My good friend Larry and I spent a good part of last Monday standing on a small jetty on a bend in the Maribyrnong River at Essendon. Actually, we weren’t just standing. We were having a go at what is strangely named Plein air painting. This form of painting was developed by a French artist whose name was Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes ( 1750-1819). Plein air is French for outdoors.
Pierre-Henri took art out of the studio. Now that may not seem like a big thing but it really was. He thought It was important to paint in situ; that the artist needed to sit in the landscape that she or he was trying to capture on canvass. That the artist needed to wrestle with tone, shape and form, as well as the most significant feature of any painting – light and how light changes everything. I’ve always enjoyed drawing and painting outdoors; even those times huddled under an umbrella when unanticipated rain arrives.
Standing there on the jetty painting with a friend, I was reminded of two important things: the value of friendship and the significance of different perspectives. The paintings that Larry and I did of the same landscape were very different in so many ways. You could tell that we were painting the same scene but our mixing of colours was different, the composition was different, the things we included or left out were different. My canvass was larger than his. My brushstrokes were ‘looser’ than his. His sky was softer and lighter than mine. But we were standing on the same jetty and looking at the same bend in the river.
I think the 4 Gospels are a bit like that. The authors are making sense of the same ‘bend in the river’ – the life of Jesus. Mark is working on a small canvass and focuses on Galilee and Jerusalem, but wants us to capture Jesus’s energy and passion. John uses a much bigger canvass embracing the whole of time; he takes in the world and the cosmos and wants us to meet Jesus – the living wisdom of God, that was there at the beginning of time and comes to life in a man. Luke is a novelist, a storyteller who uses rich and bright colours to illustrate Jesus as a teacher of ethical wisdom. Matthew, on the other hand, is the dreamer. There are softer edges to his work. He wants us to see, touch, experience and become attracted to what the kingdom of heaven might be like.
Each perspective is different and we are enriched by each of them. I also get the sense that these are Plein air portraits. Crafted in situ; in the landscape, not studio productions. I think that’s why I love and appreciate each of them for what they bring to our understanding of this enigmatic man from Nazareth, who has so deeply enriched my faith and the faith of many generations.
I can’t wait for my next trip into the outside world with my portable easel and my bag of paints and brushes – oh, and my friend of course.