I love watching programmes where people get to showcase their skills and talents. I’m not talking about shows like Britain’s Got Talent or X Factor but more the kind of shows where people hone their skills and we see them on a “journey.” The programme that has caught my interest the most this year is the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, presented by Frank Skinner and Joan Bakewell. You may be forgiven for thinking that my Easter blog posts conceal a hidden desire to paint but this really isn’t the case, I just find it fascinating watching an artist create something from a selection of pastels or a few blobs of oil paint.
Each week the artists were given the opportunity to show their skills by painting a selection of well-known faces ranging from Sue Perkins (who I would secretly like to be my best friend) through to broadcaster Adrian Chiles (yep, not so much!) The grand prize this year was a £10,000 commission to paint a portrait of Graham Norton for the National Gallery of Ireland. After consistently impressing the judges in every round Gareth Reid took the crown and started work on his winning commission.
For me, this was the most fascinating episode. Gareth took time to get to know Graham. He met with him regularly, creating a range of sketches in different styles and took time to find out about the real person behind the public persona. After taking hundreds of photographs and pulling together his ideas, Gareth returned home to Glasgow, placed a huge canvas in his studio and started to paint.
As the layers of paint were added an image of Graham Norton began to appear. After working for a couple of hours Gareth would step back from the portrait, using a mirror to gain a different perspective. Sometimes he would just sit with his ideas for a couple of days, leaving the canvas untouched. The process was unhurried but it was clear that he knew what he wanted the portrait to convey and ultimately what the finished article would look like.
A couple of things he said during the programme really resonated with me!
“You’ve got a picture in your head and it looks really good but at this stage reality hasn’t dawned yet.” Gareth Reid
Prior to His crucifixion Jesus told the disciples exactly what the finished picture would look like.
“The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead.”
Matthew 17:22-23 (NLT)
As they struggled to comprehend the events of the previous days it is easy to sympathise with their inability to have a clear sense of the picture God was creating. The reality of Easter Sunday morning was yet to dawn and they were confined to the uncertainty of Easter Saturday.
“You’ve got to correct, and get closer to and scrape off and start again.” Gareth Reid
We often resist the changes that God is trying to make even though they will create in us a new depth and texture that wasn’t there before. We hang on to the current version of the picture that feels comfortable and known. Once the brush strokes have started in new areas of the canvas, and the things that were certain to us have been painted over with a different shade, we can’t go back to what we were before. The disciples couldn’t undo what had happened. They couldn’t wipe the image of Good Friday from their minds and the uncertainty of God working on the canvas of their hearts must have been painful to endure.
“It’s not a linear thing that you just start and then move closer to the finish. You kind of move backwards and forwards, obliterate, wreck it and fix it. It’s the process.” Gareth Reid
There were moments in the creation of this portrait that were brutal. At times Gareth completely changed the composition, moving Graham’s image to a totally different place on the canvas on at least three occasions. He then proceeded to remould and shape the picture as if the previous image had never existed, painting over layers and layers of paint. The same face looked out from the portrait but its form had significantly changed. Despite their varying responses to what happened to Jesus, the disciples would never be the same again. The image of what it meant to follow Jesus had been completely “wrecked” and “obliterated”. Yes, Easter Sunday was on its way, but enduring Saturday in the midst of an unfinished canvas must have been unbearable.
At the end of the show the grand reveal wasn’t a disappointment. The final portrait reflected Graham’s personality and was unrecognisable from the various stages seen throughout the episode. Imagine if Graham had been sat in the studio trying to direct the brush strokes and the colour choices. Imagine if he had requested that this part be blue, or this section be left alone as he was happy with it just as it was. Imagine how he would have reacted to Gareth painting over what seemed to be a perfectly good representation only to start again in a different section of the canvas.
Isn't this often what we try to do when God is working on our portrait?
It was fascinating to watch how the artist created the image but Frank Skinner nailed the final verdict on the portrait.
“He’s painted your soul Graham.” Frank Skinner
As God crafts and reworks our portrait His aim is to paint a soul that reflects His image. Trying to be the finished portrait before the artistic process is complete leaves us with a sketchy version of the holiness God wants for us. The potential depth and beauty of our lives is left incomplete as we avoid the discomfort of God’s soul-changing work. He repeatedly steps back from the canvas, seeing a wider picture while we focus on the minutiae of the areas he has been endlessly tweaking. As we patiently, or not so patiently, wait for paint to be applied and the picture to be developed, we are able to cling to the promise that He is working to move us closer to the best version of ourselves.
If we’re not careful then we can try to micromanage the creative process deciding that we like our portrait just as it is now. Our refusal to give up control of the brushes and surrender the canvas denies us the beauty of a portrait beyond what we could ever think or imagine. A portrait that is filled with more love, more joy, more peace, more kindness, more goodness, more faithfulness, more gentleness and more self-control.
A portrait truly created in His image.