by Pastor Doug Kings

I am in the last week of a three-month online painting course, led by California artist Nicholas Wilton. In addition to being a successful painter, Wilton has developed an art education business called Art2Life. Throughout the course, Wilton has maintained that an artist’s work and personal life are intimately connected. Issues in your life will affect your painting. Developing your art will lead to personal growth, as well.

Wilton also contends that talent has relatively little to do with creating quality art or being a successful artist. Talent relates primarily to the type of art you can make. Very few can ever paint like Rembrandt, but Rembrandt’s work is hardly the only type of quality art.

Rather, quality art is almost always the result of following a basic set of principles involving design and value. Design is how shapes are organized on a surface and value is the contrast of the lightness and darkness among those shapes. When applied carefully, these principles result in a work of art that creates visual interest, i.e. it makes us stop and look and (usually) give us pleasure.

The course has mostly been about learning how to apply those principles. This last week, however, Wilton has turned to another subject which has always been in the background. He calls this week “Risk and Soul” and it deals with the more intangible need to put ourselves into our work to create quality art.

Wilton concedes that one can learn how to apply all the various principles yet generate “soulless” art. Thus, another characteristic of quality art, and an essential one, is that it creates an intangible connection between the viewer and the artist. This is often why we are attracted to one type of art over another. We intuitively recognize that we and the artist share an experience of life and view of the world.

Soulless art, on the other hand, generates no such connection. It may work as a composition, it may be pretty, but there is little sense of the creator of this work. It feels like it could be mass produced (and these days it may well be).

The course material is almost all new to me. Many of the participants, however, already have an art practice but it is some of them that have been having the most difficulty. As they have followed the exercises their frustrations have boiled over. “Nothing I’ve done looks like my art!” is a common lament.

What’s going on? They’ve stumbled across the other factor highlighted this week: risk. They are being forced out of their comfort zone to be genuinely creative and original. They thought they would learn the skills to paint better trees or sunsets or puppies but instead they are being led to discover the shapes, colors, patterns, etc. which genuinely express their personality, their emotions, their values, their likes, and so on. The results can be unexpected and unwelcome.

“Risk and soul”, in other words, is about learning to express yourself, which is surprisingly difficult, frustrating, and scarry. Wilton says,

We often feel vulnerable when we take risks. Feeling this way in conventional life isn’t something we desire. However, in regards to making art, when we feel vulnerable, when we make marks that we are uncertain about, or when we try something new, generally the art not only improves, but it connects with others. Showing all sides of yourself, including the vulnerable parts, makes you and your art relatable. If people can feel all of you, they will trust and connect with you and your art.

Here Wilton makes clear the connection he sees between art and life. And while he has never said anything remotely “religious”, it seemed natural when he began speaking about the necessity of faith. The artist needs to have faith in themselves. Not just faith in their abilities but, even more, every artist must have faith that they have something of value to express simply by their being who they are.

At this point I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ simple admonition in the Sermon on the Mount to “let your light shine.” But as he knew, our inclination and often our habit is to “hide it under a basket.” To do so, however, is to deny the value of the gift of life that God has given each of us. Wilton says much the same:

Look within for what brings you alive. Learn how to cultivate this, so you will steadily maintain momentum and improvement regardless of praise or criticism…. That soul is present in anything that matters to you, is the cornerstone of Art2Life. My only real plan is to help guide members towards discovering what exactly they love. Finding this takes time, but using the approach we have shared here, makes this journey sustainable, wondrous, and life-affirming. Our art – our best art, the kind we love, is the artifact of this process of discovery. It holds clues of who we are becoming in this life. It is about you discovering yourself and then sharing it with the world. And that is so, so exciting!

Recently I have read several stories about people deciding not to go back to their old jobs now that the pandemic is winding down. Their time off (forced or chosen) caused them to take a closer look at the quality of their lives and they didn’t like what they saw. Some are going into new fields that better fit them. Others are taking the leap of abandoning the supposed security of the employer paycheck to work for themselves. In short, they are connecting with their soul, their true selves, and taking the risk of expressing it in their lives.

Again and again, Jesus’ interactions with people are about affirming their God-given value, a value often doubted or even denied by the world around them. In that regard, our world is no different. In so many ways we are told that who we are is inadequate, faulty, or simply of no value—and at some level we believe it!

But it’s simply not true. Rather, such thoughts are a bad habit we need to break. In that sense we all need to discover ourselves as artists, which isn’t the result of any special talent but rather of having the faith and trust and courage to be who God created us to be.

Blessings in your life and ministry.