Painting with the Spirit

I started painting late in life, because my first experiences, with horrible primary colours and dried up sticks for brushes, cheap grey sheets of paper, and barely 45 minutes to try and get something done in class showed me the whole thing was clearly impossible!  It seemed a miracle that classmates could make a recognisable image with such tools.

But when I took some classes from someone who really loved painting I realised I’d been looking at it all wrong.  There were colours you could buy that were already beautiful, and ways to mix them which made them even better.

You can laugh – but it took me over an hour!

My first painting was a few apples on the class table, and it continued to look awful until the teacher suggested I fill the background in with a dark colour.  I was amazed that they suddenly popped out, as if out of nowhere.  I began to understand that painting was about communicating: making something jump from your mind into someone else’s.

When I started spending more time painting, someone at my offices asked what I liked about it.  We’ve all had jobs we hated, where every minute stretched into endless time – in factories handling fibreglass, from before the sun came up until after it went down, up ladders in the winter, or in warehouses with people who had long since given up on life.  Even in high tech jobs, the principle is similar: you sell your time for money.  A lot more money and a lot more skill, but the idea is the same; afterwards, sometimes the damage or stress is so great you have to spend time recovering, so you can sell another day. You feel burned up and reduced but realise that was the deal.

But after a day painting you feel bigger inside, more yourself, and happier than when you started.  Everywhere you see colours, reflections, combinations, opposites, textures, shades and forms.  Instead of becoming sick and tired of the world, you fall in love with a side of it you never noticed before.  The brain is madly making new connections which mean the next day you start out a bit further along than before.  The increased neuronal density – or however it works – mean your stuff can become more complicated and ambitious, and closer express something of yourself.

My friend Marta

You only stop because it’s getting dark or the kids need their dinner, or you need to sleep so you can start again tomorrow.  You are better off than you were before, but you have the thing you were working on, an act of creation which is every bit as important as if you had conjured up a sunset or a mountain.  And every time you look at that painting, you bring to mind all the feelings you had when you created it.  It’s as if you have frozen time and your experience of it in a form you can return to and re-live whenever you want, and, which you can share with others.  Normal Rockwell said, “somehow, people get out of painting exactly what you put into it.”  Music has a similar reach, likewis the icons of the soul – the images and feelings of the spirit.  Painting partakes of that depth a little.

I’d been in that office for some years, creating software which I had considered beautiful – it was structured, elegant and useful, though in all that time nobody had shown any interest in seeing how it was done.  One day I had brought in my first large painting of Jimi Hendrix, because the air flow in the office helped dry the paint.  Within an hour people had smelled the oil from down the corridor and tried to find the source – I ended up with a dozen visitors all standing around commenting on this and that, and wondering why a certain colour was used, poking it to see if it was still wet, or pointing out mistakes – but the thing was, they all stood there for ages!  This was something I had never considered, that direct communication with people, and to see them entertained in such a way. 

It is an extraordinary, remarkable alchemy which only works on like minds.  No matter how it is received, to make something that was not there before, but made – however imperfectly – from your own thoughts, in your own image, in a way nobody else could or would want to do, is a great feeling.

Bombora Bar and Grill, Hitchin

When I had my first exhibition in a restaurant, I drilled all the holes in the wall, hung up my Hendrix pictures and went home; the place was empty.  I’d put my phone number on the side of the pictures, but I hadn’t wanted to hang around in case people hadn’t thought they were any good.  But that evening, without any outward sign, I felt strange; I felt part of something far away, as if people were looking inside me, an enlarging and happy experience.  Anyway, I had a text that night about 11 pm, from a woman who said she and her friends had sat around the large portrait of Hendrix because they felt drawn to it: she said it had added something to their evening.  Suddenly I got it, I understood why people paint – it is to show something which can’t be said in words.


I get bored very easily.  So I decided I could only contemplate being a proper painter if I could spend 100 hours on a single picture without giving up and wandering off.  Some friends had a big new house so I offered them a mural.  I had a pack of canvases I’d got in a sale, so I painted three pictures from a photo of a museum in Seattle made of reflective aluminium in a sunset; I worked for about six weeks, a few hours every day, until I had come up with something which I think they liked, and which I believe is still on their wall.

Exterior of the Experience Music Museum, Seattle

From the pack of 4 – here’s what became of the 4th – I called it “Sometimes I Still Dream of Amsterdam”

I think if everyone tried to paint, they would understand that creating something is not the same as thinking about it; it’s not the same as logically assembling pieces to arrive at a pre-planned conclusion.  It’s a series of risks and surprises, but not like scratches on your car or large heating bills – surprises that melt away what you thought were the boundaries to your own self, enlarging the inner world somehow.  The new area is the surprise, to find that there was so much space which had never been explored while we left the creating to others, watching TV or reading papers.

It was there all along, and waited patiently for us, and the gratitude and the shock of recognition are very pleasing sensations.  You wonder how much more is there yet to find, and time stops being a weight and becomes instead a measure of your own self.  It’s like finding you have a new arm – the wonder is, how did it stay hidden for so long?  I know I’ll never sell works or be in a gallery, but I don’t care at all – like sunsets, or that look of recognition from a stranger, where spirit nods to spirit and exposes our separateness as a fraud, making something you can call your own is a fine end in itself.

This is an odd little copy I’ve done of AJ Casson’s Credit Forks.  Casson was a commercial illustrator who gave up a secure 9-5 to join Canada’s legendary Group of Seven, becoming immortal in the process and creating some monumental art much treasured by Canada.  He could have done the work in his spare time, but he made a sacrifice, which is probably why his work has an extra dimension.

But my aim is humbler by far – Canada is where I’m headed tomorrow as it’s my mother’s 90th birthday; I haven’t been there in some time and this is her present – on the back of the canvas I wrote something which I don’t think I could have quite understood in the same way until I began to paint: “Thanks for my life.”

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created www.scienceandreligion.com about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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6 Responses to Painting with the Spirit

  1. Beautiful! How old in life did you start painting,Iain? I’ve always wanted to paint and will get myself to do it soon. I recently downloaded an app on my app for drawing and even just from moving my finger and creating figures in different colors brings me peace.

    • Thank you very much indeed – well, I’m 53 now so I think it’s been a little over five years, something like that. I had a big fear about it, and just wanted to do some life drawing, but this great teacher said, no, no, you have to try it. I didn’t have paint so she made me use coffee! There’s some good software around, to paint with a digitising tablet. I tried that but I came back to the sheer messiness of real paint. Good luck, thanks again!

  2. Sibyl says:

    Both your paintings and your words are fine art to me. You have a remarkable gift for color and composition which was visible from the first painting. And, wow – the portrait!!! What a wonderful rendering of the light and the colors in the flesh as well as the sofa, and your friend’s expression. You should enter it in a show or have an exibit in a gallery.

    As someone who has studied and taught art, I absolutely know your teacher was very very impressed and overjoyed to have such a pupil!

    May you continue to find such joy in art and peace in Him who is our peace. (Ephesians 2:14)

    • Thank you so much – well, this is as good a gallery as any, so I’ve posted a few more photos in appreciation of your appreciation. I entered “Amsterdam” in last year’s Threadneedle Prize in London but it didn’t even make the first selection. I was crushed then but I’m glad now though – it’s now my most prized possession and I would never sell it. It was my first proper portrait, even done before Marta’s. Now I must pack for the journey – thanks again, and hope you enjoy. Catch up in a few days!

  3. Buddhaboy says:

    Bravo, well done sir. Marta is quite beautiful. You are a very talented man. Love Hendrix, especially his band o gypsies stuff he did.

    • There’s some brilliant Hendrix stuff from the mid sixties before he became famous – it must be an early fuzz box through a Twin amp at very high volumes. Another guitarist, Herman Hitson, is playing with him and there’s some superb jams, like Let the God Sing, hey Leroy, Free Spirit, House of the Rising Sun and so on. She’s a Fox has a beautiful intro with the amp’s vibrato on, it’s really clever.

      But recently the Hendrix estate, miffed that all those recordings were well out of reach of their copyright, claimed none of it was Hendrix – though it’s his voice and fingers without a doubt. They must have done a deal with Hitson, who now says it is all him playing – but since the recordings don’t have overdubs, and since one guitarist has perfect pitch and one really doesn’t, and Hitson’s later stuff is not very good, this seems impossible. Anyway, if you can get hold of it you’ll really be impressed. He is starting to play with feedback, and he has great concentration, because Rising Sun, for one, is about 10 minutes long, no errors, and he never repeats himself. He seems to be enjoying playing.

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