about each year. She was right. That aspect of teaching can be bittersweet. But, having poured into these kids for several years, it would be pointless to hold them back when the time comes to let them go.
Appropriately enough, the verse in the painting above comes from a passage where Jesus is sending out his “grads”. The 12 disciples have been following Jesus, listening to him teach, watching him do astounding miracles, praying with him, eating, traveling, hanging out with him. He has been their mentor and they’ve looked up to his example. Now it’s time to apply what they’ve learned. It’s time to step out in faith, leave their comfort-zone, share the gifts they’ve been given. Like a school principal’s address to the student body at a graduation ceremony, Jesus packs words of wisdom and advice into the paragraphs of Matthew 10. But unlike the principal (who tends to paint a gleaming picture of glorious futures for his grads), Jesus knows that his disciples are being sent out into a difficult unknown. People and towns may welcome them. However, many will persecute them for their faith. The reality is that in years to come most of those 12 disciples will be killed for following Christ, even to the point of being hung on a cross as their mentor himself was crucified.
Thankfully, none (or few) of my grads will face the persecution and hardships that Jesus’ disciples faced. They’re headed to reasonably safe college campuses, pursuing structured career-paths. They’ll return home every 4-6 weeks carrying a bag the size of Santa’s sack, bulging with dirty laundry. They’ll meet new people who expand their understanding of life and the world we live in. They’ll make friends – some who will be there for them for a few months and others who will be there for them for the rest of their lives. If wise, they’ll avoid pitfalls and temptations that can come with their newfound freedom. Or they’ll make mistakes and grow from those mistakes. The most important thing I hope my grads will take from the Matthew 10 passage is that the God who knows them intimately goes with them on this new journey…”Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”
God’s sovereignty is one of those big churchy concepts I can’t fully do justice to here. But the line, “not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from the will of your Father,” hints at that concept of sovereignty. Claude Monet puts it into perspective when he says: “Your mistake is to want to reduce the world to your own scale, whereas with a greater understanding of things you would find a greater understanding of yourselves.” We get so caught up in the immediacy of our circumstances, that we forget to zoom out and see the bigger picture. God, being outside of time and outside of space, is able to orchestrate both macro and micro details in our lives and world. Micro: He has constant track of the number of hairs on our head; knows where our keys are when we lose them; knows our thoughts/fears/joys before we speak of them; can even rearrange the cells in our body should He so choose. Macro: He knows who will come into power and who will be dethroned; allows both the beauty of a sunrise and the destruction of a tidal wave; is at work in the joys of birth and the sorrows of death. He does not want us to live in fear, driven by anxiety because of the uncertainty of our circumstances (Isaiah 41:10). When we let fear dictate our actions we are forgetting the depth of our God’s love for us. He sees a bigger picture than what we can comprehend! And, knowing our need, He is proactive. He does not leave us to fend for ourselves but sent His son to rescue us from the brokenness of a fallen world. “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) As Jesus sent his “grads” on their way, he spoke as a friend who would give his very life for them. His words, “you are worth more than many sparrows,” were meant to remind them of that love. The better we understand his steadfast love, the better we understand ourselves and our place in this world.
About the artwork:
This painting was a graduation gift for a young lady who loves math. Her favorite “colors” are black and white. According to her mom, the only place she’d use bright colors was in her math notebook at school. A rainbow of pens brought those notebook pages to life. When I mentored her several years ago we’d play a dice game called Farkle. I’d sit with pen and paper, struggling to add up the score while she’d do the complicated sums in her head and tell me instantly. I’d laugh and say, “Why am I keeping score when you can do it all in your head!?” The Matthew 10 design was one of my favorites to create because it brought back many sweet memories. It also posed a fun challenge for me: to design a space using numbers as the focal point, with limited color palette. The sparrows are based off photos of sparrows, but simplified down to as few lines as possible. Since most of my work is photo realistic, I enjoyed the graphic-design aspect of this illustration. To throw an art term out there, the color scheme is what we’d call an accented neutral. Meaning: black, white, and brown are the main colors with a splash of aqua to accent them.
As the daughter of a sailor, I’ve been raised to appreciate quiet time on the water. Yes, there can be the humming vibration of mainsail in a stiff wind. There’s breeze in your face and sun on your hair, the buzz of a centerboard and the glug, glug sound of wake churning behind you. What there isn’t is the scream of a motor or blow-your-face-off speed, where you can’t hear yourself think, much less hold a conversation without yelling. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my dad were in the quiet of a day out on the water. In a sailboat, there’s time to think, time to be still. You can talk or simply enjoy the silence. You can sleep (and I often have) to the rocking motion, the sun warming your eyelids, the chink of halyards like bells overhead.
Of course, there are days with no wind, when you sit, parched, on the desert island that is your boat. Towels dunked over the side and wrung out on your legs are the “air conditioning.” By the time you finally give up and motor back in, you have sunburnt limbs and stiff muscles to remind you of the day. I remember one afternoon when my dad and his friend went sailing in a shallow bay near North Carolina. The breeze died suddenly, and the adults would not abandon their boats. But we kids climbed out and literally walked past our “sailing” dads back to shore. Sailors can be stubbornly hopeful, determined to wait for the next wind when others would have given up long ago.
For more than 20 years now, the Chicago skyline has been a regular part of my sailing memories. My dad moors his boat in Monroe Harbor from May through October, and we’ll often sail with friends throughout the summer. I’ve experienced the skyline in every light you can imagine: early dawn after sleeping on the boat, high noon with sun beating down, late night as building windows sparkle like thousands of stars against an indigo backdrop, or lit up by the colorful burst of fireworks. But my favorite time is sunset, as the glowing orb of orange seems to melt away edges of architecture. Individual buildings subside into a long Lego outline of purples and greys. Cotton candy clouds taper off in the distance. And a melon light touches tips of waves, contrasting deep aquas all around your boat. The painting above is a composite of a couple photos my friends and I have taken over the years. The painting was completed as a triptych, 3 panels, each 20″x24″. A detail below shows that melting effect I love so much. I hope you enjoy the painting as much as I enjoyed painting it!
“If you’re worried and you can’t sleep, count your blessings instead of sheep, and you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.” Irving Berlin hit it right on the money with this lyric in the movie/musical White Christmas. Counting our blessings takes our mind off the focus of current circumstances. It replaces lists of mounting anxieties with reminders of everything that’s going well in our lives, reminders of loved-ones who are there to support us, and provision of daily needs. Do you need those reminders? I definitely do! Personally, I’ve found it helps not merely to mentally count blessings but to write them down. My prayer journal has several pages of blessing lists. They’re written on nights when I’ve fought the Eeyore syndrome all day (depressed, ho-hum, unhappy with my life). They’re written when life’s circumstances are overwhelming, my brain racing as I roll over for the umpteenth time, unable to sleep. They’re written when fears and shifting shadows loom. Writing them does refocus my thoughts as well as my heart. And, looking back at lists from long ago enables me to see a line of faithful provision year by year. God does not leave me to struggle on my own. He never abandons me. My attention span for counting blessings is much shorter than the actual number of ways He blesses my life!
The friend who commissioned this piece for his 10th wedding anniversary, understands the significance of its message. The script comes from a stanza in their wedding processional. Walking down the aisle 10 years ago, they couldn’t have imagined some of the difficulties and heartache the decade would bring. But there is joy now. There is song and laughter. There is a strength that comes from walking thru the trenches together, leaning on one another and on their heavenly Father. And there are countless blessings they can look back on, seeing 10 years of God’s faithfulness.
About the artwork:
This is the first wood-burning commission I’ve had! The husband wanted this as a surprise gift for his wife, so I worked with him in the design process. He chose the stanza, color-scheme, and told me his wife’s favorite flowers to include. It was a fun piece to work on because it combined my graphic-design skills with painting and wood-working. I’ve always enjoyed carpentry (I cut the curved top on a scroll saw in my garage) and have done several wood-burning projects for myself over the years. I chose a pale stain, almost creamy white, to finish off the wood, so that it would contrast the medium purple paint and dark burned lettering. For my client’s privacy, I’ve blocked out the names on this photo of the artwork. In the original, their names and wedding date are above the “10 Years”.
“My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me! I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam…”
Oh, the busy-ness of life! How quickly we get sucked into projects, commitments, pressures, and the heavy burden of feeling like a failure when we can’t keep up. Fear of letting others down. Fear of rejection when we can’t meet the standard that seems to be set. Fear that when we miss the mark, God Himself will be standing there, tapping His foot impatiently, saying: “When will you get it together and be good enough?!” I’m not talking about you guys out there in the blog-reading world…I’m talking about myself. But, I have a feeling many others can relate.
That’s why I need passages like Micah 6:3-4,8. God seems ticked off with Israel here: “Answer me!” He charges His people to explain exactly what burdens He’s placed on them. The charge jerks me up out of complaining mode, forcing me to look back over everything that’s led to my feeling over-burdened/overwhelmed. And, honestly, I can’t answer Him. I can’t continue to complain and rant at my Heavenly Father for long, because He hasn’t placed these burdens on me; most are pressures I’ve put on myself. In Matthew 11:29 Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It’s not that God promises a burden-free existence. Oxen yoke were designed for two to walk together, sharing the work load. If I’m exhausted, I’m either refusing to be yoked with the God who can make my burden light…determined to prove I can do everything in my own strength. Or, I’m fighting the direction my yoke-fellow wants to take me, and the squirming and wriggling and wandering wears me out.
So, what does the LORD require of me? Micah 6:8 continues: “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” First off, He wants me to look back and see the ways He’s been providing for me all along. I wasn’t a slave in Egypt, but I know the suffocating feeling of being entangled in decisions I thought would free me, which really left me empty and dissatisfied. He disentangled. He redeemed broken relationships. He brought me out into the sunlight, filling my lungs with the fresh air I hungered for. Secondly, He wants me to look right beside me…do I see Him there? If not, I’m probably not walking humbly with Him. Do I trust the God who offers to walk beside me? If not…why not? What am I afraid He’ll keep me from, that I’m so sure I’ll enjoy? Or, what do I fear He’ll make me do that I’m not ready to do? Lastly, He calls me to look around. “Act justly and love mercy” sounds very similar to Jesus’ simplification of all the commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30,31) If we love God with every part of our being (heart, soul, mind, strength), that love will naturally show itself in how we’re treating others. I always wanted justice as a kid…always wanted everything to be “fair”. Of course, my idea of fair consisted of basically wanting things to go my way. Am I acting in fairness to the people around me? Do I love to be merciful? Or, am I stingy with mercy, handing it out only as I see fit; giving it to people I feel deserve it?
Deciding who deserves mercy and justice isn’t my call. It’s a burden I’m not qualified to bear. So, when I’m overwhelmed with burdens, this verse often comes to mind. Then I take a step back, look at things in perspective, and call out to the God who is beside me. “Love your neighbor,” He whispers, “and walk with me, trusting me. Everything else is non-essential. It can wait while you rest. I’ll take care of what burdens you, or I’ll give you the strength to get it done, but for now, your soul needs a break.”
The piece above was commissioned by a friend who is a quilter. In fact, we did a trade: I painted a favorite scripture in calligraphy for her; she quilted a table-runner for my kitchen table. She specifically requested Micah 6:8 but left all design choices (other than color preference) up to me. Starting with sketches, I researched quilting symbols that could be incorporated into the layout. For the word “God”, I wanted 3 interconnected circles, representing the Trinity. But I needed it to clearly read as G O D. Playing around with line and color, I managed to make it work. The surface is cloth stretched across a canvas and attached using Matte Medium. Matte Medium is a liquid plastic, which looks like glue but isn’t sticky. When two surfaces are coated and pressed together, they dry with a permanent bond. I projected my design onto the canvas/cloth and sketched it in pencil. Painting was done with acrylics, though you can see where I used Matte Medium to attach bits of fabric detail as well. To use my art-geek vocabulary, this is the first time I’ve worked basically in a tertiary triad color scheme. Translation: main colors used were blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange.
This Saturday’s to-do list included laundry and should have included balancing my checkbook. But checkbook balancing can happen any old day. Rain clouds and wet grass meant no yard work for the afternoon. Sooo…I decided to paint!…no big surprise. I needed a gift idea for a friend, but hadn’t been happy with anything I’d thought of yet. Then I remembered that she’d taken a trip to South Africa with her family last summer. She’d posted pictures on Facebook. Going back to that album, I found a handful of shots with potential for painting. I didn’t really want to paint the typical safari scene. Instead, I was attracted to a photo of sheep on her grandparents’ farm. The dusty grey color palette reminded me of a quote by Andrew Wyeth (Pennsylvania-based painter from the mid 1900’s; son of N.C. Wyeth). Wyeth said, “I’ve been blamed for the fact that my pictures are colorless, but the color I use is so much like the country I live in.” We think of African art as bold, vibrant, colorful. And, yes, the people, the fabrics, the sunsets in Africa are vibrant. But the landscape itself is rather muted…sandy yellows, cream, beige, browns, muted greens. As Wyeth saw the beauty of this color-range in his Pennsylvania surroundings, I wanted to capture the beauty of rural Africa. A sheep pen constructed from tree limbs, with a makeshift gate and tangled wire mesh…using the natural and man-made resources on-hand to make do. This is the art and ingenuity of so many cultures; something we rarely see in urban/suburban America. Besides subject-matter and color scheme, I liked the framing of this particular photo. Fence-post, gate, and roof perfectly frame the sheep, whose interest in her feeding trough has been distracted by the viewer’s camera. Design-wise I could work almost directly from the original photo, without having to make major changes to image or cropping.
My palette for this piece consisted of: yellow ochre, violet, grey, with rusty-red thrown in as an accent color. I wanted to build up the surface (creating both real and implied texture) before painting. Not having any modeling paste around, I improvised with spackling. Yes, the stuff you use to fill holes in your wall can also be used to build texture on a painting! Apply it to the canvas/board with a palette knife or fingers and allow an hour for drying-time before you paint. When working with acrylics, adding modeling paste (or spackle) gives a 3D surface-quality that mimics impasto oil-painting techniques. In the close-up shown here, you can see what I mean.
My friend was thrilled with the gift, and recognized her grandparents’ farm at once. So, it was a worthwhile rainy day of painting! Perhaps I’ll balance the checkbook tomorrow.