When I was born, and by that I mean the very moment I was born, the canvas that was to become the depiction of my life was blank - totally and completely devoid of any markings. There were no sketchings or drawings on this canvas, there was no paint or watercolors, not even a smudge, there was no outline of what would eventually be painted there - it was a canvas of pure white, new and pristine and ready to receive the brush strokes from the artist’s hand that would eventually become the portrait of my life.
I do not know what the artist had in mind as the end result when the blank canvas accepted the first of many different types of markings. What kinds of markings will be on this canvas anyway? I think it may be a pencil or charcoal sketching. It will also be comprised of acrylic paints, and maybe watercolors. The end result will be comprised of many different types of medium, each carefully selected by the artist to accurately express each moment of my life.
And what about the painting itself? Will it be a painting that I would love to hang in a gallery for the world to see? Will it be something that I could hang in my own home and be proud to show it to my friends and family? Will it become something I’m ashamed to look upon with my own eyes, and be much less willing to share with anyone else? Or will this canvas hold something in between? What will it look like? Will the overall painting make sense or will it be the kind of avant-garde artwork where people of self-proclaimed higher intelligence stand around it and testify as to its brilliance and overwhelming meaning while having no earthly idea what it really represents? That’s actually probably not a bad guess, when you consider my life.
With every action I have taken, with every decision that I make and act upon, with each word that I speak, and each thought that I entertain, another brush stroke from the artist’s hand is added to this canvas. Upon further study of this image, we can see how I carried myself through this life, how my actions or words influenced others, and we can see changes that I've made in myself along the path of this life. My beliefs, my dreams, my desires, my faith… all are right there on that canvas, accurately depicted in whatever medium is chosen by the artist’s perfect knowledge of my life.
My grandfather was a very kind and gentle and wise man. I always knew him to be so even from the time I was a very small boy. He loved and cared for and provided for his wife and two daughters, one of whom is my own mother. He equally loved his five grandchildren, their spouses, and eventually his great grandchildren. After he retired, he found happiness in watching a gentleman on the PBS station in Houston by the name of William (Bill) Alexander, an artist who had a daily painting program.
From the biography of Bill Alexander we learn the following: Bill Alexander loved to paint! He knew early on that there had to be a way to capture an image on canvas before his passion for the image dimmed. He couldn't wait the necessary drying time with traditional oil painting methods and still keep his enthusiasm for the outcome. Hence, the reason for Bill's Wet-On-Wet Technique.
Applying Oil color to a wet canvas is not a new idea. For centuries, talented artist have used the Wet-On-Wet Technique to express their individual style. Claude Monet was one of the better-known artists who painted using the Wet-On-Wet method. In our lifetime, the founder of Alexander Art, William Alexander, developed the products and popularized this method to make it possible for anyone to successfully paint, what is now called, the Alexander Wet-On-Wet Technique.
Traditional methods of oil painting require high level know-how and often take weeks of layering color on a canvas to produce a single painting. The Alexander Wet-On-Wet Technique simplifies oil painting so one can finish a painting in a single day! How? By applying our slow drying base medium "Magic White" to the canvas, one can mix and layer other colors right on the canvas without waiting for layers of paint to dry. The extra thick Alexander oil colors are applied with Alexander brushes and palette knives that are designed to give a rewarding painting experience.
This is how my grandfather learned to paint, late in his life. His enjoyment in those programs and his eagerness to learn to paint became apparent, so he received a beginner’s set of painting supplies for Christmas, some canvases, an easel, paints, brushes and other tools needed for the Alexander method of painting, and he set up shop in his home to begin his short career with his new hobby, and with Bill Alexander as his instructor. He also enjoyed watching Bob Ross paint happy little clouds and such, but it was Bill that really got him started. Over time, my grandfather became quite masterful at painting and his kind and gentle wisdom that I mentioned before is easily seen in each of the paintings we have in our homes even today.
It was also a great joy to me that my grandfather and my wife Kelley would watch the daily programs together, him from his home and her from the back room of our dry cleaning shop or our home, and then they would be on the telephone to one another immediately after the program concluded to discuss in great length what they had just watched. I personally didn't get it, but I didn't really need to. This was something between them and it brought a high level of closeness and happiness to their relationship. I was content to stand on the sidelines and be very happy for the two of them.
Kelley seemed to lose her interest in painting about the same time that she lost her interest in me, but the connection to my grandfather through those television shows remained strong right up until his passing in 1993. That really meant a great deal to him, as I’m sure it did to her. She has one of his paintings in her own home to this day, and I can’t think of a better place for that painting to be. I know that he is happy for it to be with her.
One afternoon, a short time before he died but after Kelley and I were no longer married, I dropped by my grandparent’s home and found my grandfather sitting in a chair in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room where he liked to paint, and he was staring at an empty canvas perched upon the easel. His paints were ready, his other tools were there, but he wasn't painting, just staring. I quietly retreated into the living room and asked my grandmother what was going on. She shrugged her shoulders with exaggerated exasperation and explained to me that this is what he did, but she couldn't understand why someone would do such a thing as stare at a blank canvas. She actually seemed rather perturbed and impatient with this bizarre behavior. She was kind of funny like that.
I eased back into the kitchen and stood behind him for a few moments, and then asked him what he was doing. I’ll never forget his answer. He explained to me that he was searching the canvas for the painting that wanted to be painted there. He was waiting for the images to show themselves to him, and then the rest was easy… just paint what he saw. I watched him for a while and then there was a dawning of sorts on his face, and he seemed to understand at last what it was that was to be painted. He had seen it, and now it was time to paint it, and paint it he did. I don’t remember which of his many beautiful paintings he painted that day, but he saw it right there on the canvas even before he made the first stroke with his brush.
Not all of his paintings turned out the way he saw them. Sometimes he had to make corrections, sometimes he had to white it all out and start all over, and sometimes he just realized that what he was painting wasn't what he set out to paint and made adjustments and alterations to his original vision and created something different, but just as magical and beautiful and awe inspiring.
When I think of the canvas that will ultimately contain the portrait of my life, I think back on what it was like before the first brush stroke was applied, and I wonder what the artist saw as it was gazed upon, when the image of my life manifested itself for the eyes of the painter to see. Was it an image that was pleasing to the eyes? Was this to be a painting that would inspire, and spread cheer and good feelings to all those who gazed upon it? This canvas, with all of its colors and imagery, would be an accurate reflection of my life, all of the good, all of the bad, all of the beauty and every last bit of the ugliness. Would the artist be smiling with each stroke of the brush or is this portrait to become one that the artist really didn't desire to create but knew at the same time that it must be so.
We each have our own canvas, and it started off just as pure and clean as mine was the moment I was born, as unblemished and spotless and full of hope and possibilities and potential as the one in the doorway between my grandfather’s kitchen and dining room while he was staring at it. And while we cannot be the one holding the brushes and other tools, we are influencing the artist with each of our actions, with our behaviors, with the way we conduct ourselves, and even with our faith in the artist.
I take my canvas out every once in a while a take a good hard look at it. It’s unfinished, to be sure, and some spots are a little rough and could use some touch up. I don’t always like what I see, but I never dare to complain about the image, for it is truly an accurate depiction of who and what I am. When I see something in that great painting that is not to my liking, I cannot expect it to be erased or altered, because that would negate the precision of the depiction on this canvas of my life. It would be nice to be able to suggest to the artist to draw more of the good stuff, but let’s hide the unpleasant things over in an obscure corner where they’re less likely to be noticed. In actuality, we can suggest that all day long, but the artist cannot be interested in portraying anything but the true life of the subject being applied to that canvas. The artist can never be convinced to portray us in any way that is even slightly inconsistent with the way we choose to live our lives. It may not always be to our liking, but it’s fair, and right.
So how can I make my painting be one that the artist will enjoy painting? How can anyone? I think the answer lies in looking at the canvas often, studying it with honest eyes, making the changes in life that would be worthy of a change in the portrait, and most of all, in asking the artist what it is that should be painted. It was promised to each of us a long, long time ago that if we will ask the artist what he would like to paint, the image will be shown to us. Isn't that just like my grandfather’s experience with his own paintings? Then once we are shown that image, all we have to do is paint it, or in this case we must live our lives in a manner that will allow the master artist to apply the brush in his hand to our canvas to create the image that was shown to us.
But we can’t just ask and then not look for the image. And we won’t be shown the image unless we demonstrate to the artist that we are willing to make the changes necessary to change the painting. Faith in the artist’s infinite wisdom and enough desire to please the artist to take the appropriate actions are required for us to influence what goes on our canvases, and also what gets covered up by new paint never to be seen again. Yes, I believe that can happen as well. My grandfather did that from time to time, and so will the artist working on our own portraits. All we have to do is ask, and then wait for the image to appear to us, and then live our lives in a way that will create a life portrait of beauty and inspiration.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but as for my painting, I don’t want it to become some forgotten piece of artwork, regarded by the artist as an effort that didn't turn out as he would have liked, collecting dust over in a corner, and facing the wall so no one can see. I don’t want to have to explain to the artist why I lived my life in such a manner that created this unwanted piece of art. I can’t bring myself to look into the saddened eyes of the artist and describe how I didn't care enough to seek out the image that he really wanted to paint, and that I really didn't have enough faith to ask what it was that he wished to put on that canvas.
I don’t want the portrait of my life to be looked upon with disgust or sadness. I wouldn't want it to become as a carnival side show, ugly and disappointing to the eye of the beholder but still drawing viewers to it as they are unable to look away from its hideousness. I surely would see these reactions and want to change the work on the canvas, to grab some paint and change the image myself, make it pretty and delightful to the eyes, or even cover it up with a fresh coat of white paint, but it’s going to be too late then, isn't it?
So as I now look upon this canvas that is a true depiction and representation of my life and the way I live it, I can see some things that need changing. As I ask the artist what it is that should be painted, and ask with real intent, and having enough faith that the artist will show me what is to be painted, all I have to do now is close my eyes, shut out the world for a spell, and wait for the image to appear, just as it appeared to my grandfather as he stared at the blank canvas upon the easel between his kitchen and dining room so many years ago.
Once I can clear away enough of the messy debris from in front of my mind’s eye so as to see what is desired for me, then I will know what to do. I hope that my painting is one that can be proudly and prominently displayed in the artist’s home, just as one of my grandfather’s is proudly and prominently displayed in my home.
I hope to see yours there too… right next to mine.
Until next time…