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You Must Not Paint Everything You See

We’re fans of the PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff. It’s the one source of evening news whose pace and pitch doesn’t typically cause heart palpitations or the sensation that I’m in a burning building and need to escape. (Seriously, do a simple test and compare it to the pace and tone of other news outlets and see what I mean.)

The news last night was sobering. Stories included the Republican party’s blockade of a bi-partisan commission to get to the bottom of the January 6 insurrection, the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd, the mass shooting of nine people in San Jose, and the horrific draught that is threatening the Western United States. Enough sobering news to make one's heart feel the undertow.

This morning I awoke with a lingering sadness. I awoke wondering what kind of world I’m going to leave my grandchildren. What difference I can make given the complexity and enormity of these problems. Where I’m to invest myself in making this world a better place.

And then I remembered these words written by the American painter, Winslow Homer. It gave me perspective and a sense of direction as I seek to live my life in light of the challenges of our times.

"I work very hard every afternoon from 4:30 to 4:40—that being the limit of the light I represent. You must not paint everything you see. You must wait, and wait patiently, until the exceptional, the wonderful effect or aspect comes.” Winslow Homer, The Chicago Institute of Art, special exhibit

Here’s what I glean from this extraordinary artist as he looks through the lens of his own perspective:

He knew his limits. He knew what “light” he was called to represent. And he worked “very hard” at his craft so that he represented this light in all its glory. Consider the painting above, really any of his paintings. What distinguishes them from other artists’ paintings is the light, so ephemeral, so exquisite and transparent and iridescent, often in contrast to a dark and brooding sea.

He had self-control. He didn’t try to paint everything he saw. That would have been an exercise in futility. He knew what light he was called to paint and he gave himself whole-heartedly to that task, ignoring the tyranny of other urgent, copious lights that might have lured him away from this 4:30 to 4:40 pm rendezvous with light.

He was patient. He waited for this slice of light to come, until its exceptional quality shimmered over and around his subject. Then he went to work in those moments, observing its effect and representing it with his brush, his palette, his soul. And the result, as you can see, was exceptional, wonderful, and enduring.

This morning, in my time of prayer, I sat with this question, “What is the light I’m called to represent?” I’m keenly aware that I can’t paint everything. I mustn’t try to paint everything. In fact, when I do try to paint everything, to do it all, it's usually out of anxiety and reactive energy, and the results are not satisfying, nor helpful.

Surely this is what is needed during these overwhelming times. Surely it behooves each of us to identify the light we are called to represent and to give ourselves wholeheartedly to it. Then might we witness the exceptional, the wonderful effect of my light and your light illuminating, expanding, and restoring the beauty of our human existence. That’s the vision of the artist. A vision that assists me today.

Image: Undertow by Winslow Homer, 1886


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