The first glazing layers on Thomas Touching the Side of Christ
After years of working on the underpainting, this autumn has seen the first color appear on my painting of Christ and Thomas with all of the disciples gathered in a room together. I am taking a lot of cues for the colors in this painting from Rogier Van Der Weyden’s famous Descent from the Cross in Madrid’s Prado museum.
It is a clunky and halting phase of the process, trying to use the appropriate colors, and the right medium, and the right balance of medium to paint ratio. I’ve had to rub out hours of work at a time, when I’ve come back the next morning to realize the color isn’t working.
It is tempting to render the layer to a finished state, even though I know there will be subsequent layers. It is foolish to carry detail too far just yet, and it is difficult to leave certain problems alone until a more appropriate time. I caught myself over-rendering the blue of Nicodemus’ robe and had to stop myself midway through.
Glazing takes advantage of the semi-transparent nature of many pigments when mixed with linseed oil as a binder. By building up multiple thin layers of paint, it is possible to achieve unique and special color and luminosity in a picture, especially in the correct light.
This painting is a huge learning experience. They didn’t teach this sort of thing in art school while I was there, so I am having to work through a lot of discovery and failure, even while taking advantage of the many written treatises on painting throughout the centuries.
Last year, in collaboration with Crosstimbers Woodworking, we designed and built a series of coffee tables and end tables for the Big Horn River Lodge in Montana. Most of the walnut was salvaged from the rejected timber from the logging of a farm in Winfield, Kansas. Photographer Steve Hebert traveled to the lodge and captured some beautiful images of the tables for us.
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40 NIV
He came to see me when I was on the margins, lonely and far away and he celebrated the paintings and the puppets I made. He was not a common man. He made room for me and the others like me to exist in a world that drew lines so sharp that we were cut off. Not only did he make room- he invited me in to a wider place- with light and life and hope. My wife, Amy, received word of the passing of the Reverend David Bridgeman only a few weeks ago, though he left for home back in August.
I know woefully little of his personal story. I know that he was born in China to missionary parents- and he was always drawn back to that land, returning as often as he could to share the God that he loved wth the people that he loved. He delighted to share stories and photos and artifacts of the land and people of south western China whenever I saw him.
Always an old man to my eyes- older by at least a decade than i am now (42) when I first encountered him nearly 30 years ago. His prayers were beautiful and rich, authentic and long. I respected them, though my tired teenage body would often nod then lurch back awake in my pew before he finished. He possessed both ancient wisdom and childlike awe with genuine humility. His old blue hatchback was a persistent reminder of his values. It was a solitary and quiet voice amongst the ostentatious suv’s and sedans in the church parking lot, not unlike Colombo’s oxidized Peugeot.
We shared a love for Gruenwald’s unparalleled Issenheim Altarpiece, and especially the figure of John the Baptist, of which he would speak with a beautiful passion. It could bring us both to tears. He once bought for me a reproduction of the closed state of the altar, featuring the crucifixion, from a seminary in China. Framed and on my wall with its captions in Chinese characters, it is more than a relic of my favorite painting, but of mentorship, friendship, and of a man whose embrace circled the globe.
I have long considered David one of my painting teachers. When I came home on break from art school in Kansas City, I would bring the paintings I was working on with me so that he could see them. He would prop a picture up on a chair in his office and look at it in silence. Then after a while he would start to speak about what he was seeing. He would go through every detail and talk about what it made him think about- how he saw it relating to God’s story. As a spiritual painter in a secular school, I had no shortage of technical conversations about composition and color and line, but nobody would touch the spiritual implications with a ten foot pole. David could talk about the formal aspects of art, but he would dive right into the symbolism and wouldn’t come up for an hour. When he did he had more associations and story from a picture I painted than I had ever imagined could be in there, and I was the one who painted it. He helped lay a foundation for a core belief I hold about painting; being a deeply poetic visual language that always caries more information than what the artist intended. At my best, I am an apprentice/collaborator with the Holy Spirit, and any viewer might hold keys into the symbolism of my work that I hadn’t seen before. This dynamic has become one of the things I treasure most about making art: learning from the insights of the audience about what is really in there. It is a big part of being a student in the School of the Transfer of Energy.
David and His wife Mary waited patiently, over five years, for the painting they had requested. I had free reign and it took quite a while before I felt I had a fitting subject. On one of my repeated visits to the Loretta Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a dark corner far above and to the right of the altar is a painting of a fish resting on top of a loaf of bread. I had never noticed it before- but it captivated me now. I loved the simplicity and power of the image- so straightforward in the story it was referencing, the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Soon afterwards as I contemplated the image and how I might approach it, I was reading Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his and his countryman’s pacific voyage to the Polynesian Islands from South America on a Balsa log raft named Kon-Tiki. I was struck (as were the sailors) by the almost miraculous provision of flying fish that helped to feed them on their long journey. From that day the flying fish became a new symbol for me of God’s unexpected provision. It became the centerpiece for David’s painting.
I wish my account of David wasn’t so self-centered. But I knew him through his self-less investments into me and my family. He also sponsored my wife Amy through her own ordination process. I am grateful for all that I have received from God through David. The greatest honor I can give him is to say truthfully that he was like John the Baptist in our painting, always pointing and crying “behold! the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world!”
The Reverend Jason Carter, who also grew up under David’s mentorship has written a much more fitting and beautiful remembrance of David here.
My family and our work were humbled to be featured in the most recent edition of Plough Quarterly. There is a profile by Susannah Black, and a feature on Go On: Inner Man Version, an altarpiece I made back in 2003, and also an excerpt of my responses to some questions about our lifestyle, called Farming the Universe. If you choose to take the time to read some or all of them, I sincerely hope that you enjoy them.
The grisaille underpainting of Thomas and Jesus, et all is finally to a point where I feel ready to begin applying glazes of color. After 6 years of work I thought I should take some decent photos of the whole thing before the next phase. Thank you for watching.
The completion of a painting generally means a decision to stop working on it, otherwise the cycle would never end. This painting, which was begun in October of 2009 reached that generally unheralded milestone of “completion” this fall, 6 years later. Technically, the work is not entirely done, as I have yet to build the frame for it, which, especially for my panel paintings, represent a significant part of the presentation and outer composition. I hope share some of the meaning behind this painting at some future date.