I still remember it as though it was yesterday. In fact, it was over thirty-five years ago. I was at a meeting in a friend’s house where we were planning an up and coming mission which was jointly sponsored by the various churches in our neighbourhood. I had to bite my lip to stop my enthusiasm from interrupting the flow of the no-doubt useful discussion.
The problem was I had been seated opposite a large bay window and had looking out the window and, well, there was a rather lovely sunset. It was by biting my lip that I stopped myself shouting out as a non sequitur to end all non-sequiturs, ‘Look everybody: when the sun is setting the shadows are on the top of the clouds, not the bottom!’ In the end, I held back from such a moment of deep sharing.
You see, I’d been going to art classes and trying to brush up on my drawing and painting skills. As a consequence, my powers of observation were sharpened and the result was that moment of insight – well, no, actually, it wasn’t an insight but an observation – something quite different.
It has been said that you never truly see something until you have tried to draw it. In my experience there is much truth in this –the regular practice of drawing from observation leads a person to see everything in a fresher, more lively way.
We are only able to see anything at all because light falls on it. Sunlight through a window illuminates an apple on the kitchen table. The apple is three dimensional so there will be part of it in shadow and on the lit face there may well be a point on intense refection, a highlight. On the table, it casts a shadow and the colours of that shadow are different from those parts of the table that receive the light directly from the window. But even the shaded face of the apple is not uniformly dark as the shadow is modified by some light reflected from the tabletop…
And still we haven’t talked about shape or colour – let alone flavour! One of the challenges of trying to draw something is to draw what you see rather than trying to draw what you think is there.
To see with clarity may be a gift – but it is also a skill that can be developed. The great British painter J M Turner was once asked about the secret of his genius, he replied, ‘There is no secret – only hard work.’
To see clearly – to be attentive to what is in front of us can be a cause of celebration as we respond to beauty and the wonder of creation. But good observational skills can also enable us to see horror and pain. Both should lead us to prayer.
It has been said that prayer is the greatest act of love. But surely, for it to be this, it must begin with a way of seeing which takes the outer world, the other, seriously. Our own profound thoughts and clever ideas may be important, but prayer begins with seeing beyond ourselves clearly. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it:
‘Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries…’
Here we move beyond the surface delights of light and colour to a ‘meaning’ lit by such beauty. And do we simply stuff the fruit in our mouths or do we wonder at the God of all fruitfulness?
A while back I started attending a new oil painting class. The first term was nearly all still life painting – bowls of fruit, jugs and bottles. One day I muttered the question, ‘When are we going to do some real painting – landscapes and portraits and such like? My teacher showed me a book of art prints which contained a number of paintings by Francisco do Zurbaran, an early seventeenth century painter who specialised in religious paintings from the bible and the lives of the saints.
Yet the print he showed me was – yes – a still life. It was called, ‘Still life with oranges, lemons and rose’ and it took my breath away. First it was the exquisite draughtsmanship – then it was the beauty of what was displayed. And then there was more. The art teacher turned to the minister – the garrulous clown of a novice student – and gently asked, ‘Now Chris, don’t you think that’s sacramental?’
Originally published in The Baptist Times