Why Paint Prophetically?
From Secular Art to Prophetic Art
When God called me to do a whole year of painting live, initially I wasn’t keen to do it. It was a huge undertaking and a big commitment as well as a financial drain. However, it was an awesome opportunity that has honed a lot of skills – both artistically and prophetically. One of the largest effects though has been that a love of painting has been restored. I’ve experienced more times of feeling truly alive whilst painting during worship than any other activity. Now I realise that it is what I’m called to do, but first, I needed to reevaluate some of the concepts that I’d picked up and shake off the incredible disillusionment that had come with my experience of secular art.
I’d been a portrait artist more or less full-time between being a single parent and a property investor for two decades. Along the way, I’d picked up a Masters in Visual Art, majoring in Drawing and Painting (portraits). I’d run the usual artist’s gauntlet of solo and group exhibitions and participated in lots of art shows, so over the years, I’d done a lot of art. In fact, I’d accrued at least the ‘10,000’ hours practice that Malcolm Gladwell espouses as a starting point of any (arts) practise. (1)
In front of a crowd with with no mind-blowing inspiration from God... Um?
At the same time, I’d also spent a great deal of time in church, but the two worlds appeared to occupy different universes! There seemed to be no crossover between the two until one day I was asked to paint in a church at a ‘vision’ weekend.
At that stage, I had never even heard of ‘prophetic art’ so I had no idea what to paint or what ‘it’ was meant to look like. In my naivety I assumed that I’d get to church, worship would start, and God would give me an instant download then and there. Oddly enough, the earth-shattering bolt from heaven telling me what to paint didn’t happen! At that stage, I didn’t realise that you should start with a well- conceived idea and an image or a photo to work from.
There I was, in front of a crowd with a large undercoated board (150cm x 120cm, or 5' x 4') with no mind-blowing inspiration from God. That was a moment of significant insecurity! I did what in retrospect seems like common sense: I went with what I knew I could do. I’d been drawing and painting eyes for over a decade, so that’s what I started with; a pair of large, drippy eyes. As the painting developed, the verse in Joel 2:28 came to me, where ‘old men will dream dreams (and) young men will see visions,' which I subsequently wrote on the work. Unbeknownst to me, the whole theme of the weekend was about having eyes to see what God wanted. I had created a prophetic piece without knowing what prophetic art was!
I had a lot of questions though. Did prophetic art mean to stand in front of that white canvas as I had done, get a ‘God download’ and paint it? That was a scary proposition! Who’s going to do that in public for fun and kicks? Through my ignorance though, that’s exactly what happened the first few times. I rolled into a church with a blank canvas and a vague idea. As I went with the worship, I would begin to hear God mention colors or placement.
However, in the same way, that we don’t help our children tie their shoelaces forever, I don’t ‘hear’ color or brush stroke placement as often now. I’d like to hear it more. It would fill me with more confidence that what I was doing was His image. Instead, I have had to develop skills, both in the execution and in hearing what He wants me to paint.
Almighty God takes pleasure in art and music (not just Christian art or music) that is uplifting or encouraging or beautiful. He created us to be creative. He’s not going to hold our hands and do it for us. If He was, He could just speak it into being. Instead, He gave us the ability to create and takes delight in our act of creating, just as parents do with little children learning and doing life. If we as artists need our hands held for every stroke without putting the effort into skills acquisition in both the physical and the spiritual, our art can’t progress. The reason for this is that prophetic art is a collaboration between God and the artist. He will deliver His bit, and it’s up to us to develop the skills necessary to do our best and to aim for excellence, (as opposed to perfection!)
A Complete Turnaround In Thinking
In all the years of tertiary study, I’d picked up the notion that beauty in art was not okay anymore. Beauty in (painted) art seemed to be an anathema. It was one of those tacit understandings that everyone seemed to have that the depiction of beauty was trite and therefore not acceptable. Representational art was barely tolerated, let alone beauty, so my work had veered towards depictions of power and overcoming, but never beauty.
It wasn’t until I saw a video by an established New York artist, Makoto Fujimura, at a Sparc conference (2) that I ever heard it proclaimed that beauty in art is okay. His video, about beauty in art through a series of abstract works that he’d done, (3) caused something within me to well up unconsciously, and I started to cry from the depths of my being. It was an intensely moving time that washed away a great deal of academic conditioning.
When you think about it, there is such a disconnect in the attitude that beauty in art is somehow trite. For centuries, art reflected the beauty of the world around us. One of its primary uses was to uplift the soul and transport the viewer to a different place. Contemporary art, however, often seems to be more about the depiction of ugliness in the guise of supposedly deeper concepts than about what the public might want to look at. If people don’t want to look at it, or don’t understand it, hasn’t it defeated it’s purpose? That’s not to say that all prophetic works should be ‘beautiful.' It is to say, however, that beauty is okay, regardless of academic lampooning.
I think we’ve been sold a crock or an emperor’s new clothes with much modern art. The prevailing academic thought is that the concept behind the art is more important than the representation. It has led to a proliferation of narcissistic, self-indulgent pieces and the disconnection of art from the general population. How many people buy original art and how many artists make a living at being an artist? So many people spend thousands of dollars on furniture but next to nothing on original art. I believe this is partly due to the obfuscation and ugliness of much modern art. It’s not beautiful, it’s often incomprehensible, and besides, it’s priced in such an unrealistic way that mere mortals can’t hope to achieve it.
There is a whole genre of art, including much representational art that is classed as not acceptable because the ordinary person would like it. What a load of nonsense! Thomas Kincaid was the highest grossing live artist in history with sales that are estimated into the billion (4) (That ‘b’ is not a misprint!), and yet he was largely written off by critics and academics as a creator of ‘chocolate box art’! When I was at university, the worst insult you could give someone’s work was to label it as ‘chocolate box.' People voted with their purchasing power in Kincaid’s case and propelled that chocolate box dauber to unheard of artistic heights.
It was this disillusionment which propelled me away from secular art. The lack of parameters of what constituted “good’ art and why there seemed to be so much ugly art that was successful didn’t make sense. Art which won prizes and much acclaim often didn’t seem to have anything remarkable about it, or anything to make it memorable. Judging for those shows and by inference, a demarcation of ‘great’ art seemed entirely capricious and more related to the celebrity status of the winner or the topical nature of the work than the quality of it. I didn’t appear to be able to find my ‘place’; I couldn’t get my head around it. I just didn’t fit.
In fact, I went through a dark time when I believed that I’d failed as an artist. I’d had works in successive exhibitions over a period with no commercial success. I’ll go into the need for marketing and business knowhow for artists to be successful later, but for now, on with the story. I packed up my studio and didn’t paint at all for around two years. It was a dark time, a night of the soul. At the base of my being, I believed I’d failed.
In retrospect, determining ‘failure’ when there are no boundaries or pinnacles to work towards, other than that which is based on the entirely arbitrary personal choices of critics and judges, is utterly foolish. As well, defining success by sales through an oversupplied funnel where works are routinely overpriced to a jaded and saturated market also is not wise. Nevertheless, that’s what I got sucked into, and for two years I lived with a deep-seated disquiet in my spirit that I couldn’t identify.
But eventually, God used some circumstances to propel me to begin to paint again. I still had no notion of prophetic art, just that I should pick up the brushes. This time, however, I started to have some encouraging success, which propelled me along to the next step. I gained a couple of artist residencies and began teaching drawing again, all of which amassed skills and confidence as well as providing a community of other artists, which is critical.
The reason I raise these points is that any artist who has had academic teaching may also be struggling with similar concepts and non-acceptance of some of the imagery produced as prophetic art. When I first started worship art, I balked at creating paintings of lions and eagles because I viewed them as trite. God’s very kindly administered reply was that they were His images and therefore not to disparage them. Duly chastened, I painted my first lion in week 13 of the year-long challenge. That was by no means the end of the erroneous thinking though. I didn’t like the resultant image because of the perception that it was trite, but some months later, a visitor said the work had impacted him so much that it had brought him to tears. It was one of those moments when your arrogance gets a slap and gets banished to the back seat.
The truly ironic thing is that now I seem to paint more lions and eagles than anything else. When I was disparaging about such images, I was looking with human pseudo-intellectualism. Now I see much more with the Spirit. That thinking needed to be replaced, or my old mind made new. (5) I no longer see the lion as just an iconic image but as various representations of the Lion Of Judah and treat it with the respect it deserves.
To do something like that involves so much sacrifice.
So Why Paint Prophetically?
Visual imagery has the potential to speak to people in ways that the spoken word does not. It can trigger memories or responses that words may not. It has the potential to talk to the heart because it doesn’t use words.
In its most basic form, prophetic art is a message from God in visual form. Just as people can receive prophetic words spoken orally, God speaks to people visually. It makes sense when you consider that if 65% of people learn best visually while only 30% of people are auditory learners (6) that God would use multiple methods to speak to people. As well, more people can be reached without the intervention of ministry from a visual image than through individual prophecy. Visual imagery can bypass verbal arguments and reach deeply into a person’s soul or spirit.
This whole question of why I was painting prophetically was one that bothered me for quite some time. It seemed so frivolous when contrasted against the work of people who give up everything, move to a third world country and do amazing stuff for God. To do something like that involves so much sacrifice and hardship and extraordinary results can ensue (7). However, as I’ve matured into prophetic painting, I’ve realized that sometimes people are touched by a visual message from God through one of my paintings. When someone collapses under a God touch when you’ve said very little more than the title of the work, is very humbling.
It’s certainly not always easy or fun. In fact, it can cost a lot, both in effort and finances, but the rewards more than makeup for it. The sense of finally doing something worthwhile with my art is very fulfilling after so many years of wandering more or less aimlessly. I’ve gone from disparaging the imagery and trivializing the value of my worship art to recognizing that it is an honor and a privilege to be able to worship paint.