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Painting the Dead: fighting the fear in high-stakes creative pursuits


I’m currently working on a commission; a memorial portrait of this precious girl, Rachel Erin Turner, whose life was taken in a tragic accident at the age of nine. This isn’t my first time working with such a heavy subject. When my brother unexpectedly died at nineteen a few years ago, my response was, of course, to memorialize him in this way.

There’s something very different, though, when you didn’t know the person. What did this little girl’s voice sound like? What were her interests? Was she shy? Outgoing? Athletic? Artistic? To paint someone who’s died is to bare an intense responsibility. The act of painting someone’s likeness already demands perfectionism, but when the person has passed, the painting becomes something almost sacred to those who loved the departed subject. The demand becomes urgent.

I have faith in my skill and my eye, and so do the people who hire me. Yet every brush stroke on this portrait inspires a quiet terror, bringing out every insecurity I’ve ever had as an artist. What if I can’t do her justice? What if some intangible part of her is just off? Or if I somehow get her eyes or her smile wrong? These are thoughts that will paralyze me if I allow them to. And yet, I have no choice but to swallow the fear and keep working, trusting in divine Help to guide my hand and keep me focused.

Art makes it impossible for me not to believe in the Supernatural. Somehow, a portrait can feel as though it has a glimmer of the person’s spirit in it. It’s a miracle that happens through the artist’s hands, and yet the artist has no real control over it. It either happens, or it doesn’t; an image can be perfectly rendered and yet have no soul. I don’t understand this, and I don’t believe I’m meant to. My job is to do the work; God, or the Muse, or the Universe—whatever you personally call it (God, for me)—has to do the rest. I show up, and have faith in spite of the fear. Prayer, meditation, and moral obligation to the child and her family keep me moving forward. This portrait will be finished soon, and I pray the family sees a piece of their Rachel's soul peaking through.

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