Live Painting Tips for Worship in a Church Service
Painting live is an entirely different process to painting in private. From the outset, it’ll become clear that not every work will be successful and you need to be prepared to fail, publicly. Buckets of fun, that. I don’t know if it is good for the soul or not but it sure keeps the ego in check!
Live Worship Painting From the Beginning
Churches that already have worship painting usually have established systems but as I said before when I started, it was all a case of work it out as I went so this is what I do. There are so many factors that impact the work, the biggest of which is the need for speed. Even if you are allowed the luxury of painting throughout the sermon, the whole work needs to be nearing completion in under two hours. The bigger the canvas, the more time it takes to cover well, so the obvious thing would be to start off with smaller canvases rather than larger. The issue then is that people can’t really see it from a distance, but better a more competent smaller work than a badly rendered larger one. It is possible to develop techniques that allow you to cover more canvas rapidly and these will probably be different for everyone. But for me, I use a couple of strategies.
I was an oil painter for a long time but my first love had always been watercolor. I love the serendipitous interaction between the pigment, the water and the artist that creates the impossible-to-replicate ‘happy accident’. When I started using oils, I used the same technique replacing the water with low-odour turps, which created drips and runs that I often enhanced with layers of texture as a base. So when I began worship painting, it was a natural progression to ‘just add water’. Using large 10cm (4") soft watercolor brushes I usually cover most of the background rapidly allowing an interplay of water, pigment and drip effects.
Acrylic paint is a must in worship painting because of the odour of oil paint. In any crowd of people, the likelihood that someone will have an allergy or a reaction to the odours is high so it’s just better not to use it. As well, transporting wet oil paintings is a real pain whereas an acrylic painting is usually dry enough for transport thirty minutes after the final brushstroke, even in a cold climate. Just time to have a coffee and a chat! As acrylic paint is so forgiving and dries quickly, drips in the wrong place are usually easy to paint over. It’s also possible to remove mistakes with water, a brush and paper towel, especially when it’s not quite dry. Sometimes an acrylic work will appear less colorful when it dries than when it was wet, but a good sealer will fix that.
If you’re used to painting in oils, using acrylic paints presents some challenges that oil paint doesn’t. It doesn’t blend the way oil will, making skin tones and soft tonal changes much more difficult. As well, it dries out quickly and will harden on the palette in hot weather. That’s a bit of shock if you’re used to reusing the oil paint on a palette for days. The upside is however that you can rework it within minutes rather than days so if you wreck a section, you can either wipe it off to repaint or wait for it to dry and then redo it.
Use the Best Quality you can Afford
I believe that it is really important to use the best quality art materials you can afford if you intend to sell your work. Chinese imports have meant that there is a plethora of cheaper paints available now and the quality of the canvases is reasonable. I use the Chinese canvases because they don’t warp, but not usually the cheaper paints. Paint quality is based on the amount of pigment in the paint, which translates to how much grunt or power the color has. Ie. is the white actually white, or a subtle shade of grey? The cheaper paints mean you often have to use more and you won’t get the clear brightness of quality paints. It’s a matter of personal experimentation to work out your own preferences in color and paints.
The advantage of using cheaper paints however, especially while you’re learning, is that you’re more likely to be prepared to take risks and use more paint, whereas when the tube represents a significant purchase, you’re likely to be inclined to be very sparing with it and miss out on the potential possible. I found this again just recently. I used to use paint like water and sling around loads of it, but somehow I’d gotten into a habit of using smaller brushes and less paint again because I’ve changed my brand of paint and moved up several notches in cost.
One day I tried a different technique where I just happened to use cheaper paint and splashed it around prolifically. While I knew that the cheaper paint didn’t ‘sing’ like the better paint, I realized that I had become miserly with paint usage so I started another work using the same method of generous application, but using quality paint. I was quite amazed at the ‘sing’ factor it achieved. The ‘sing’ factor is my personal description for when an area of a painting reaches out to you. It’s as if it sings, sometimes with a low- hum, but the better the work the higher the pitch. A truly magnificent work sings a very high soprano! It’s my way of describing the impact of a work rather than just referring to it as good or bad. If I do a work and it’s not singing at least in part, it’s not really successful. Sometimes it may be competent but it doesn’t grab you, which means it’s not singing.
The other factor with paint choice is lightfastness. Some paints have a star system that denotes the lightfastness, which is a good indicator. It tells you which colors will last a long time and which may not. Ochres and browns tend to fade less than others. Cheaper paints usually don’t have the lightfastness that the quality artist’s paints have and are therefore not recommended if you intend to sell your work or want it to last a long time.
I’ve experimented with different brands and now I use one that has a flip top, purely for the reasons that it is light to transport and it opens and closes easily with one hand. The brand is a reasonable one, but the opening system puts it far above anything else I’ve used for worship painting. It is incredibly awkward trying to screw little lids on during a painting session and the convenience of flip top lids for speed painting can’t be beaten. I’ve tried jars that have the advantage of being able to return unused paint into at the end of a session, but the lids usually clog with dried paint over a period of time, making them either hard to get on or off. I’ve been stuck in the middle of a worship session, unable to get the lid off the large pot of white paint...
Canvas or board?
I’ve used both canvases and 3mm mdf board, undercoated with acrylic house paint. Board is cheaper to provide but needs framing if a successful work results whereas a canvas can be hung with no frame. If using board, it’s necessary to undercoat it with at least two coats of undercoat to stop the paint being absorbed into the timber. I apply mine with a lot of random texture as I’ve found that the added effects of underlying texture can add interest very rapidly as speed is an issue when painting live. The style of my work tends to be what you’d call contemporary realism, or loosely applied in places and the texture adds to that effect.
Undercoated board is more absorbent than canvas, which creates different effects. You can use more water without it running everywhere and it’s quite interesting in its own right. It’s all a matter of personal preference and board is a good choice when you’re learning as it’s cheaper and the rigidity is easier to paint than a canvas that can be wobbly at times. I’ve had canvases that I had to hold with one hand to stop it from flapping under my brush as I was painting!
From the Bottom Up
To start from the bottom, I believe that it’s really important to always use a drop sheet of some sort. Even the most careful and precise artist can have an accident and spill paint. That won’t endear anyone and I think it’s important to respect the church, so a drop sheet is imperative. I’ve found that a piece of carpet works best because it’s thicker and usually doesn’t pucker if it’s heavy enough. Thicker means less likelihood of paint leaching through to the carpet. I tried cheap rubber backed carpet because it’s light and easy to transport but it began to break down after about six months and left crumbs of the backing everywhere, so now I use a piece of good quality secondhand carpet. Using a plastic drop sheet has issues because it rustles and could be slippery if it were wet which is possible the way I’ve been known to throw paint around!
As I use a lot of water I have three buckets: one for rubbish and two for water. The first water bucket is half filled before the service and the other one is used going along to empty dirty water into and for the final cleanup after the service. I use 8-10 smaller water pots and change them regularly from the clean water bucket. Before a service I fill them and line them all up on trays under the easel so that when the water is dirty, I can just grab another one from the tray and replace it with the dirty one. It’s quick and efficient and you don’t run out of clean water – unless you’re really pumping!
One of the surest ways to produce muddy paintings is to use the same pot of dirty water throughout the work, so it is much better to have lots of water pots and change them often. I use 1 kg yoghurt pots as they are a good size, they fit within one another for ease of transport and are light. They’re also the right price so when they get too dirty or cracked, they’re easy to replace – as long as you eat a lot of yoghurt! The rubbish bin bucket often gets a workout with discarded paper towel as a watercolor technique uses copious quantities of paper towel. It’s important for me to respect the house so I work at keeping my area tidy and discarded paper towel lying around looks gross.
I also use lots of brushes, which I lay out in size groupings where I know I can put my hand on them, without having to search for them mid-painting which would interrupt the flow and slow down the process. My working method is that I like to lay everything out in an ordered manner so that I don’t have to waste time or thought looking for stuff. Using lots of brushes is another way to avoid creating muddy colors. By muddy paint, I mean that ugly grey that comes when too many colors have been used with a dirty brush application. If you have one color on your brush and use the same brush to pick up another color and then another and perhaps another, the result is a shade of murk and the term used for such a work is muddy paint. It results in paintings that have an overall dull quality and the colors don’t sing. However, if you use a new brush each time you use a different color, it goes some of the way to avoiding mud.
It really wouldn’t matter which order your paints are in, as long as you know where they are.
I often have several brushes with different colors on them in one hand and lots strewn around the workspace. It makes for an interesting clean-up at the end though. Sometimes I’ve used so many I’ve had to stop to clean all my brushes mid-painting before I can go on, but I work at having enough brushes (upwards of 15-20) so I don’t have to do that. I lay the paints out in the same way with a color order, all facing up so I can read the color at a glance so I don’t have to look for the one I want (at least that’s the theory)! I have all the blues and browns on one side and the reds and yellows on the other side. It really wouldn’t matter which order they were in, as long as you know where they are.
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I mix the paint on large white serving trays; white so you can see the color as you mix it accurately. If you use any other color as a base, anything you mix on that palette will reflect the palette color and not be exactly what you think you’re mixing. The trays work well as they have a lip to prevent spills and provide enough space to mix and spread. They’re also reasonably easy to clean up. It’s a good trick to pour water onto the tray when you’re finished painting if the service isn’t over so that the paint doesn’t dry out and become hard work to clean off. The lip around the tray allows you to do that without making a mess. I’m not in favour of the common habit of using plates as they are too small and break easily. Melamine trays are larger, cheap and light. Occasionally I take them home and give them a coat of paint stripper to clean off the really stubborn bits that seem to build up.
When I’m painting at my home church or in a venue that I can drive to I have a trolley with little drawers for paints and shelves for brushes, etc. When I fly to a venue, I have a smallish drawer box with the paints in one tray and the brushes in another. That way I can lay the trays out on a table and everything is organized and quickly accessible. Having the same system means that I don’t forget the pencils, or the paper towels or the gold leaf or... At least that’s the theory!
I personally like to paint larger works so I need a really sturdy easel. The lighter ones just won’t take the dancing- while-painting, as I’ve discovered.
One of the most important aspects of successful painting is getting back from your work to look at it and work out what’s working and what’s not, but that’s usually not possible during worship, or at least not as often as I’d like. Especially if you’re painting throughout the sermon, it’s important to be as inconspicuous as possible, which precludes walking back and forth to look at the work. I find this a real issue as when I’m in the studio I go back and forth a great deal. Sometimes it feels like I’m almost painting blind in a service. The other issue is the chance of walking spilt paint over areas that are not covered with the drop sheet. I haven’t got a solution to this one yet, but I have dreamed of having another laptop with a video feed set up beside me!
It’s possible to buy really cheap tablets now that are easy enough for my 3 yr-old granddaughters to use for around $100. They’re also light and easy to hold. I get paint all over mine, so a good cover is useful.
Organizing your reference images well is really important as you begin to build up your own library. Otherwise you can waste a lot time searching for images. I’ve built up a file system of reference images on the computer that are catalogued for easy finding, all in files within folders. I might add that I’m not naturally a highly developed admin person but because I’ve been doing a lot of this, I’ve needed to be able to find files quickly so much of my systemizing has been to facilitate efficiency. This is one of those personal working methods that are different for most people, but the stereotype of the disorganized artist used to apply to me until I needed to organize files and my workspace better.
It is one of the very positive outcomes of the year-long challenge. It means that I can go to a different venue and set up to paint reasonably quickly and efficiently and that I know where everything is when I need it. It also means that I often already have an image that I can work from as I’m gradually building a personal library of images. I’ve discussed the use of downloaded photos in chapter 5. I’m by no means advocating the use of other people’s art as reference imagery, just what could be called record or information photos. It is possible to buy images but I usually find ones that are freely available in the public domain.
Painting can be a messy business and a lot of work to set up and clean up after. Sometimes when you’ve got to clean brushes after a late night or do all the work to get ready for a conference it can feel tedious. But worship painting is so much fun, and then some. It’s an honor and privilege to be able to paint during worship though and the effort is worth it.
I’ve gradually streamlined the clean-up to make it easier and now I do it at the easel after the service rather than carting dirty brushes and palettes through the auditorium, which could result in dripping paint. If I finish painting and the sermon isn’t over, I tip water over the palettes to stop the remaining paint from solidifying into an immovable mess and soak the used brushes in water till after the service finishes. That’s not to say that I advocate leaving the brushes in water for an extended time, just till the end of the service. It’s not good for the brushes as they can rust around the ferrule and lose shape.
I never wash my brushes under running water. Australia is a nation plagued by drought and to run litres of water away washing brushes is bad stewardship of environmental resources. Instead, I slosh a handful of brushes back and forward at the same time in one of the previously mentioned containers of clean water, changing the water until the brushes are clean. Never smash the brushes on the bottom of the container, but slosh them back and forth through the water. Give them a gentle shake to remove excess water or wipe them on a paper towel. Lay the brushes flat or stand them on the timber handle to dry, never leaving them sitting on the hairy end. That’s a great way to wreck your brushes.
Using hot water to clean them is another way to drastically shorten the life of a brush as it loosens the glue in the ferrule (the metal bit that holds the bristles to the handle). I clean my brushes at my easel in the rest of the clean water, eventually tipping all the dirty water into the one bucket, which can then be emptied outside if necessary. Lots of venues don’t have somewhere that you can clean large trays or brushes and cleaning them into the bucket at your easel alleviates the mess made. I wipe the trays with paper towel or a plastic scourer into the dirty water and then rinse. Cleaning up diligently and keeping the area clean is important to show respect for the House.
Before the day
As I mentioned before, the development of an image is a process which, for me, begins a few days beforehand with an idea and then I usually spend some time ‘cooking’ it or developing it. My final image is certainly never exactly what I first saw. Initially I’ll spend time thinking about how I’ll compose the work, then I’ll look for images that correlate and think through colors and composition. Sometimes I’ll know straight away but at other times I need to spend time working up the image over a few days. Thinking about it and praying about it clarifies how the image should be done.
Then it’s onto drawing. If the canvas is small, or not many times the size of the starting image/s, I draw it freehand. But if the canvas is larger, I’ve found it’s so much quicker to grid the board and the image. When I started the 52 week challenge, I didn’t use the grid system and I wasted a lot of time, drawing and redrawing when enlarging the image to fit the canvas or board. I’ve found that it is so much more efficient to grid first, and it also brings a greater degree of accuracy. This really came home to me when I painted a large up-close eagle face. I’d spent quite some time in the studio beforehand drawing and redrawing the beak, but I just couldn’t get the correct angle of the bend. The beak went through so many placements that I had to re- undercoat the area so I could see which line to paint. That beak shifted across the board over 30cms (one foot) trying to find where it should sit. My major strength is drawing and I rarely have issues getting it right, but I couldn’t ‘see’ how the beak should curve or where it should end up over such a large distance! Eventually, I ran out of time and had to paint it in the wrong place, as I just couldn’t work out where it should be. Later at home in the studio I gridded the board and drew it quite quickly. From then on I was sold, as the time taken to grid the board means accuracy, rather than groping around in the dark erasing, drawing and re-erasing. The larger the work, the greater the need for a grid.
On The Day
Then it’s on to the day. I usually find it easy to ignore the people behind me and in fact, I’m often not aware of them much. As the music starts I can get lost and completely caught up in the act of worship. It’s not always like that of course, but the best times are. Depending on a range of factors like how tired or how close to God you are, or any number of factors, hearing as you’re going along varies. I’ve had times where I’ve painted and heard where to put most of the strokes and I’ve had other times when it’s felt like I haven’t heard a thing.
Towards the end of the 52 weeks I had a ‘paint-angel’ experience. I was painting at Hillview in Melbourne again at an Encounter worship night. The work I was doing was one I was reasonably confident about, as it had a large pair of eyes at the back and a oversize padlock and key at the front, representing the concept of unlocking mysteries. In other words, being given the eyes or the senses to be able to unlock the mysteries of the supernatural. The phrase was one I’d heard Gary Morgan, the pastor, use some time before in a prayer.
I was confident because I’ve painted a great many eyes over the years and it used to be one of my artistic hallmarks. I’d put plenty of thought and internal preparation into how to paint it and it should have been easy. However on the night it just wasn’t working. Sure the eyes were intense and piercing, but it wasn’t working as an artwork. When an artwork is really fabulous, I refer to it as 'singing'. This one wasn’t even beginning to hum!
Then I heard a thought which clearly said ‘are you game’? followed by an impression of laying a lot of paint down very quickly over a big section. I believe that those kinds of thoughts are angels speaking into the atmosphere around us that we perceive as thoughts. I believe that demons do the same thing, which may account for people hearing voices. Over time I’ve learned to listen to those good thoughts. I also fervently believe in the need to step out and take risks with art, otherwise your work can settle into the comfortable and the ordinary. So I immediately grabbed a palette knife loaded with white paint and wiped it across a large section of the work. It only took a second or two but it lifted the whole painting! It took a very ordinary painting and gave it life because it was applied very rapidly and seemingly with abandon.
That paint-angel really knows what he’s doing! Since God showed me that I paint with angels, I’ve started asking that angel/s for inspiration. I’ve done the same thing with writing this book and I’m certain that some of the best concepts have flown from my fingers, without me being aware of them beforehand. Angels were created to help us (16) so I’ve started to ask for that specific help. I find it easier to recognize when I’m writing as it’s not something that I have done as much of and I’m surprised when it flows easily.
An example of this was the hook line on the back cover of this book. This is my first book and the publishers asked me for the back cover blurb. My reaction was mystification so of course I googled it. I found a great page that said do it to a formula. First point; create a ‘hook’ line which will get readers intrigued on the back cover. Aargh! How do you do that? I did mention that I’ve been a painter for a long time and didn’t believe that I had much facility with written words.
So I stopped and asked my ‘scribe-angel’ for a really good hook line. Straight away I heard the thought; “Paint the vision and make it plain”! It of course is a play on the words of the verse in Habakkuk 4:4 where God said to write the vision and make it plain. I was really rapt! I figured that was really simple but to the point, and it certainly didn’t come from me!
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