Portrait, oil on canvas
16×20 inches, 2017
This painting depicts Joseph, a stranger who appeared one Sunday morning in answer to prayer to help me photograph an injured bird. Passionate and sensitive, I took several photographs as he told me his story. Painted in about 5 hours.
The Story Behind the Painting
I wrote this post at the request of the art representative mentioned below. When that post goes live, I will link to it.
I needed wings, and I needed them fast. But where would I get them?
A long-time artist, I had just received an assignment to create several paintings of angels. I needed to paint a portrait, too, but the angels came first.
The problem? These angels had to have wings. I’ve painted angels, but never with wings. I don’t believe in them. I mean, Biblical wings had to be more symbolic than real, right? How practical could they be? “I preened my feathers three times today and can’t do a thing with them!” Not! Still, I was excited for the assignment. Wings represent power, beauty, and independence. If I couldn’t believe in their reality, I could believe in their message.
The challenge? Their complexity. My gallery style is strongly realistic. Structure, lighting, model interaction… you can’t just fake that. I needed real feathery appendages, or something close. “Garbage in, garbage out”, as they say. The better the reference, the better the result.
I could use Internet pictures for reference, but meh; most are generic and derivative. Those that aren’t are probably protected. Costume wings? Obviously on the “garbage” side. Custom order something? Talk about a budget killer! Make my own? Me? With my ten thumbs? This is me laughing.
I needed something else. As always, I prayed for help. God opens doors to those that sincerely ask, and I was way beyond sincere. I knew He would provide; I just needed to work and wait.
A few days later, as I neared the end of a morning walk, my thoughts returned to the wings. I stopped and once again closed my eyes. “Father, please open a way,” I murmured. And then I opened my eyes.
There, on the sidewalk in front of me, lay a bird.
My heart wrenched. Birds are special to my family. My wife has three bird feeders hanging outside our house, each specially loaded to attract different flocks. She has charged out on several occasions to save them from predators, and our windows and doors sport decals to prevent collisions. A sharp-eyed observer, she researches them in depth and can identify them without looking. Such frenzied life, so still in death—it was sad.
Kneeling, I prodded the body and stood back. If it was just stunned, I didn’t want to get in the way when it blasted skyward. If disease had taken it, I didn’t want to share.
I knelt again and, with a flick of my finger, turned it over. It was an adult male tufted titmouse, a magnificent specimen, grey everywhere, in perfect shape.
I looked at it closely. There were no signs of life. The eyes were closed. As I moved it, the head lolled grotesquely. A windshield impact, I thought, resulting in a broken neck. Recent, too; the body was still warm.
I frowned. “What should I do with it?” I thought.
As the words crossed my mind, a clear impression came into my heart: “It is a gift”.
I drew back. A gift? The bird would make an excellent model for wings, clearly, but at what cost? And could I use it? I knew the law—federal and state statutes made it illegal to possess any dead migratory song bird, in whole or in part. I could dispose of it, and I would. But could I use it as a model until them? I shivered. It seemed a bit grisly.
The impression came again, this time including an image of a scene I had painted years ago featuring a young man kneeling beside a drunken thug, sword drawn, wrestling with his thoughts. The Lord had delivered this man into the boy’s hands. What would he do with him? For me, the same question applied.
My thoughts cleared. I would do it. If The Lord cared enough to dovetail the death of this bird with my small needs, then I would make use of it. I picked up the titmouse, my stomach crawling only a bit, and started toward home.
Perhaps I was too self-conscious, but I felt passersby were giving me strange looks. I prayed again, asking for a bag to cover it with. Two steps later I practically tripped on one.
Nearing home, I pulled the bird out and placed it on a pipe. Holding my phone with one hand, I held out the wings with the other and began snapping pictures.
Frustration grew; not enough hands. The poses didn’t look natural. I couldn’t open the wings enough. They slipped as I closed the shutter. The pictures were blurry. The light was wrong. People were staring.
I prayed for help again. If this was indeed a gift, then I needed help using it.
A shadow fell across me. “What are you doing?” someone asked.
I startled and looked up. A middle-aged man with a baseball cap stood beside me, his eyes filled with suspicion.
I blurted out my story and pulled up my website on my phone, showing him that, yes indeed, I was an illustrator. He looked impressed and began to listen. As I concluded, he sighed with relief. “I thought you were some kind of weirdo,” he said. I grinned sloppily and wiped my brow. Then I mentioned that I could really use some help. He smiled and reached for my phone.
We took over 100 shots that morning. It turned out that this retired repairman had an inspired eye for lighting and staging. He came up with angles I would not have imagined.
As we worked, we talked. He told me of his life and family. The subject of angels led easily to discussions of God. We represented different religions but had the same faith.
At last I placed the bird back in the bag. Our conversation continued. Freed from the camera, I could now focus on his face. But it was distracting. The angles, the lighting, his animated expressions—they were amazing. “The portrait!” I thought. Was this man a dual gift? Could I paint him, too?
I pulled out my phone again and asked if I could photograph him while he spoke. I mentioned an international competition and said he was the perfect subject.
He nodded absently. I kept shooting. Thirty shots later I put the phone away. Without breaking stride, the conversation continued.
At length we shook hands. I asked his name. “Joseph,” he replied. “Joseph,” I said, “thanks to your help, I can now paint those angels. This morning you were an angel to me.”
We parted. I gave the bird a respectful resting place, went to my studio and pulled up the photos. Success! I had the reference I needed for both the angels and the portrait. With the wings model shoot a few weeks away, I decided to paint Joseph first. Four days later I put brush to canvas. Five hours after that, I had my portrait.
I let the world know. Many positive comments followed. Shortly after, an arts representative asked me to share this story on her blog.
This entire event was an answer to prayer. I had recently concluded a term of service helping people in need, inside and outside of our church. For years I had set aside artistic aspirations, closing those doors so I could serve God. As a result, my gratitude for His help had deepened. I knew He was watching me, listening to me, valuing me, helping me in every way, even in my darkest hours.
Recently released to serve elsewhere, many of those doors I had closed now opened. Two had opened that morning. To me, this was God saying, “Thanks for doing what you could. Relax. Rest up for the next adventure.” He had expressed His thanks. I rejoiced and determined to express mine.