Keep Painting

One painter's perspective on times of transition.

Earlier this year I took up painting as a hobby. I have no illusions of achieving the skill of Renoir or Van Gogh. I have no desire to follow the likes of Picasso. I have no plans of selling off the house and moving to an artsy community somewhere in the Mediterranean to live off the proceeds of my production. (The thought has occurred to me at times, but it turns out I love my family and I need to eat.) The hobby is for my own enjoyment. Maybe it will make for good entertainment for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren when I am gone. 

I am learning a great deal. There are more techniques I have not heard of than ones I have tried. One lesson I am learning right now is not to judge my work by its current stage. For example, I recently finished a still life of a vase with flowers that my wife decided to hang in the kitchen. (I am not sure if she likes it, or if she thinks that over the oven provides the best hoped for opportunity for an honest-to-goodness “accident.”) That artwork went through a lot of stages: base color, chalking, blocking, accenting, and final touch-ups. Several times throughout the process, I looked at the picture and was somewhat satisfied. I could see it shaping up. I liked the texture of the background or the way I caught the angle of a flower petal.

However, every time I would get it to where I liked it, I would have to take it to the next stage and add another layer. That is the most painful and anxiety-producing part for me. When I begin adding that next layer of color, it starts to look like I’ve ruined it. I lost count of the number of times I gritted my teeth and growled in frustration. What looked like decent preparatory marks are brushed over as a new stage begins. It grows into a nasty mess. Of course, the only thing to do that point is to lean in and keep going at it. If I stop when it looks ruined, it is ruined. The only way to the intended piece is to keep painting through the transition.

It turns out that this process of painting is teaching me about transitions. One of the startling things we learn about life is that it is always in motion. We are creatures in time, and time is not static. The fluidity of life means that transitions are inevitable. We experience some kind of transition at every moment. We transition from sleep to wake, from standing to sitting, from acting to resting. Our bodies are constantly in transition as they metabolize fuel, decay, and regenerate. 

If we are always in transition, why are we so often put off by it? It is easy to understand the negative effects of a transition that entails deep loss. Yet psychologists tell us that positive transitions also produce stress that takes an often unnoticed toll on us. We are pained by transition even when we need it or want it.

It seems we quickly become accustomed to moments. Moment is a relative term that is defined more by a state of affairs than by the length of time. We refer to “cultural moments” as periods of history or “only a moment” to express a time span of a few seconds or maybe less. The longer a moment lasts, the more accustomed to it we become. Somehow, as we inhabit those moments, we lose sight of the fact that moments are temporary. They pass. Even when we expect it, something within us seems startled by and resistant to the change from one moment to another. We become very aware of our own transitoriness, of the less than permanent state of affairs that we all experience, of the shifting nature of various points of reference in our existence. Like my painting, the preparatory work is often obscured, definition of shape is lost for a time, and during the transition period the whole thing seems ruined. It leaves us feeling exposed. We are rendered vulnerable.

It should come as no surprise that a book as existential as the Psalms should have quite a lot to say about transitions. The Psalms are the prayers of the people expressed from within the pressures and vicissitudes of life. Though frequently giving voice to pain and uncertainty, the Psalms keep coming back to an unchanging fixed reference point: the promises of the covenant God. Even when obscured by pain and loss, the Psalms lay hold of an anchor in the fog and so the one who prays them can be pulled forward through the veil into the rising of the new sun. These prayers are born out of the experiences of a people who have heard the word of their God and trusted Him. Out of those experiences, they leave us with a testimony about transitions: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth forevermore” (121:8). “You know [O Lord] when I sit down and rise up” (139:2) “The Lord knows the way of the righteous” (1:6).

This is a fact in our transition that does not change with our transition: The Lord watches over us. This is true in our daily rising and lying down. It is true in the journey of our going in and out of seasons and positions and stages of life. It is true in that great transition called death. The Lord has gone before us and is with us and will remain behind us. Our transition is experienced as the movement from one point to another, but really is entirely within the realm of God’s gracious care. We move from moment to moment, but those moments are still within God’s moment which is unbounded and surrounds our every moment.

So what should we do in the transition? First, we should breathe. It cannot be a coincidence that taking deep breaths is so restorative and that God calls Himself Breath (Spirit). Inhale deeply the life of God. Second, we should remember. We remember those moments behind us when He cared for us. We remember the moments ahead of us wherein He has promised the restoration of all things in the new heavens and new earth. We remember that this moment is between those moments and are part of God’s moment. Third, we should share. We are not meant to bear these transitions alone. In fact, we do not bear them alone even when we act as if we do. Our transitions affect others around us meaning that they also experience it. We do well to draw strength through those relationships and move together. Finally, lean in. Keep moving. The only ruined painting is the one halted in the transition. There are more layers of color and shape to come. The generations yet to come will want to see it. In fact, they will need to see it. This is how one generation shall tell His praise to another (Psalm 79:13). Keep painting.

Dr. Daniel Davis
Dr. Daniel Davis
Dr. Daniel Davis is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Bachelor of Christian Ministry at The King's University.