Blank canvas, not quite.


Usually when a person thinks of a fresh start they use the metaphor of a blank canvas.  One assumes that the old painting is thrown out and fully replaced by a fresh, snowy white, empty template for which they can start from scratch.  While this notion may seem quaint, this is NOT how life works, and certainly not how most artworks are created.  Let me explain.

I just finished an oil painting class.  By all standards I am most definitely an amateur painter, even though I’m really enjoying it.  As we learned how to paint pictures I was amazed by how much work and effort it takes to get any sort of desirable results.  First and most important comes the underpainting.  This is the foundation of the work, laying the bedrock for the structure that will soon take shape.  As the artists’ imagination leaves the mind and incarnates itself on the canvas as thousands of brushstrokes are painstakingly swept across it’s emptiness until every portion of white is blanketed with paint.  Then it dries.   At this stage in the images’ development, detailed shapes are not the priority, rather the character and texture become the backbone for what will soon be.  Finally details like lights and darks are carefully scumbled in.  Long careless brushstrokes are out and delicately applied perfection is in.  Once complete, the artist  scours his endeavors.  If the outcome is not right, and for some reason some thing doesn’t work, he will start anew.  At this stage the artist will not discard the canvas, he will use it as a deep foundation for the final product.  Instead of starting on a blank canvas he uses the intricacies and beauty of the first painting to build on top of.  This lends even more detail to the final product.  The finished painting is the result of tension, failure, beauty, excitement, and learning.  It is as deep as the oceans and as complicated as calculus, it is truly unique.  Often times the means are the goal for painters, not the ends.

I think this a perfect metaphor for life and its experiences.  No matter how badly we may want it, we will never fully receive a blank canvas in life.  On the contrary, we are the product of an infinite amount of both broken and healthy relationships, brilliant success and overwhelming failures, tragic loss and undeserved gain, traumatic hurt and momentary bliss.  Within each one of us is an underpainting miles deep that tells the story of our lives.  Each experience will shape the next, each morning will mold the evening, and the night will direct the day.  If our lives were like oil paintings they would be in the process of being painted over again and again with each color and value having significant meaning for the next.

This idea may not be glamorous or neat and clean.  It means that we may never truly be rid of our pasts.  In a way, I like this because who I am is only because of who I’ve been, pain, joy, and all.

Addendum 1: This metaphor was intended to describe life’s experiences, not an attempt at theology by any means.  In terms of what I believe about the grander realities of existence I do think that our depravity, selfishness, and sin can be wiped clean.  I also think that we can become totally new people and can be offered a “blank canvas”.  But in terms of what we go through in life, I do not think we are meant to forget or erase our experiences, I think they were meant be a part of the process of becoming who we were intended to be.  Instead of hiding our scars I think we can learn to celebrate them.  Instead of moving on from a loss, failed relationship, or broken calling maybe we should accept them as wisdom, character, and depth.  Instead of trying to cover up our brokenness, maybe we should embrace ourselves as unfinished masterpieces and live in the realization that we are not complete, yet.

3 thoughts on “Blank canvas, not quite.

  1. Chris Scott blog! Rad, Im in.

    I like the canvas metaphor. You said “Instead of starting on a blank canvas, he uses the intricacies and beauty of the first painting to build on top of. The finished painting is the result of tension, failure, beauty, excitement, and learning.” Nice! It’s interesting to think about the old painting providing some of the texture and structure for the new. I’ve had the privilege to watch Ryan gesso over some preliminary work and use the canvas for something completely new. Im always amazed at his vision and patience through this process. Much like Jarin’s house projects. It’s like they have a clear enough vision of the final product – or enough vision to carry them through the next step- that they just go for it. The bumps and crises become the geography and real depth of the masterpiece.

    But I want to dig a little too. You said “we will never receive a blank canvas in life.” How, then, would you read a verse like 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

    • Karen!

      Thanks so much for the reply! I was immediately challenged to respond with what I meant to say. I found myself convicted and still in agreement with what I wrote while at the same time believing fully 2 Cor 5:17. I think in a way they are both true images of reality. On one hand Christ made us a new creation, and on the other hand the life’s experiences shape who we are. I think I should have been clearer in what I was talking about – experiences, not eternity. I think that we will always have our experiences with us. We may chose what we do with them and how we learn from them, but I don’t think they ever leave us, and I think trying to forget them is counterproductive. I am also fully convinced that in the deep core of who we are Christ makes us new. I guess what I’m saying is both ideas are true and can actually compliment each other. For many of us, it was our experiences, negative and positive, that brought us to Christ. Christ then transformed us from the inside out and gave us a second chance, but I think the experiences that brought us to that moment will always be within the underpainting of what God is doing in our lives.

      I wrote a small addendum to the blog entry, inspired by you! Thanks again for taking the time to read and reply, I hope you and Ryan are doing awesome!

  2. Chris,

    Awesome. I didn’t really know where I was going in my response to your post. I just knew that I loved the canvas metaphor (very clearly and eloquently written); I knew that Id seen this exact idea in the literal – with Ryan’s paintings, and then the verse popped into my head and it didn’t quite fit. Yes! a puzzle! An unbalanced equation, the precursor to revelation!

    I think you nailed it. “On one hand Christ made us a new creation, and on the other hand the life’s experiences shape who we are.” So maybe there is more than meets the eye in the understanding of “new” and “old” in 2 Cor. 5:17. Reading your addendum made me think of Romans 8:28 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Maybe “new” is better thought of as the redeemed canvas (texture included but redirected), and “old” is better thought of as the less-than-best purpose of the underpainting. It’s interesting that the usual preconception (my original preconception) of “new” is the blank, unused, canvas. Hmmm…. I think there might be a deception in that. What do you think?

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