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 am not a runner. In order to get me to run, you have to put a basketball in my hands or a soccer ball at my feet. Then I’ll clock miles up and down court (or the field) without realizing that I’m actually running.
But I know plenty of runners – have cheered on students as they pace through cross-country and track meets; have cheered friends while they push to the finish line in the Chicago marathon; have graciously/carefully avoided hitting runners with my car when die-hards are jogging along our local highways. In my vast experience of watching other people run, here’s what I’ve observed about true runners:
- they’re in the race to pursue their own best time
- it’s often more about finishing the race than winning it
- something in them loves to run and finds the discipline invigorating
- they strip down to the essentials, neither carrying nor wearing anything that drags them down
- true runners don’t cut corners or cheat the race marked out for them
- their focus is forward – not looking back, or stopping to gaze around them, nor looking down
- when a race gets tough, crowds cheering from the sidelines can give the boost needed to persevere to the end
- worn out running shoes can be a trophy in themselves, proof of miles well-run
I’ve no idea whether the writer of Hebrews was a runner. But he must have understood something about the discipline, because his analogy 2,000 years ago is still spot-on today. As Christians, we are called to be true runners, to never give up on the race marked out for us. Whether the path God takes us through is desert, rocky terrain, green pastures, or narrow valleys, He’s placed markers along the way to keep us on track. Often times, these are the guidelines laid out in His Word. They may also be the convicting prodding of the Holy Spirit or words of affirmation and/or correction and accountability from family and friends. In the verses following (Hebrews 12:6), the writer quotes Proverbs 3:11,12 saying: “do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those He loves.” In other words, the race markers and corrections we encounter aren’t meant to frustrate or depress us, nor are they meant to be ignored. They are there because we are loved by the God who sees a bigger landscape than we can comprehend…a God who desires to guide us around pitfalls more dangerous than we’d realize.
When I first read Hebrews 12, I pictured familiar faces of friends as the “cloud of witnesses” cheering me on. Those faces certainly are part of the crowd. However, the first verse actually starts with “Therefore” – pointing back to chapter 11, which recounts the lives of several Old Testament men and women. It’s generation upon generation of people who lived by faith and persevered to the end of their race. We aren’t simply cheered on by people like me (people who don’t mind watching a good race but prefer to avoid running whenever possible). We’re cheered on by thousands who endured muscle cramps and shin splints, yet refused to give up. Why did they refuse to give up?…was it sheer stubborn determination, or foolish pride that kept them going? The first verse of chapter 11 tells us why: they refused to give up because they were “sure of what they hoped for and certain of what they could not see.” Having reached their finish-line and found more joy than they could have imagined, they now cheer us on. With those voices shouting encouragement, we can be inspired to strip off everything that slows us down, and keep our eyes on Christ. We can let go of baggage from our past, not looking back. We can ignore temptations around us, not stopping to gaze at the world’s distractions or leave the path to roam “greener pastures”. We can look up at the Son who ran his own race and came out victorious, instead of gazing down at gravel beneath our feet.
Today’s painting was inspired by a young man (Joel) who loves to run. I had the privilege of being one of his middle-school youth leaders many years ago. Then, as he grew up and headed off to college, he came back as a volunteer leader for the same youth group he’d grown up in. Now the race marked out is taking him in an unexpected direction. Feeling a prodding to leave the corporate world, he has started to apply for youth ministry positions. While this is a career shift, it’s not one that surprises those who know him. His knack for teaching, heart for ministry, and rapport with students have been evident for many years. One of the most memorable lessons Joel taught on a Sunday evening included his running shoes. Holding up a pair of worn out sneakers, he told us about all the miles he’d spent talking to God, worshipping, asking questions, listening…just being in relationship with his Heavenly Father. I’ve seen so many of our kids look up to Joel. They see his steady obedience, sense of humor, love and honor. They hear his honesty about ups and downs, struggles and faith and the overwhelming faithfulness of God. Joel doesn’t simply “talk the talk;” he runs the race. And, he’s one of the cloud of witnesses cheering on other runners, saying: “Don’t give up! Keep your eyes on Christ!” I pray he continues to run his race with perseverance, all the way to the finish line. And, I hope he always hears others’ voices around him, encouraging him to look up and finish strong.
The “scent of home” – if I were to ask you what that means to you, what would you say? I’m not talking about the Febreze commercials where your son’s room smells like a gym locker. This is more along the lines of a scene in Disney’s Ratatouille where the food critic flashes back to a moment in childhood, sitting at a rustic kitchen table where someone who loves him has prepared a meal for him. Each of us have experienced moments like that, where a sight or scent triggers memories of a time and place that once was home. For me it can be fresh sawdust, taking me back to hours spent in my dad’s workshop, sawing and hammering as a child. Or, a salty sea breeze, and I’m suddenly 7 years old again, building castles and burying jellyfish in wet sand by the Atlantic Ocean. Certain soaps remind me of my grandmother’s house and of her hug. Home. For some, “home” is about the people around you. For others, it’s a place or country where you were raised or spent years of your life. I’ve heard that missionary kids, military families, and others who moved several times growing up may struggle to pinpoint a particular place they’d call “home.” Yet we all have an idea of what home is or could or should be.
Today’s portrait is based on a senior photo-shoot I did several years ago. When I talked with Anya about what setting she’d like for her photos, she mentioned a prairie preserve nearby. She said the prairie paths and flowers reminded her of the Ukraine where she grew up. Anya is an American citizen now. So, in most ways, America is home now. But yellow and blue is woven into the fabric of her character, her values, her family’s cultural heritage. If you look up the meaning behind the Ukrainian flag, you find that yellow represents fields of wheat, and the blue symbolizes sky, mountains, and streams. No surprise then that nature, fields of wild flowers, and fresh air are the “scent of home” for Anya.
C.S. Lewis talks about the common human longing for our own “far-off country.” In The Weight of Glory (Oxford, 1942) he says, “These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire…but they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.” He goes on to comment about philosophies that try to “convince you that earth is your home…by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is.” But, he continues, “we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.”
For myself, I can attest to a feeling that the sense of “home” I long for is elusive. Were I to return to my 7-year-old self at the beach, would I really savor the sun on my face and the salty taste on my tongue? Or would I more likely be squabbling with my brother about who gets to use the shovel next, and nervous about jellyfish stings when I do dive into the waves? Time has a way of filtering our memories. Like a soft-focus lens, it blurs the edges, emphasizing what we want, need, long for and deemphasizing other details. According to Lewis, “home” is elusive, not because it never existed, but because our desire points us to a home we haven’t visited yet…a “splendor, which nature fitfully reflects.”
Anya is someone I’m blessed to know, because she and her family live out their faith. And, in living out that faith, they remind me of “home.” When we’re goofy and laughing and joyful, it’s a taste of joy that will one day become eternal reality. When we’re talking about the ups and downs of life, they keep me grounded in the truth that there is more to this world than what I see with my eyes. When we’re introducing one another to foods from the other’s culture, it’s a tidbit, a sampling of the coming feast in a country we haven’t yet visited. When we’re shooting photos in a field of wildflowers, the colors and scents surrounding us are merely a ghosting of the flower we have not found…the aroma of a home yet to come.
It’s been way too long since I’ve had a chance to post…not that I haven’t been painting! But May was taken up with sample paintings for a possible book project, school finishing, and diving straight into curriculum writing for a chunk of June. So, I’m just now getting back into a more regular rhythm with time for blog and personal projects.
The painting above is me (the cute one in the middle) with my two older siblings, a portrait painted recently for my sister’s birthday. Looking back at old family photos is such a funny time-warp. The hair styles, couch and pillow scream “late 70’s/early 80’s” – in fact, my sister wondered why I didn’t update her hairstyle when painting the portrait. But the Mary Lou Retton haircut was in then, so I’m sure Jenny looked stylish for the time. I can’t see much (if any) of current me in the baby version here. However, seeing my siblings at those ages reminds me of my nieces and nephews now. We have photos of Jenny’s daughters with that exact sideways glance, tilted head, coy expression on their faces. And any photo of Jeremy looks identical to his eldest boy. I could even venture to say that my youngest niece resembles my baby photos, with her round cheeks, turned-up nose, and dark hair falling across the top of her head. The Bozarth genes run strong.
Working on this portrait brought back a lot of childhood memories. Jenny braiding my hair, while I sat and whined that she was pulling too hard. Jeremy teaching me how to pace my steps for a hook shot in basketball, or letting me try out his juggling equipment and showing me how to juggle various items. Jeremy instigating trouble and then sitting back to watch us younger siblings squabble it out. Jenny letting me troop along with her and her friend Laura in the woods behind Laura’s house…showing me how to suck the sweet nectar from honeysuckle flowers, and consoling me when I screamed as a snake slithered around my feet on the forest path. Years of sharing a room with Jenny, and her recounting of my random sayings when I’d talk in my sleep. Asking Jeremy for help with math or science homework, and trying to listen as he’d explain 5 different ways of solving the problem when I really just wanted 1 easy answer.
Any of you who know me well probably hear me talk about my siblings on a regular basis. They crop up naturally in conversation because they continue to be part of every-day life. Making time to hang out with my brothers and sister isn’t as easy as it was when we were kids. Of course, sharing a room or being packed shoulder to shoulder in a car for 17 hours was never thought of as quality time. However, those forced situations of time together helped build the foundation for our relationships now. Living within 40 minutes of each other, it’s easy to let months slip by where we’re each consumed with our own fast-paced schedule. We have to be purposeful in calling and connecting. I realize I’m blessed to have siblings I still want to know and spend time with. And, though I don’t necessarily learn from them as I did when little, I do still look up to them in many ways. They’ve taught me about life and marriage, parenting, faith, work-ethic, budgeting, priorities, and family. Some of those lessons currently apply in my life; others I may use down the road. Besides the serious stuff, my siblings are also fun to be around! If you ask any of my nieces and nephews, they’d probably tell you that we can be pretty goofy when hanging out together – perhaps it’s because spending time together takes us right back to childhood, bringing out our silly sides. We let go the stresses of our adult responsibilities and take a few moments to flash back to when we were the kids in those photos.
If you have siblings, take some time to look back and remember who you were. Then, take a look now and see who you are. If those relationships aren’t what you’d like them to be, you can’t necessarily change who you’ve all become. But you can always work toward restoration, reaching out when and how you’re able. And, if you’re on the cusp of adult-hood, waiting for the chance to get far away from your siblings, pause before you run. Remember the good times when possible, forgive the hurts (with God’s help…not something you can do on your own), and be open to staying connected in the years to come.
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’m finally back with another in the Portraits of Scotland series! While in Scotland, we spent several weeks on isles, with the sea visible or within easy drive of where we stayed. Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, was no exception. We stayed in Harbour Guest House on Tobermory High Street, which is the main street that curves around, hugging Tobermory harbour. Tobermory is the capital of Mull because, with a population of 700, it’s one of the few places large enough to be considered a town rather than a village. You may remember mention of it in my post about the Leather Artisan. Well, having spent so much time around the sea, and having eaten fish and chips to our heart’s delight, I hoped to find a fisherman who would let me paint his portrait.
Our very last day on Mull (even as we were packed up and ready to drive back to the mainland), I stopped in at a shop to pick up a glass fusing piece I’d made the day before. When I came back to the car, my mom said, “Mollie, weren’t you hoping to paint a fisherman? I’ve been watching this man climb nimbly down a narrow metal ladder to his boat. I can’t believe his agility! He must be nearly 70, but he’s up and down that ladder in the blink of an eye! This is your chance! Ask him whether he’d mind if you take his photograph.” So, I approached the fisherman. It was a quiet morning, still fairly early, and he was alone – no crew with him. I figured he had simply been checking on something in the boat, and I was right. Funnily enough, his first response when I asked about taking his photo was, “Does my hair look alright?” This is the same question Alan (the Leather Artisan) asked before I photographed him!…must be a Tobermory thing. Well, the fisherman’s white hair was blowing in a harbour breeze, so I laughed and said it looked fine. Like several of the people I approached, he was surprised anyone would want to paint his portrait. Perhaps the tourist-painter intrigued him. Perhaps he was merely complying with an odd request. Whatever the motivation, he agreed. And, while I took a few photos, we chatted.
I asked about his work. We’d eaten fresh lobster the night before. Had he caught those lobsters? He said that all of the lobsters his crew catch are actually shipped overseas…makes more money than selling it locally. I asked whether he had children who’ve followed in his footsteps career-wise. He said he has no sons. But his two daughters married fishermen, and his sons-in-law work with him. It was a short conversation, a brief glance into his life. But each of these portraits has opened doors for me to learn something of the people of Scotland. They are humble, yet proud; hospitable and friendly; they work hard and value tradition; they highly value family and community. Possibly because their towns and villages are so small, a sense of community is inevitible…for better or worse, everyone seems to know everyone else. I asked whether he knew Alan, and he said, “Aye, of course! I know him well.” My favorite part of this particular portrait is the fisherman’s stance. Hands are jammed solidly into his pockets. Weatherbeaten and ruddy, his face holds the wrinkles of sunshine and wind, laughter and life. His eyes are used to peering out across the water, whether through glaring sun, storm, or fog. No fancy airs or moment taken to brush his hair…the wind would blow it again anyway. He is a man’s man, a working man, a provider for his family, comfortable in his own skin. The stance says, “Here I am! If you want to paint a portrait, you’re welcome. Just make sure my boat is included. For my boat is part of who I am.”
This illustration is actually a compilation of several photos taken during our days on Mull. The jetty where the fisherman stood was lined with lobster cages. Beyond those you could see the panoramic view of iconic Tobermory shops. The red, yellow, and blue group of shops in particular is well-known. Apparently, they appear in a BBC children’s show called Balamory. I’m a little old to watch the show now, but the Scottish accents are fun! In designing this scene, I took the photo of the fisherman with his boat, combined it with photos of the panorama and lobster cages, then added in a couple seagulls for good measure. Huge seagulls are the other “fishermen” of Tobermory. Whether swooping and diving below the water’s crest, or scavenging bits of fish left by the pros, they’re always interested in the day’s catch. Just a few feet from this scene (kind of behind and to the left) was the fresh fish-&-chips vendor. This tiny trailer sold fish that had been caught fresh that morning. You’d tell them what kind of fish you wanted (halibut, cod, etc.), they’d pull it out of the fridge, dip it in batter, and fry it right there in front of you. Then they’d toss it onto a bed of hot chips, and you could add vinegar or ketchup before carrying your treasure home to feast. It was so good, Mom and I literally ate there 3 out of 4 nights on Mull! If you look above the Tobermory shops, you’ll see one more iconic building. The Western Isles Hotel, up on the hill, is one of the filming locations for the 1945 Wendy Hiller movie, I Know Where I’m Going. Wonderful film! If you’ve never seen it, check it out!
Well, this concludes our tour of Tobermory. Of all the places we visited, this is a top one on my list to visit again. If you’re ever there yourself, keep an eye out for my friend Alan and for his neighbor, the fisherman.