A Reflection on the mystery of Art as a capacity of the Human soul

"Brush and watercolours" Jennifer Rensel - Flickr: Let's paint!.  Licensed under  CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Brush and watercolours” Jennifer Rensel – Flickr: Let’s paint!. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I cannot draw or paint. Yet I have always marveled at how some can take an empty canvas and bring it to life with color, form, depth, and shadow. And, little by little, from the painter’s brush and soul a picture emerges. So too with sculpting. A mere block of marble, with each blow of the sculptor’s tools, it comes to resemble the form of a human being or some other reality with nature.

Some years ago, there was a painter, on PBS (Bob Ross) who would, over the course of a half hour paint a picture and describe what he was doing as he went. I watched that show most every week for a number of years and, though I watched him, saw what he did, and even heard him describe the techniques, I never really ceased to be amazed by the mystery before me. How did he do it? Yes, he spoke of method and technique, but there was some deeper mystery at work; a power of the soul, a gift. He claimed we all have it. But I am more inclined to think some have it as a special gift.

Michelangelo famously said, Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. He also said, I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. Yes, but how does he see it? How does he set it free? Indeed, another great mystery and faculty of the human soul of some.

As with music, the art of painting and sculpting seems a unique capacity of the human soul. Animals do not draw, they do not sculpt, they do not even appreciate art. It is a special gift to the human person to be captivated by beauty, and also for beauty, once it is seen and experienced, to emerge from his soul in expressive praise. There are special glories and a unique gifts given only to the human person, a mysterious gift to be sure. It is caught up in our desire for what is good, true and beautiful, caught up in our soul’s ultimate longing for God.

Perhaps Michelangelo should have the last word: Every beauty which is seen here by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come.

Picture: A Painter in his Studio by Francois Boucher

Here’s a painter at work on a speed painting with a surprise end:

David Garibaldi: Jesus Painting from Thriving Churches on Vimeo.

Here’s a video of Bob Ross, the Joy of Painting show I mentioned above. In this brief passage he teaches us to paint a mountain and gives a little philosophy as well.

If you have time this video shows a remarkable transformation of a block of marble to a face.

9 Replies to “A Reflection on the mystery of Art as a capacity of the Human soul”

  1. I recommend checking out the work of James Tissot. Tissot was a well-known impressionist painter who underwent a conversion later in life. He spent the last 16 years of his life painting pictures of Jesus and biblical scenes. To make them as realistic as possible, he read the Bible over and over, read the writings of a famous mystic, and went to the Holy Land and drew hundreds of sketches. I love his work!

    What I really love is that this man took his gift, his talent, and used it fully to serve the Lord.

  2. As an “artist” with a love/discontent towards my art and the art word, I am impressed with the way in which a writer like yourself can describe with words about the spiritual world. I struggle to get a few thoughts down on this page and my spelling is saved with spell check.
    If you decide to paint, I would recommend that you keep in mind that you are in a process of learning to see and not be concern with how the picture should look to you. Too often when people who wish to learn to paint or draw, see what the masters do and they get it in their heads that is what they should produce too. Practice the skill of drawing one thing over and over again, like saying the Our Father or Hail Mary. It is like practicing being a spiritual person, it takes an effort and uninterrupted space in which to focus your thoughts towards God, so it is with painting and drawing. Lately I am now trying to pray as I paint to keep my head in line with the Divine Creator, and it is going to take a bit of practice.
    Thank you for putting into words things I have wonder about.

  3. There were few things more relaxing in the crazy modern world than watching Bob Ross painting on PBS. Good memories. Thanks Monsignor.

  4. I used to watch the Joy of Painting too. Not all of the time, but sometimes.

    Somewhere, St. Thomas Aquinas points out that other animals must have imagination. I think the reason he gives is that otherwise they would be able to get back to where they live. He makes another claim though that I also think is true: he says that other animals can’t imagine a golden mountain, for example.

  5. I enjoyed watching the videos of these very talented artists who work in various ways. I’ve been painting and drawing human figures and also animals for most of my life and l like to see how other artists proceed as they create a work of art. When I paint, I work rather slowly, isolated in my studio and become very absorbed by the subject that I create and can’t allow myself to be distracted during the process. Finally, when I know that it is finished and that nothing is to be added I can barely remember how I proceeded and would find it difficult to explain it to others. All I know is that while I work, it seems that the subject is speaking to me and asks me to put a little bit of this here and a little bit of that there. Thank you Monsignor for this article and the wonderful videos.

  6. Your words are beautiful and encouraging. I can’t draw a thing but I embroider, frequently icons, for the altar or vestments. Sometimes I feel the soul and spirit of the piece begin to come out, and even the presence, as in the Communion of Saints, of the saint I’m stitching. Thanks for the encouragement.

  7. Like some, I find that my talent is in words. Whether it’s prose, poetry or technical writing I naturally see what’s been done and learn by example. I once tried to develop toward drawing but, in spite of scrutinizing the works of masters and other things I ended up with good technical type drawings which seemed like an adaptations of the superficial technical skill which I’d learned in construction. No more artistic than a sketch given to a worker so that the work can be done accurately.
    On an up note, it helped me to further focus on the growth (not training to non artistic standards) of my use of words.
    In the last few years there has come a feeling that all artistic “talents” are actually a close imitation of a talent in experiencing the spiritual; so that the talented can carry on to (hopefully) the same positive destination that the (suppressed by a fallen world) spiritual talent, or Grace, has been given for to do.

Comments are closed.