Joel McKerrow | 23 Mar 2023
What Painting Taught Me About God
My friend Jess taught me how to start painting. It was only one small session, but it was the moment that something broke in me. Something I didn’t realise needed breaking. Jess sat with me, and told me to stop trying to draw what I think something should be. Stop trying to draw a face. Stop trying to draw a mouth. Instead just think about shapes and shadow and light. She told me to stop trying to make it look right, like my head wanted it to be.
I know this is all basic beginner knowledge for artists, but I had never been taught it before. The fine arts were always something I told myself I couldn’t do. I was a words person, not a visual person. Any attempt would look childish at best, so I stopped attempting. I stuck to my words.
Until I was thirty-seven.
How sad that my entire life could have been spent drawing and painting and relishing the way the colours mix and how they dance on a page, but I haven’t. Not until a happy bit of happenstance led me to be dropping in on Jess’s class that particular day. We started with white chalk on black paper. White shapes on black canvas. I had never attempted such a thing in my life. She showed me an easy way how to get the right composition. She told me about the shapes, lighting and the shadow. And I kind of got what she was saying. She told me that I needed to unlearn a whole lot of how I looked at the world. To un-train the way my brain wanted to see things and start to see them anew. It was G. K Chesterton who said, ‘Our perennial spiritual and psychological task is to look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again.'
I wonder if it is not our perennial creative task too. Look again. Look again. See the world anew everyday.
This is what broke within me on that day. It was my perception. Not just the perception of how to see the things in front of me. But my perception of how to see myself. The story I told myself for so long about my inability to draw.
I wonder if all learning begins with this kind of un-learning. If all movement forward requires a letting go of something old…an old idea. An old assumption. An old absolute. An old doctrine. An old paradigm. An old God. An old God. I let you go God. I let you go.
Is this not what surrender actually is? A letting go of the old ways and the too small ways. Not to see them thrown away, but to see our understanding of them change, to have our eyesight renewed. To be transformed. Too easy to throw it all away. Much harder to do the hard work of sorting and sifting and learning to paint anew. To draw out of a new paradigm. To look for the shape and the light and the shadow, rather than what our minds tell us it is MEANT to look like.
A redemption. That is what this is. A redemption.
I was not sure this was working. Sitting at the table shading shapes and shadow and light. I really didn’t know if this was working. It looked more like a mess. Like a blur. Jess came over. 'Put your pencil down’ she told me. So I did so. You don’t argue with Jess. ‘Now go over there.’ She pointed a few metres away. I walked to the spot. ‘Now look at what you have done,’ she said as she held up my work for me to see.
Ah, I cry even as I type these words. Honestly. I looked at my work from this slightly distanced perspective and I gasped. There it was. There it was. I stared at what this non-painter, this non-drawer, this non-visual person had done. And it was … beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. It was beautiful.
If God is anything, God is redemption. The old is gone, the new has come.