A couple of weeks ago, a recent grad walked into my classroom. He was wondering whether I could use Photoshop to put a “painting” filter over a photo of himself and his fiancé. With an anniversary coming up, he wanted to give her something special, but with only a week’s notice, he knew I wouldn’t have time to do an actual portrait of the two of them. Before leaving, he said, “So, do you have any students like me this year?” I laughed and replied, “Alonzo, I’ve never had another student quite like you!”
I first had Alonzo in class as a senior, so there wasn’t the usual rapport developed over 4 years of high school between myself and him. He’s a guy built for playing football, generally friendly, leadership qualities, and definitely outspoken. There were times in class where I’d say, “Alonzo, shut it!” (meaning his mouth) when he’d speak without care of what the other person thought. He’s the kind of kid who will ask you to toss him an eraser or pencil sharpener because he doesn’t feel like getting up to go get one. Yet he’d also stay after class a minute or two to clean up messes other people had left behind.
In spite of the tough or pompous persona, I quickly learned that beneath all that is a big heart and a humble, get-the-job-done attitude about whatever he tackles (no football pun intended). So, I wasn’t surprised to hear by the end of senior year that he had fallen in love with a young lady and her baby girl and was planning to get married soon after high school. He’ll tackle husband-hood and father-hood in the same way he handles most things…probably saying the wrong things sometimes, but making up for it with a caring, humble, get-it-done attitude about daily life and love. I could tell he was already off to a good start. Because, when he walked into my room the other day, baby girl was asleep in his arms. He had made the rounds of the office, showing off this beautiful, sleeping bundle. She looked quite comfy and obviously trusts the strength and provision of the arms that were holding her.
With all that in mind, I decided a Photoshop filter wouldn’t cut it for this anniversary gift. So, I made time for a watercolor portrait. Alonzo was thrilled when he heard about the up-grade and asked if I could include the phrase, “I love you to the moon and back,” below the painting. While I didn’t scan that part for a blog post, I thought it deserved mentioning. “To the moon and back” is quite the measurement! May we all be willing to love that immeasurably: putting our words to action, tackling the hard times whenever they come, and having fun along the way.
I often tell my students to take process photos of their work so that they can see how the painting changed and developed. But I never remember to do this myself! Over spring break I was teaching my cousin some tips on watercolor portrait painting. For once, I made a point of photographing my progress. So, I figured I’d share a bit of that process with you here.
Before starting a watercolor, I project and trace from sketches and/or photo references. White paper can feel intimidating – where do I start!? The best way to start is by toning the paper with a very pale wash of yellow ochre. The only areas I’ll avoid are (possibly) sky and any bright highlights that need to stay pure white. Use a large brush for this, spreading the wash across the page, and deepening any areas that will eventually be darker. From here, I’ll mix skin tones (yellow ochre and either cad red or alizarin crimson), beginning to build up midtones and shadows in the face. I leave the highlights and build around them. As you can see, at this point I’ve also started light washes of blue and lavender in the scarf. Deeper shadows in skin and around the eyes are done with either a red-violet or blue-violet. Using too much brown makes skin look cold or muddy.
Now I need a bit of context for the face. Where is she standing; what color tones surround her? So, I take a break from skin tones and start laying in the brick pattern behind her. Here again I start with light washes of pink, then layer in midtones of reddish-brown, finishing off with texture and shadows in darker browns. I like to finger paint texture. By that I mean I’ll dab a bit of color onto the brick, then swipe my finger across it to smudge and soften the mark. This gives me rough, organic edges, creating depth in the surface of each brick. At this point I’m also using the negative space (bricks around her hair and neck) to help define and refine the shape of her face.
Time now for hair, scarf, and shirt! Her hair was pulled back in the photo, but I don’t want her to look too masculine. So, I’ve added wisps of hair, stray locks that blow in the breeze, giving more of that feminine touch. Now that there is color behind her head, I have a better idea of how deep I need to go with shadows in the face and neck to give form and contrast to her features. Moving to a smaller brush, I begin to tighten details in the face. Meanwhile, I’ve blocked in a basic blue in the shirt and can start building darker shadows in the scarf and clothing. Subtle shadows between the bricks (in the mortar) are made with a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt umber (Payne’s Grey would also work, mixed with brown).
Jumping ahead, here I’ve continued brick work and started to block in the forms of light fixtures. As always, I lay in lighter washes first, then build the midtones and darks around them. The same grey tone I used in mortar is used for the lamps and sweater. By the end of this I swore I’d paint no more bricks for a very long time! I always complain about lacking the patience needed to do patterns in clothing…brick walls now fall into that category. The sky, clouds, and background buildings were saved for last. These needed to be kept simple, basic shapes, and soft edges to maintain focus on the figure in the foreground.
I’ve made a short video (40 seconds), clipping all of the process photos together. So, if you’d like to see it from start to finish, click here.
As a side note, this portrait is of a young friend (more like family) whose birthday happens to be this week! The shot is from a series of senior photos I took for her when she graduated high school. When I finished the painting, I realized I hadn’t included her freckles! So, I had to go back and add just a hint of freckles to her face. She (and her sister) told me later that the shot I chose to paint happens to be one of her favorites from the senior photo series. The expression, the whimsy, the vibrant colors, and the composition/setting are all reasons it’s one of my favorite photos as well.
Happy Birthday, Masha – love you lots!
Why do we lift our hands? In concerts, people will raise up a hand or two, waving along to the music. Several decades ago, that waving hand might have held a lit lighter. Now, people have the flame app, and will wave their raised phone in sync to the band. At sports games, whole crowds will lift their hands in an undulating wave, cheering their team to victory or simply enjoying the collective experience. At theme parks, those same arms are raised in excitement, with hollers or screams, as the roller coaster zips down hills and around curves. In a classroom setting, we raise our hand to be acknowledged because we want to be heard. In the wild west, you’d hear the command, “Stick ’em up!” and you’d raise those hands immediately in submission, for the sparing of your life. The very tradition of waving hello comes from ancient times when you wanted to show a friend (or stranger) that you weren’t holding weapons when you came to greet them…you came in peace. A child will run to its parent with arms lifted, saying, “Hold me!” The parent swings that baby up into their arms to protect or cuddle or hug. Praise, excitement, acknowledgement, cheering, submission, peace, greeting, desiring comfort – this is why we lift our hands.
The world lifts their hands on a daily basis, for all of these reasons. Yet, I often hear non-Christians say, “That Christian thing of raising your hands in worship is so weird. I don’t get it. You’d never catch me doing that.” Well, all of those reasons listed above are why we Christians lift our hands. We lift them in praise and excitement, cheering for a God who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). We lift them in greeting, telling God we come seeking peace between ourselves and Him – especially when we know we’ve done wrong (Psalm 51). We lift our arms like a small child, needing to be held by our Heavenly Father (Psalm 103:13-14; Psalm 46:1-3). And, yes, we lift them in submission – not to a gunman who seeks to harm us, but to the Almighty who knows the best and worst of us and loves us anyway (Psalm 139; Isaiah 55).
A week or so ago, I was at a high school vocal concert featuring an ensemble known for performing gospel music, as well as music from other countries/cultures. They sang a song entitled Total Praise. This song happens to be a favorite of mine! I first sang it in the late 1990s in a vocal ensemble I was part of in college. It’s one of those songs where the harmonies are so tight, and the flats and sharps so difficult, that once you learn them you never forget them. So, I found myself singing along with the high school choir last week. The song lyrics are based off of several themes from the book of Psalms. But the first few lines come directly from Psalm 121:1-2 – “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Musically, the notes rise, as though walking up steps, through that entire first line. I’m guessing this is partly because Psalm 121 is known as a Song of Ascents. In Jewish tradition, it would be sung by the people as they made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, up the steps of the temple, on their way to worship. Minor harmonies interplay in the line, “knowing my help is coming from you.” Then, the voices crescendo triumphantly through the line, “Your peace you give me in time of the storm.” And that word storm is an apex – a moment of dissonance, sung full-voice. Unless you’re very familiar with choral music, it’s tough to describe. But, listen to the link below, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. I’ve tried to mimic some of those lifts and harmonies in the visual aspect of the illustration.
This painting is inspired by Elena – one of the young ladies who performed the song Total Praise at the concert I mentioned earlier. She happens to be not only a kid I teach at school, but also someone who helps lead worship at our church youth group each week. Elena relates best to scripture by creating amazing word art of the verses we discuss in youth group on any given Sunday night. She’ll make designs using markers on scraps of paper, emphasizing words or themes through color, style, and font size. Sometimes she’ll create 2 or 3 of these in one evening. After watching her perform, I thought it would be fun to do my own word art with the lyrics from the song. Because Elena likes symmetry, I’ve tried to create a sense of visual symmetry in the artwork, balancing colors and weight of words/shapes throughout the design. The Amens tumbling about at the bottom of the page represent a vocal layering of Amens that build upon each other at the end of the performance. You’ll hear them if you follow the link and listen. There are many versions available on YouTube. I’ve included 2 here for you to choose from. The first one is a goofy group of guys, but once they start singing a cappella, you hear all the tight harmonies I love. The second is a true gospel choir with drums and piano mixed in. Either way, they point you to the God who is worth lifting our hands to in total praise, trust, and submission.
I remember the day we got our first family dog. I was 6 and my younger brother was 4. We drove up to my grandparents’ house in Virginia, and as we piled out of the station wagon, a Golden Retriever bounded up to greet us. This was not my grandparents’ dog. They lived in the country, and this retriever liked to break away from his owners and come hang out at my grandpa’s place. Grandpa is a dog person in that all dogs love and respect him…and many strays have found their way to him over the years. The dog’s name was Beauregard (a proper southern name, but way too fancy for the countryside). Everyone called him “Bo-jack” or “Bo.” Golden Retrievers are one of the most family friendly breeds, and Bo lived up to that. We fell in love with him at once (including Jonathan, who had always cried or been scared around dogs in the past). When asked where he came from, Grandpa told us that Bo belonged to a farm nearby. The farmer had several dogs, most of them very aggressive. Being gentle, Bo didn’t like the other dogs. So, he’d break free every chance he got, and would come to visit Grandpa’s house.
Needless to say, we begged our dad to let us keep him. Bo obviously didn’t like his home. Maybe the farmer would sell him! Better than that, the owner actually GAVE the dog to us, saying he was too much trouble to keep since he ran away all the time. With Bo now part of the family, we took a long walk while discussing a new name for him. My older brother, Jeremy, said, “He looks like a lion with that orange mane of fur around his collar. What if we name him ‘Aslan’ like the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia?” So, Aslan he became!
Aslan was my puppy love as a child. Childhood memories are full of him: building a fence on a muddy/rainy day to give him a safe area in our backyard; plucking slugs off of his dogfood bowl before feeding him each evening; being dragged down the street when he’d practically pull us off our feet on a walk; tennis balls chomped in half that would get caught on low tree branches when we tried to toss them for him; Aslan digging holes in the yard to lay in the cool dirt on a summer afternoon; and (best of all) the retriever tendency to lay his head on your foot so that he knew you were close by. I wouldn’t trade those memories (even possibly the gross slug memories) for anything.
Today’s illustration is from a candid moment of my niece with my Golden Doodle, Jack. Jack leaned in to sniff her, and her hands went instinctively up under her chin, with an expression of pure glee on her face. I can’t believe we caught that on camera! The photo has been hanging next to my desk at work for several months. When I saw that the SCBWI drawing prompt for February was love, I thought, “What a perfect chance to paint that portrait!” I also happened to need a portrait to demo for my Painting 2 class. So, timing worked out well. My niece has known Jack her entire life. His name was one of her first words. And, when she and I took Jack for a walk yesterday, she enjoyed repeating his name at an obnoxious volume all the way down my street (she’s 2, so she can pull off “loud and repetitive” without driving the neighbors crazy). She tried to “help” me walk him by holding part of his leash. Like Aslan, Jack likes to pull hard on a walk. I made sure that her attempts to “help” didn’t get her pulled off her feet.
Watercolor Portrait Tips: when demonstrating to my painting class, I reiterated several tips that any of my “old” students reading this will recognize. 1. White paint is a “no-no” in my classroom. Watercolor paper is white. Simply leave the white paper where you want highlights or bright whites. Do not mix white with red to make pink. Instead, water down the red to let more of the white paper show through…thus, pink. 2. Most white areas aren’t a pure white. Example: the shorts and the chair. For the shorts and chair, I mixed a cream or a pale grey, building up subtle shadows. 3. Shadows in skin should be blue-violet or red-violet. Using too much brown in skin shadows makes the skin tone look cold or lifeless. Think of the red blood flowing through our veins…there should be a pink tone, even in the shadows. My student had a good question: “What if the person you’re painting is brown or black skin tone?” Well, still use a peachy pink or pale yellow for the lightest highlights. Then mix red-violet and blue-violet with your browns in the midtones and shadows. 4. Textures like dog fur should be done by layering different tones, creating a haphazard pattern of fur and shadow shapes. You still need to pay attention to the bone structure and the way the light hits the body (even if he looks like a ball of fur). Several layers of small strokes, following the direction and flow of the fur, will give the desired effect. 5. It’s always about contrast. Darken tones behind lighter objects to help the lighter object stand out. 6. The pen & ink (if used) should highlight lines and details you want to accentuate or tighten. But I’d stay away from a full outline in ink. Particularly, facial features and highlighted fur should have very little ink added. Too much ink, or too solid an outline, can make soft features look harsh. The way my masters’ profs put it: “Either the ink or the watercolor should take center-stage. Fun ink outline with very basic color washes. Or, detailed watercolor with very little ink.” 7. Last but not least: do not be a slave to your reference! In this illustration, I eliminated several distracting objects from the background. I also changed the colors in her shirt and hat to better match the room where this will hang. Use artistic license to decide what to keep and what to tweak, change, or eliminate from your reference image.
How do we process grief? With words? In silence? With anger, action, inactivity? At some point these have all applied to me. Sometimes…I process grief through painting.
As a teacher, there have been times where people asked me what I dislike about my job. I may flippantly reply that I hate when students are lazy, or (when piles of papers loom over my desk) that I dislike grading. But there is really only one thing I hate about teaching, and that is losing students. In 12 years of teaching, I’ve already buried more than I can count on one hand. Four of those were within the past 2 years, and time/experience don’t make that aspect of teaching easier. I still see the back of someone’s head in school or out shopping and think (for a split second) that it’s this or that student I lost years ago. Particularly when they’ve graduated, and I wouldn’t be seeing them often anyway…it’s hard to believe they’re really gone.
A student once interviewed me for a sociology paper about faith and its positive (or negative) effect on modern teens. At some point during our discussion, I remember asking her why death always feels wrong. Whether we’re burying my 100-year-old great-grandmother, a miscarried baby, or a child of any age, the loss pierces straight to the heart. When asked, my student was thoughtful for a few moments and had no response. I told her I think the reason death always feels wrong is that we were not created for death. Before Genesis chapter 3, it wasn’t part of the human equation. And ever since then we’ve fought it with every fiber of our being. We cannot cheat or stop it. And, whether we know the person is going to a better place or not, we mourn it. At night, as tears slide down my cheek, into my ear, and dampen the pillow beneath, I cry out: “Papa, WHY!?” The silence echoes no audible answer. Though, peace descends slowly with the softness of sleep.
Alex Kierstead was one of those kids who brightens a room. Friendly, easy-going, a twinkle in his eye; I’ve seen posts on Twitter and Facebook of everyone saying how he genuinely loved people and would do anything for them. I first met Alex in 6th-grade and had him in various art classes throughout middle and high school. When he wasn’t in my class, he was one of those kids who would catch me in the hallway and check in…ask how my classes were going, fill me in on what he was up to. It was his goal senior year to gather enough students to finally make our Printmaking class run. (For many years no one had signed up for the class, and people practically forgot it existed.) Alex rallied friends and strangers together, spreading word , and encouraging them to sign up. I think about 13 did sign up for it…still not enough to run the class. So, he never got his Printmaking at Waubonsie. But the fact that he had the gumption to try, and the charisma to bring others along for the ride, was typical Alex. I can’t stand to rehash the details of his death here. There are news articles online I’d encourage you to read. They speak of creativity, a love of hiking and outdoors. They speak of a life well-lived and a young man dearly loved.
This is the first time in my life where the advent season and mourning have gone hand-in-hand. This is a hard Christmas. I am not used to crying this much or this often. And, as difficult as this is for his teachers and friends to process, it must be infinitely harder for his family. As I talked with my grandpa on the phone this evening, I asked him to pray for me…and he did, right then and there on the phone. Hanging up after that call, I was reminded of John 1:5, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That night in Bethlehem a new star appeared – bright enough for astrologers to follow it hundreds of miles. That star pointed to a tiny life which could not be extinguished. Emmanuel was here. God was finally physically with us. The darkness could fight, but it could not win. I will wrestle. I will mourn. I will cry out and question why. But darkness and mourning do not have the final word. In tears again this Sunday at church, the words of a familiar carol had new meaning for me: “Mild he lays his glory by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the lost of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing: glory to the newborn king.” …Born that man no more may die. Lord, help us. Show us you’re here right now. God with us.
Opening the window of your apartment on the Royal Mile, you’re met with sights and sounds of a bustling city. Tourists and lorries, street vendors and shop owners create a chatter of activity. This cacophony is part of the music of Edinburgh. However, it’s merely the backdrop for a ribbon of song that floats and weaves through the city street. For, on several corners stand Edinburgh pipers whose bagpipes screel the notes of the nation.
During the several days we spent in or near the Royal Mile, we saw (and listened to) pipers of all ages. Each wore a traditional kilt, some in full regalia. And most played traditional Scottish bagpipes. Then, one day we came across a young piper whose music carried more harmonies, without the shrill drone of Scottish pipes. I asked the young man, whose name is Rex, whether these were Uilleann pipes – an Irish form of bagpipe I’d heard once in college. The Uilleann pipes look a lot like those Rex played. Turns out I was on the right track! Rex was playing a lesser-known instrument called the Scottish smallpipes. In preparation for this blog post, I emailed Rex, asking for more information about smallpipes and his experiences as a piper. Rather than summarize what he said, I’ll share his responses here:
Specifics: The ‘Scottish smallpipes’ as played when we met are a less commonly played form of pipes. The more traditional ‘Highland Bagpipes’ are most common. They have a huge link with Scottish culture and are referred to by some as an ‘instrument of war’. The ‘Scottish smallpipes’ are more quiet and usually played in pubs and at local gatherings. Very few people play these and so it takes around 6 months to a year to get a good set from a maker. They have the same finger work as the highland bagpipe although look and are played differently (with a bellow instead of a blowpipe). They are great for playing with other instruments, particularly the guitar whereas the highland bagpipes are more of a solo instrument (unless of course played with drums) The Uilleann pipes, also known as Irish pipes are, in my opinion the holy grail of piping expertise. There is a saying which is: “7 years learning, 7 years practicing, 7 years playing”…21 years to master. They are usually played sitting down and have 2 octaves with wrist actions to hold chords at the same time as playing. These are extremely complex to play and indeed make, which is why it can take several years to get hold of a set.
Says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine! When you pass through deep waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, you will not drown…For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.” ~ Isaiah 43:1-3
This painting and post are for Ava – an 8-year-old little girl and her family who have been trudging the deep waters of cancer. I cannot fathom what they are going through. Yet, though I only know them through a mutual friend, their story and faith have brought me to tears and put me on my knees in prayer continually over the past several months. I won’t try here to retell their story. Instead, I encourage you to read it yourselves. Ava’s mom has chronicled much of it through a Facebook page called Team Brighter Days.
Many of us know children or loved-ones who have faced debilitating illness. As we walk with them through the impossibly hard days/weeks/years, we fear drowning…drowning in sorrow, anger, exhaustion. Hope can either die or become a rock to cling to in those times. There is no training manual that prepares parents for talking with their children about the possibility of death. Ava has already had those conversations with her parents. More than most children her age, she understands that this world is not her ultimate home. And, while she continues to fight for her life, she also manages to sing the lyrics to one of her favorite songs: “You can have all this world. Give me Jesus.” While we plead with God to touch her cells, heal each one, and allow her many more years on this earth, we also pray that she and her family feel His arms carrying them in the midst of this.
No matter our walk, be it easy or heavy, we all need a savior who will walk beside us, able to relate to what we’re going through. One of the last words I painted in this illustration was the word “with”. As I filled in the letters with a flesh-tone brown, the name Immanuel, which means God with us, came to mind. God came in the flesh to be one of us. When Jesus was 8 days old, a man named Simeon took the baby in his arms, spoke of what his life would one day be, and said to Jesus’ mother, Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:21-35) What words to give to a new mother! I’m sure those words came back during the week of Christ’s crucifixion. Beaten, mocked, stripped, and hung on a tree, her boy (age 33 now) would have been barely recognizable. He had the power to heal, walk on water, raise people from the dead – yet he allowed himself to be overcome by death. Did Mary understand that death could only hold him down for 3 days? I think many mothers can relate to Mary, guessing that she wrestled with warring emotions of hope and despair. Michelangelo, in his sculpture Pieta, depicts Mary holding her son after his body’s been retrieved from the cross. While Jesus’ body seems limp and lifeless, his calf-muscle is tense in the sculpture. Michelangelo, who dissected cadavers and knew muscle tone better than any painter or sculptor of his time, would not have accidently carved that muscle in a flexed/tense position. I believe (as others do) that he used it as a foreshadowing of the resurrection. Yes, Mary’s son was dead. But death could not hold him down. He would soon declare permanent victory over the grave. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
The man Jesus who walked on water, who walked through Hell, and defeated death itself, now walks with us through the deepest waters. Rivers cannot overwhelm us. The grave cannot swallow us. Because when we lack the strength to stand, he carries us. And when we’ve lost even the will to hold on, he won’t let us go.