Thankful Anyway

Watch this oil painting “Prayer of Praise” come to life

in 2 minutes (time lapse)

It may be hard to feel like this today, a joyful prayerful state of praise. But when we don’t feel joy, be thankful anyway. “Be”, as in the verb, the willful, mindful choice “to be”, an action. We may not feel thankful emotionally, but we can choose to BE thankful. We can choose the intentional act of gratitude. Sometimes that’s the best we can do. It may be impossible to feel thankful when we are struggling with hardships, anxiety, worry, grief, anger, or fear. 

But if we commit to the action of thankfulness, we may be surprised at how our action affects us. Even when our hearts are weary and our minds are stubbornly clinging to depressing thoughts, picking at all of the worst case scenarios until we’ve convinced ourselves that this world is dark and hopeless, standing in gratitude can lift our spirits despite our emotions and our circumstances. Being blessed with one more day on this planet is a gift that so many others didn’t have today. Why us?

We are here for a reason. We have a destiny to fulfill. We are chosen for this time, we are special, and we are loved by God. When we believe these things, it is easier to feel thankful even if we can’t quite reach “prayerful praise” in the moment. Gratitude for what we do have, for our loved ones, for the life we’ve lived, and for our very breath can outlast any hardship, loss, or fear. And one day, we will stand before the spiritual ocean once again, feel the salty breeze upon our skin, and the sun on our face, and we shall feel joy. Until that day, may we be thankful even when we don’t think we can be.

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Painting Contemplation

Contemplation may involve thoughtfulness, observation, gazing upon, prayer, or meditation. Painting an abstract concept such as “lost in thought” pushes an artist to also become lost in thought. Putting oneself into the mindset of the subject makes it easier to depict what the subject is doing, even if the subject is completely at rest, merely observing, thinking, or even head bowed and eyes closed. “Thinking” occurs while at rest, but is also an action; the techniques used for painting rest and painting action are both at play.

Bluebird” was painted for a children’s book, in which a bluebird named Bello has a wild imagination. He observes his surroundings and then imagines stories. In this scene, Bello watches the grasses moving like waves of an ocean and imagines a big ship on the sea. Painting the act of “observation” combines action and rest, a contradiction of sharp and precise angles (the bird’s body profile and perching post) and flowing brush strokes (the landscape). The bird’s vivid blue hues, the sharp tilt of his head, his extended chest, and his stable stance on the post depict energy and action. He is standing tall, gazing, not merely at rest. However, he is also still, unfazed when his feathers are bit ruffled from the wind. The grasses are in motion, and by contrast the bird looks at rest. 

My Son Praying” deploys similar techniques and strategies as “Bluebird“. His body language involves sharp angles while the surrounding composition involves flowing brush strokes that look almost like watercolors. The act of praying is depicted by his arms positioned from pointed elbows to firmly clasped hands in the shape of a triangle. Angles display energy and action, while round shapes convey stillness and rest.

My Son Praying” takes contemplation to a deeper level, as he is concentrating on spiritual things. Personal spiritual devotion can be conveyed through symmetry and mirroring. The pillar-like shapes of the candles run parallel to the subject. My son and the additional elements of the composition (the plate, food, and utensils) fit neatly, centered, between the candles. The utensils frame his plate and mirror his arms, as they are positioned and angled on the table like a shadow or reflection.

While his shirt is a vibrant green, the candles are boldly red. While the folds in his shirt indicate movement as his body is bent, the candles’ flames also have indicator lines that show movement, as the flame flickers and glows. Mirroring also occurs through repeated brush stroke patterns, such as the repetition of the horizontal lines of the closed eyes that are repeated in the bottom edge of the meat on his plate, the table’s edge, and the wood grain of the table. The same type of repetition occurs with vertical lines. Follow the pattern of vertical lines (the hair on his head to the folds of his shirt, to the utensils alongside his plate).

Follow the lines of symmetry that create balance in this painting.

Framing and repetition is so strong in “My Son Praying” that we can envision an infinity symbol running through it (imagine that the candles are the outer loops and the overlapping center loops cross where the arms and utensils are).  Symmetry and patterns give art a mathematical validation of balance. When depicting contemplation of a spiritual nature, abstract concepts such as “infinity” are shown by balance.

Bluebird” is observational and thoughtful, “My Son Praying” is prayerful, while “Tiger” is meditative. Can this contemplative tiger train his mind in awareness, transcending through contemplation into knowledge? Or perhaps this big cat is simply thinking about his next meal. Whatever he’s pondering, the act of thinking is depicted by the conflict between activity and rest. The mind is active while the body is at rest. The tiger is detailed, while the landscape is not. The colors of the tiger are vivid, while the rest of the composition is not. The body language of the tiger involves triangular shapes and angles, while the landscape is more flowing and organic. The tiger is white and black, while his world is shades of color. Dark and light, yin and yang… maybe this tiger has all the answers!