Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Evangelization through art in the Catholic home

I've waxed on and on about chapel design, in theory and practice, partly due to the fact that this was the thought process I went through late last year and into this year and partly due to my continuing interest. Most of these discussions have centered on architecture of a sacred space, whether it be chapel, church, or cathedral, but have not referred to the essential role that art plays in evangelization and communication of eternal truths to those who observe it. Loosely, one can fit art into the essential role that iconography plays in a church, but art is unique in that it goes far beyond a church and into the world at large. Sacred art, including paintings and sculpture, is located all over the place, not just in churches.

When thinking about our chapel, I thought (never one to limit my goals), "It would be awesome to have paintings on the walls or ceiling of the chapel." I've been to the Sistine Chapel, when Molly and I went to Rome for World Youth Day in 2000, and what a breathtaking experience that was. Not to mention that my interest in art had been piqued by an elective class I took at the University of Minnesota on Renaissance Art History (classes were held at the Minneapolis Institute of Art), where I was exposed to the powerful vehicle that painting, sculpture, and architecture can be in transmitting truths of the faith. Beyond the chapel of our home, I wanted art to serve throughout the home, constantly providing beauty and transcendence, as well as evangelizing our family. This would assist in preventing compartmentalization of our familial faith-life in the chapel, and ensure that a visible iconography was present everywhere in our home.

But, great art costs money. Most of the time, lots of money. Forget how much money it would take to pay a mural artist to paint the ceiling of our chapel, individual pieces themselves can cost thousands of dollars. And I imagined having to coach some poor mural artist through exactly what I wanted, and never being satisfied with the result, or never finding the exact piece of religious art that I wanted (never mind the cost).

So, having thought through this exercise, I came to the conclusion that I should just do it myself. I've never had any training in art, whether it be drawing or painting (certainly not sculpture). I think my last art class was in 8th or 9th grade. But, I always felt that if I ever tried to apply myself, I could develop a talent for it. I have done some sketching on my own over the years, though I can't say I've done so with any seriousness for over 15 years (I remember entering a drawing in a 4-H competition). So, the first task (which is always my course of action) was to read lots and lots of books. In January and February of this year, I read 10-15 books on painting and drawing. A few that I highly recommend are:

Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice
By Juliette Aristides

Language of the Body: Drawings by Pierre Paul Prud'hon
By John Elderfield
(I checked it out from the U of MN library)

The Artist's Complete Guide to Figure Drawing: A Contemporary Perspective on the Classical Tradition
By Anthony J. Ryder

But, if I really had to pinpoint where I learned the most, it was on the internet. Without the internet, I don't think I'd have a clue what I was doing, or at least it would take me far longer to get up to speed and I almost certainly would need to take a class. Here are some web sites that I found invaluable:

The Art Renewal Center (I launched from here to all sorts of sites, but this is where I started)

Great sites on the "sight-size" method of drawing and painting from life are here, here, and here.

American Artist: Drawing

The Atelier in Minneapolis, MN (one of many fine Ateliers around the country that are keeping classical realism alive)

So, to cut to the chase, I am in the middle of my self-imposed "year of drawing," where I will insist (as was done in original Ateliers in the 18th and 19th centuries) that I become proficient at drawing before I pick up a paint brush. My goal is to be well into oil painting by the time our home is done. Here are two drawings that I completed recently, feel free to comment and let me know what you think (I don't mind criticism). In both cases I had a smaller photograph as inspiration.

"Mother Theresa in Prayer"
Graphite and white chalk on toned paper
By Brendan Koop

"Contemplation of Saint Joseph"
Vine charcoal on off-white paper
By Brendan Koop

These embedded images are digital photos of the drawings (because of the media I used, scanning wasn't an option).

Good artists are made, not born, and I am living testament to that. Drawing itself is a craft that must be learned, and I certainly have no special talent. If anything, it only takes an extremely high level of determination, and I probably have that in abundance. Though I am beginning to train my eye and hand to truthfully represent the world before me, I have a long, looooong way to go before I am proficient in painting to the point where I will feel comfortable creating art for our home. But I feel the Lord has led me down this route and I plan on pusuing it for the rest of my life. It's quite fascinating and rewarding!


FR. Jeremiah Payne said...

Your drawings are beautiful--and hopefully bode well for your chapel and home artwork.

I really find your "Catholic Home" blog fascinating and I thank you for sharing. I even recommend a peak to young Catholic couples that come to see me re: Catholic culture in their homes.

Many blessings in your work!

Brendan Koop said...

God bless you, Father, you made our day! What an honor to read your post. We pray for you and your brother priests regularly, and pray that the Lord takes those from our own family that he desires for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

Paul said...

The one of St. Joseph is astounding -- the use of shadow is so well done that I thought at first (and might never have realized otherwise if not for the caption) that it was a photograph of a statue. I wonder if I could ever relearn and supplement my childhood drawing skills like this . . .

Brendan Koop said...


You absolutely can! Please e-mail me, I'll give you lots of great resources and tips. All it takes is determination, really that's 90% of it. Drawing is a craft, and in our internet age we can get a lot of help and direction without having to take a class (and some books are good too). I think you would really enjoy it, it's a rewarding hobby.