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Painting From My Imagination...and My Gut

This piece was a long time coming.

Unlike my more adventurous paintings that were responses to technical challenges from my instructor, this one began with my 16 year old son, Mike, asking me to paint him something from my imagination.

That would be a piece of cake for some of my expressionist colleagues who snicker at reference photos and never know what they're going to paint until they've signed the canvas. But I'm a representational painter! I don't pretend to embrace photorealism, mostly because I don't have the patience or fine motor coordination to copy reality that exactly. I am what I would consider a "left-brained" painter, in that I tend to plan well in advance what I'm going to paint, strategizing HOW I'm going to do it, often having a title in mind before I do even a preliminary sketch. I know what I'm painting, why I'm painting it, and usually I know conceptually how it fits into my body of work. Figuring out WHAT was in my imagination was my first challenge!

I ruminated on this challenge for a couple days, thinking about a message I would like to impart to Mike as he comes of age. During the time that he'd requested this painting, Mike had been in one of those undefined "funks" that teens and many older people are prone to--not exactly depressed, not reacting to negative circumstances, but just dysphoric for reasons that don't reveal themselves. As I pondered his emotional malaise and my similar susceptibility, the scene depicted in this piece began to form. In my mind's eye, I saw a hand reaching up from the bottom of a deep pit and a hand reaching down from the blue sky above. Before I even made a preliminary sketch, Mike was excited, saying he could relate to the composition.

This project was tabled for a long period of time after an earlier version of it had been declared to be "not working" by my painting instructor. I knew it needed more than simple revisions. It needed what we call a "radiator cap overhaul," but I didn't quite know how to proceed.

Then one day while looking in the Scriptures for encouragement relating to a challenge I was facing, I came across 1 Corinthians 10:13, which reads:

"No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."

That was the moment the current composition popped into my head! After making a sketch and finding some photos online of a person looking up from the bottom of a pit, my son helped me set up some photo studies of himself peering down into our darkened living room from an upstairs mezzanine and my own hands reaching up into the light. The photos I shot that night helped me re-compose the painting.

I completed the piece to what I considered about 80 percent and took it to a critique session. Unfortunately, most of the artists at this critique didn't "get it." Some thought it was too dark. (Doh! Sometimes art isn't pretty, but then, neither is life.) Some were fixated on the skull in the lower left corner and argued back and forth whether I should include it. Finally, others (who apparently don't understand foreshortening) couldn't get why the pinkie finger on the reaching hand was so long. Pearls before swine.

I was really discouraged after that critique, and have since sworn off such gatherings in favor of following my own gut. Once I decided to just get it done already, I did. I love the result, and so does my son.

Not only does this actual composition link us...the likeness of my left hand is at the bottom of the pit and his face and hand are at the top...but we created the piece together both in intention and execution.

I can't wait until another picture that illustrates a universal truth or higher principle pops into my head.


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