I watched the last half hour of a documentary last night on the painter Peter Howson. He had been commissioned to paint a picture of St John Ogilvy. The plan was to do a really big picture. He had done a few sketches – crowd scenes with John Ogilvy, noose around his neck, about to be hung.
I confess that I know too little about John Ogilvy, but I know something of Peter Howson. I had plans, once, to send him a collection of my Easter poems, with the suggestion that he might like to provide illustrations for them – and we would share the royalties! I never quite talked myself into it. I am not entirely sure that I haven’t talked myself out of it either! I want my poems to stand on their own merit so that the illustrations and the poems are equal partners in the endeavour
Once he had the commission and the sketches, and an empty church building as a studio, and the really big canvasses, posted through a large letter-box-like hole in the wall, he lost inspiration. The documentary wasn’t called “The Madness of Peter Howson” for nothing. He downsized the picture to something less big, less intimidating for him to paint and he began. He backwashed the canvas in orange and then began to paint.
I suppose that just as a writer may be continually revising a manuscript, or a poet constantly tweaking words, Peter was constantly reworking the picture. The city in the background, with rays of light through the clouds, was painted over so there were just clouds.
I so wanted to take the brushes off him and say “It’s finished!”
And then I thought it was finished.
Brush in hand, he began to cover it all with black paint.
I suppose you have to stop somewhere. There was a deadline – the Pope’s visit to Glasgow. The cameras panned to the opening of the restored church where the painting was to be displayed. The canvas was covered and there were no sneak previews. I am not sure whether Peter was satisfied that he really was finished. He apologized to the crowd in anticipation of them not liking the picture.
And then it was revealed.
I am in awe of people who can paint in such a way that the picture twists your guts and drags out an emotion from you. Flesh and bone people sometimes have a lot less feeling expressed through their eyes than John Ogilvy did in Peter Howson’s painting. It’s just paint. It’s just chemicals mixed together. But those eyes spoke of suffering and sadness, of tranquillity and trust. Something more than mere paint.
I think about the stages of his painting and the times when I liked it and thought it was finished. I liked the city in the background. I liked the rays of the sun pouring through the clouds. I liked the lighter colours. I would have stopped there. But the artist didn’t stop. He took out the black paint. He did not yet see what he was looking for.
Romans 8:28-29 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”
God want to see the image of His Son when he looks at me. Much as I would like the lighter shades painted on the canvas of my life, often God chooses the dark colours. Sometimes he paints over the city in the background, or the rays of light through the clouds – because they don’t serve His purpose right there and then.