Mess or Masterpiece


A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black,
because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.

-Leonardo da Vinci


For a few years, online, I creepily stalked a beautiful southern woman with a great talent for painting.  I had been tipped off to her gifted ability by another blogger.  I can remember the first photo I saw of one of her paintings.  It was of a chapel in Alabama where a vendor market was going to be held.  One look at her painting and I FELT the spirit of that church.  It was like I could see the soul of that holy sanctuary in her choices of color, tone and light.  I prayed, right then and there, that one day I would be lucky enough to hang a piece of her art in my home.  

On June 25, 2015 at 7:52am, I hit send on an email to Ruthie Carlson, the amazing artist who would affect my view of life in the months to come more than she could ever know.  I told her how much I admired her work and requested a price quote for a commissioned piece of art.  She replied with her normal fee but also said that she loved my work {WHAT?! This extraordinarily creative woman liked MY art?} and suggested that maybe we could consider a trade. I was honored that she would even want a sign from Cellar Designs but also so very humbled.  This started us off on a unexpected friendship.  We connected on art, motherhood and our shared deep faith in God.  We prayed for each other while creating the artwork that would reside in the other's home. I have gained so much from this new relationship with Ruthie.  But I have learned so much more from her painting. 

Learn lessons from a painting?  You are doubting that it can happen....but don't you know me better than that by now?  I find lessons for my life in stone arches, brick mortar, and old buildings OH MY!  So why, in the world, are you surprised that I have discovered something meaningful in a painting?  Besides, when it is the first and last thing I see when I wake up or go to sleep at night it was bound to have had some kind of affect on me!

Ruthie's painting sits atop our mantle in our family room.  My talented husband made a frame for it out of 2 different kinds of reclaimed barn wood.  It depicts a setting that is a real life spot that I see on our travels up to my favorite place in the world, Door County, Wisconsin.  On the left side of the highway there is a little white, simple church that sits in a field of green grasses and trees.  All alone. The crisp white contrasts with the millions of shades of green surrounding it. And the sky. Oh for the love, there is always the most beautiful sky above it...sometimes bright blue and sometimes a gorgeous silvery gray. This church has always spoken to my soul in an unexplainable way.  Ruthie captured this inspiring feeling in the painting she created for me.  Her painting is genius. A masterpiece. 



But it wasn't until I took it off the mantle that I saw it.  Something intrigued me and set me off on a study that would be rewarding.  

I had taken it down so I could paint a new color on the wall.  I leaned it up against the sliding glass door in our kitchen.  It was a beautiful sunny day and as I walked away I noticed out of the corner of my eye that half of the painting looked darker than the other half.  The light from the sun was streaming through it and was backlighting the painting in a way that changed what it looked like. The light made it possible to see all the layers of paint that were unrecognizable before.  I was stunned about what {sorry Ruthie!} a complete mess it looked like! It seemed like there was dark red in some areas, golden yellow in others, drip marks all over it and nothing looked even or balanced.  I thought maybe she had made several mistakes before finally painting it the way she was happy with. Why would only half the painting be red?  Did she change her mind and stop painting the red?  Did she spill paint on the canvas?  I was so curious....




So, I texted Ruthie and she was happy to explain. She taught me about underpainting.  An artist will paint a layer of color first that helps them to achieve the best tone for the final look.  It is used to achieve optimal tonal unity and helps to establish value relations from dark to light.  She told me that she wanted the little white church to have gorgeous cool whites and grays so under it she chose to underpaint with a warm yellow.  And the green grassy and treed area was to eventually be rich warm tones so she underpainted with a cool red.  Under the finished product was layers of seemingly odd choices that worked in direct contrast to the desired final look.  She didn't have to be neat or have clean lines with the under painting.  She had to know the end result and goal so that she could guide the painting through the layers upon layers of color to achieve her vision.  She had to be content with the paint dripping, uneven color, and overall chaos of the underpainting coats. She trusted that the layers of "wrong" choices would be exactly what the painting needed to become the emotion-producing, magnificent piece of art.

I have spent months pondering what Ruthie taught me about the art of underpainting...or imprimtura as it is known in the art community.  Here is what I have come up with.....

We all have underpaintings.  They are an integral, necessary part of who we are.  

Some of us have had tragedy fall on us.....dark red underpainting.
Some of us have had betrayal hurt us......raw umber underpainting.
Some of us have made a choice with awful consequences....gray underpainting.
Some of us have been bullied....raw sienna underpainting.
Some of us have felt we are too fat/thin/tall/ underpainting.
Some of us have been heartbroken...deep blue underpainting.

These life events are filled with the tone of paint that is valuable for what is the next layer of our journey and perfect for discovering the inspiring purpose of our life.  The messes of our days are important, crucial happenings.  We all can look back and remember a time when we thought we were in the midst of the worst thing ever....but with perspective we admit that where we are now could only be as rich of a life having had those experiences.  But the difficult part is not being able to see the final product when in the heart of the messy layers and drip marks. If only we could prop ourselves up against a big window and allow the light to shine through and show us the final product that is so beautiful.   

This is where, for me, I have to trust the artist creating the painting of my life.  


He has made everything beautiful, in its time. -Ecclesiastes 3:11


On June 25, 2015 at 9:20am I went to my first appointment with a Pain Management doctor.  This meeting set me off on a road that has been full of hard things.  It has been messy.  It has been painful.  It has been maddening.  The daily struggles I have had since that first pain medicine, I now see, have been underpaintings.  I firmly believe that there is no coincidence that I started communication with Ruthie less than 2 hours before I would unknowingly embark on an uneven, chaotic mess of a paint layer.  Something nudged me gently that morning to reach out to her.  Or someone. 

In my life, I believe that God has designed me and is the divine creative being who can see the end result.  He knows the woman that I am destined to become and is delighted with the uneven lines, messy drip marks, imperfections and bad choices because He knows that they are all necessary to bring purpose and unity to my life.  He knew that the mess was essential for the masterpiece to arise and live to inspire.  It just takes time. 



And just when you think the teaching time is done....a bonus nugget for you.....

Ruthie signs all of her art with something called a wipeout tool.  It is used when the layers of paint are not quite dry.  It cuts through all the layers and lands on the foundational part of the canvas.  When she does this she isn't sure what her signature will look like until the tool lifts the paint and exposes the underpainting once again.  It is much like how God writes His name on our hearts.  He signs the masterpiece by exposing all the messy junk beneath the surface...and loving it.  This happens so we can be reminded of what we have gone through and who has brought us through it.  


Mess or masterpiece?  Both. 


May you be full of drip marks for they bring texture to your life.

May you believe that the color you are being painted in this moment will be the perfect undertone for what is next.

May you be grateful to the artist of your life and that the signature transforms you from a mess to a masterpiece. 






May 18, 2016 — Sarah Stevens


D @ be you and thrive

D @ be you and thrive said:

Wow! Wow! Wow!!!! What a powerful, powerful message!!!! I am so grateful for what you have shared and it has instantly caused my love and appreciation for art to deepen. The lessons that you have shared here are healing.

….And Ruth!!! You two are a powerful combo!

xoxo ~ D


Cindy said:

Sarah- this is beautiful and so timely for me. I love you and I love your ability to write with all your emotions. Please keep writing!!!

Ruthie Carlson

Ruthie Carlson said:

My sweet friend! So thankful to call you my friend! What an awesome communicator you are! To be able to share your heart with both tenderness and boldness is a gift! I am humbled to have my heART hang in your home and honored to have yours in mine! What a precious testimony! Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your journey! It is my joy to know you and pray for you! To God be all the glory!!! Love love love R

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