“Arrival” is a word steeped in anticipation. It’s the long sigh when you hadn’t even realized you were holding your breath. It’s a first breath, followed by the unmistakable newborn cry, proclaiming: “I’m here, and it’s been a traumatic few hours! So, wrap me snuggly and hold me close.” It is awed joy as you stare at the tiny creation in your arms. It’s nearly imperceptible toenails and invisible eyelashes, a trusting fist gripping your finger. It’s the fluff of silky hair. It’s the expanding walls of your heart as you suddenly love in a new and deeper way.
And this arrival is actually the beginning of a journey.
I saw this month’s prompt for SCBWI – “Arrival” – and thought, “my new niece just might make it in time for me to base a painting on her!” My sister-in-law’s due date was the 27th, my illustration deadline was the 20th, and baby girl arrived on the 13th. Perfect timing! Needless to say, this is the youngest model I’ve ever photographed and painted. She was both cooperative and photogenic, which made my job easy!
The calligraphy verse is a line from a Michael Card lullaby. Twenty-something years ago, I rocked my baby brother to sleep while singing that song. Perhaps that’s why it came to mind when I started this painting. The full chorus says, “I would wander weary miles, would welcome ridicule my child, to simply see the sunrise of your smile. To see the light behind your eyes, the happy thought that makes you fly. Yes, I would wander weary miles, if I could see the sunrise of your smile.” (Poiema, Sparrow Records, 1994) That moment when a smile first quirks the corners of a child’s mouth – that is the sunrise. And as their face lights up with humor or happiness, the glow warms those of us who love them. It is partly why I love teaching and working with kids. And it’s definitely something I love about being an aunt! So, as my brother and sister-in-law start on this new journey of baby #2, I enjoy watching and being a part of it all.
“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Such a simple statement. Yet, in a few words, Aristotle sums up an expansive truth. What is it about the perfect sunset that will cause us to pull off on the side of the road, stop our car and stand in awe? Even lightning storms, their jagged electricity radiating the night, will keep our faces pressed against windows…watching heaven’s firework show. There is something about nature that leaves us breathless, enchanted by its beauty, its power, its intricacy. And this is no new phenomenon. King David, in Psalm 19 wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” (v. 1-3) That voice is more than the rumble of thunder in a storm, more than the rustle of leaves on a breezy day; it’s also in the silent moments of sunrise, calling out in crimson and coral, beams of light breaking through clouds. According to David, that voice declares God’s glory. It points to the author, artist, scientist who first put this globe into orbit. 3,100 years before Discovery Channel would enable us to observe wild animals in their natural habitats, God unfolded for Job a rich, panoramic tapestry of nature. From shutting the sea behind doors, to journeying to the springs of the sea. From binding the Pleiades and loosing the cords of Orion, to counting clouds and tipping the water jars of the heavens. From knowing when the mountain goat gives birth, to commanding eagles to soar. 125 verses, spread through 4 chapters (38-41) in the book of Job consist of a documentary account of the marvels of nature.
The painting above stems from an illustration prompt given by SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). Each month, members have the opportunity to submit a piece that will be posted to SCBWI’s online illustration gallery. The piece you see here will go live in that gallery on October 1st. The prompt was “Enchanted,” and my initial ideas headed toward the fairy tale realm. As a big fan of Trina Schart Hyman, I would love to illustrate fairy tales. Perhaps some day I will. Before I’d settled on any solid idea, I came across a photo that my cousin had posted to Facebook. It’s a shot of her granddaughter who appears to have stopped mid-spin, her attention captured by something off-screen. My first thought was, “I love the rim lighting, and I want to paint that expression on her face!” My next thought was of the Aristotle quote, which is on my favorite stationery at home. That took me to the question: “What is she looking at? What causes children to stop, stare, and study? For me, as a child, it would have been a cicada, caterpillar, or butterfly. And, so the illustration came to be.
I sketched out the quote in calligraphy format. Having pieced together photo references in Photoshop, I transferred my reference to watercolor paper. Then I could project my calligraphy onto the paper, playing with placement and size. The child’s face and hair, being the focal point, were the first things I painted. Moving to the background, I blocked in dark green foliage behind her, then faded down to a basic wash of grass. From there I jumped over to the caterpillar and his flowers. Her dress pattern was daunting, and I honestly planned to replace it with a simple pale blue. However, I needed the rich blue to complement her reddish-orange hair. As I worked, the pattern came together, warping as it hit each fold in her skirt. One key to this illustration was to keep everything (except her face and the caterpillar) in soft-focus. This meant a loose, soft background behind the caterpillar, fading out completely where the calligraphy would begin. Calligraphy came last. Marvelous was an easy choice…the color needed to pop as it tied in with the lighting around her hair. To balance that coral tone, blue became the thin letters of there is something. Earth tones made sense for of nature, though I pulled a few strokes of coral into that as well to tie in with the other lettering. Finally, I chose yellow for In all things, knowing it would be enough contrast to the white sky behind it without drawing attention away from my focal point word.
Need I say it?…I love watercolor! Yes, the piece was inspired by an SCBWI prompt. But I painted it for me; for fun; as a personal illustration challenge. I know I’ve mentioned it before on this blog…there is something about the story-lined wrinkles in the old, and the innocent expressiveness of the young, that pulls me right in. I enjoyed every moment of this painting.
As a side note for those who haven’t heard already: my blog was chosen to be featured for the month of September on SCBWI’s homepage! If you look on the left-hand side, in their BlogRoll section, you’ll see a link to this blog there. Mine is the 6th one down – they feature a few blogs each month, from members across the nation.
“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”.
“Shifty” is a descriptor that leaves us feeling uneasy. A shifty character, shifty eyes, a shifting foundation…all are bad news, implying mistrust at best and at worst, disaster. Add in shadows and we’re suddenly 4 years old again, in a dark bedroom, unable to sleep for fear that the flickering shadows on our wall will come alive if we close our eyes. Fear is always magnified in the dark. And a vivid imagination can run away with us at night when the world is quiet and life feels most lonely, most vulnerable. Millions of night-lights are lit nightly to help dispel the dark. Light vs. Dark, Good vs. Evil – in movies and books the theme abounds, mirroring the spiritual realm and the ultimate battles of good vs. evil. In chapter 3 of the oldest story known to man, a “shifty” character, a serpent enters the scene and begins twisting truth. “You will not surely die,” Satan tells Eve in reference to eating forbidden fruit. “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5) Would Eve die instantly as she bit into the fruit? No. And yes. Death did occur in the garden. Her relationship with her husband, the unity she shared with him, was broken now. The curses connected with sin (vs. 14-19) went into effect. Her physical body would now experience pain, thirsting desire, subjugation and eventual death. Most of all, the perfect communication and community she’d enjoyed with her God was now dead. A redeemer would be needed (and must be long-awaited) to fix the mess. In the meantime, man began to fear shadows.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2) Throughout the old and new testaments, God is refered to as Light. His glory shines so brightly that Moses’ face is described as “radiant” after merely glimpsing His glory and speaking to Him (Exodus 33:19-23; 34:29-30). John, in the book of Revelation, describes the future new heaven and new earth as not needing the “sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp…there will be no night there” (21:23-25). No night. No shifting shadows. Besides glory, God’s character is described as faithful, unwavering, steadfast. God does not twist truth. He is straightforward. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, goes so far as to say that “even when we are faithless, He will remain faithful, for He cannot deny His character” (2 Timothy 2:13). This is the Father of Lights. Every good and perfect gift comes from Him. Psalm 139:12 says, “the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to God.” And Psalm 127:1-2 calls us to rest without worry “for, while they sleep the Lord provides for those He loves.” So, when we lie awake, the night’s silence resounding with the clamour of our thoughts, fear beginning to play on us as shadows flicker across our wall, we can close our eyes and call out to the God who does not change. He promises to be light in our darkness.
About the artwork:
This painting was a wedding gift for a friend who has traveled widely and taken many spectacular photos of her journeys. Wanting to include her photography in the painting, I noticed cool patterns in the architecture and cloths she had photographed. Those patterns became the inspiration for the border. I actually designed the border before choosing the scripture to go inside. As for the verse, I didn’t want a typical “wedding” verse, nor something you could buy on a plaque. This verse is a good reminder in the “for better, for worse” days, that God has surrounded them with good and perfect gifts, providing big things and small blessings on a daily basis. The primary triad (red, yellow, blue) color scheme came from tile patterns in her photos. With such a busy border, the text color needed to stay as monochromatic as possible. So, I stuck with deep blues and grey-blue, adding thin text of red to tie in with the border color.
“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 post is for Lauren, who requested I paint her favorite verse as a graduation gift, and for many other grads I know who look forward with hope to the future. Jeremiah 29:11 has long been a favorite verse of mine. Those of you who know me well, know that I say that about several Bible verses…but that’s because there are so many verses that are an encouragement in every-day life! However, if we’re not careful, Jeremiah 29:11 can become cliché. Its message is celebrated at exciting times like graduation, and hammered into us in difficult times when life is falling apart. We hear it so often that we begin to take it for granted, forgetting why God spoke it in the first place.
Dear graduates, I encourage you not to take this verse as a pep-talk. Don’t cling to it as a wishful thought for a bright future. When you need this verse, go back to the chapter surrounding it. Read it in context. It’s not a verse pointing to a brighter tomorrow, so much as it’s a verse about the God who holds tomorrow. If we’re always looking/seeking for the rainbow and “better days”, then we miss out on what’s right here in front of us. Jeremiah 29:4-7 says: “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters…seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ ” What is God saying? He’s saying, “I’ve placed you in undesirable circumstances, and you must choose. Will you trust Me? Will you choose to live life, plant gardens, BE where I’ve placed you and thrive? Will you come to Me in prayer, on behalf of the enemies surrounding you?”
It’s essential that our eyes be fixed on our Heavenly Father. If we fixate on the circumstances around us, we’ll be discouraged and overwhelmed. If we fixate on the elusive “if only”s, then the peace we desire will always be one step further down the road. If only I were married…If only we had children…If only my kids were like other people’s kids…If only I had my dream job…If only I were retired and could travel. A wise friend once told me how she struggled with the “if only”s. As life continued to take unexpected turns, she began to learn that she’d never feel content unless she chose to look for joys in the here and now. With 3 kids ages 3, 2, 1; her oldest having been diagnosed with juvenile Diabetes at the same time that her husband was diagnosed with several food allergies…looking to God for hope, relying on Him for strength day and night, was a necessity. Her experience has helped me let go of my own “if only”s.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13) Seek God with ALL your heart, graduates. He knows when you’re holding back and not truly desiring Him. Trust Him with your future. Trust Him with today.
Several months ago I posted a watercolor calligraphy of Philippians 4:12-13. Since this is one of my favorite verses, I kept my design sketches, planning to try the same design again in a different color scheme. Below are the two versions. You can see how simple changes can really impact meaning. In version 1, the line “I have learned the secret of being content…” was painted in a pale yellow. Version 2, I left the letters white, painting the negative space around them pale blue to make them show up. The word “Christ” takes on a more dynamic role in version 2, using value to create depth and a splash of yellow-orange for color contrast. Also, in version 2, I wanted to emphasize the all-encompassing “every” within the word “everything.” This ties in with the wording of verse 12: “any & every circumstance”. Remember, Paul was writing from prison…at a time when prison did not mean orange jump-suits and three square meals a day. So, when he says he’s learned to be content in every circumstance through the strength Christ gives him, he means it! “Strength” was a focal point in version 1. Version 2 is tweaked to place more emphasis on the source of that strength, namely the cross of Christ. His perseverance, triumphing over Hell and the grave, is what gives us hope in the first place. Without that hope; without that victory; the difficulties of this life would continually crush us.
Design-wise, I decided to create a triangular balance with the red-orange color. The cross in “STRENGTH” and the reference of Philippians form the other two corners of that triangle. All other words in the design were kept in the blue family, varying values to create contrast as needed. I’ll admit, I was struggling to get the aqua colors the way I wanted them. I kept dabbing and pulling green off the paper, trying to lighten letters that were too dark. In the end, I cheated, using a thin wash of acrylic over top to lighten and brighten the aqua. So, while it’s basically a watercolor painting, technically it’s mixed media.