The child stepped into the artist’s workshop. Surveying the room, he was struck with the beauty that surrounded him. Paintings on canvases were strewn about on walls and tables. Some were half-finished, and some consisted of little more than just a few simple brush strokes, Others, however, were massive: giant vistas and murals extending from floor to ceiling. Filled with vibrant colors and vivid scenes, the paintings were glorious and grand. Lush, swirling landscapes, photo-realistic still-lifes, and ornate architectures filled the boy with a sense of awe. Other paintings were more fanciful designs containing only random brush strokes and abstract splatters of color, but were composed so evocatively that they stirred up emotions the boy never even knew he had. The breathtaking beauty that surrounded the boy was so transfixing that it chased away any memory of why he had entered the room in the first place.
“Welcome, lad.” The gentle voice of the artist woke the boy from his awe-inspired stupor. “I was hoping you’d come.”
The man didn’t look up as he spoke. He stood facing an easel on which was propped a canvas that was as wide as his arm-span. In one hand he held a paint-brush and with the other he clutched a plate-sized palette daubed with paint of all imaginable colors. A portion of the canvas before him was decorated with a majestic design that, though unfinished, already glistened with a grandeur that penetrated the young boy’s tender heart.
“Come closer,” invited the kind old man with a beckoning wave of his brush. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
The boy hesitated, but bashfully edged nearer to the man. Glancing down to his own hands, he suddenly remembered the picture he was holding, which he had come into the workshop to proudly share. His page had the printed outline of a child’s toy. It was a color-by-numbers picture, smeared with the three primary colors that came in the boy’s finger-painting set. But now, in comparison with the incredible skill on display all around him, he was no longer quite so proud of his own work. He quietly shoved it into his back pocket as he approached the master’s work area.
Studying the half-finished masterpiece, the boy searched his vocabulary for words to voice his admiration. He had not yet learned terms such as “spectacular”, “magnificent”, or “staggering”, which he surely would have used had he known them. He settled for the only words he could think of.
“Wow, grandpa,” he whispered. “You’re… really good.”
The old man smiled. He squinted at his painting for another moment and then turned to the boy.
“I’ve got something for you”, said the aged painter, placing down his brush and palette, and wiping his hands on the work apron at his waist. He stepped over to a workbench and reached high up to the top shelf. From there he brought down a palette — just like his own, but brand new without any paint on it. Next, he stooped over and lifted from the ground what looked to the boy like a large toolbox. Setting it on the bench, he opened it, revealing to the boy’s marvelling eyes at least a hundred tubes of paint, each one with a different colored cap. Thoughtfully, the man studied the colors, and then slowly, one by one, he selected various tubes and squeezed a dab of each onto the new palette, arranging the dollops in an arc around the edge. Finally, he reached to a glass jar in which stood a collection of paint brushes, each one a different size and shape. With similar deliberation, he selected a single brush, then turned and handed both to the boy.
Smiling at the boy’s bewildered expression, he explained, “I’ve been hoping for a helper.” And with that he returned to his easel and resumed his craft. The boy looked at the tools he had been handed, but stood motionless.
“Come,” the man added, after noticing the boy’s reluctance. “There is much to do. A half-empty canvas awaits.”
“But…” the boy’s voice stammered nervously as he searched for words. “I can’t… I don’t know how to…” He looked back and forth from his grandpa to the canvas. “Where’s the outline? Where are the numbers? How am I supposed to know what to paint?”
“No numbers, my boy. I have given you all you need.”
“But, grandpa… I can’t paint like you. I’ll mess it up. I’ll do it all wrong. I’ll ruin it.”
The gracious man said nothing, but just continued to paint, dabbing his brush to his palette and then adorning the canvas with long graceful arcs of joyful color.
The boy stood there, frozen. He was eager to join in the delightful work, but he was deeply fearful of his own inabilities. Looking at the palette in his hand, a thrill slowly arose in his soul, but when he turned his attention to the blank canvas, his heart became strangled once again with a feeling of hopeless inadequacy.
He really wished there were numbers.
And then his eyes shifted once more. He turned and looked at his grandfather. He studied his face: the gleam in his eyes, the expression on his lips. He watched his arm and hand, noticing carefully exactly how it moved, the angle that he held the brush, the pressure with which he applied the paint, the speed, the direction, the flair.
After focusing intently on all these details for several moments, he gradually noticed a sensation emerging in his own heart. He had always loved his grandpa, always wanted to be like him; but now — with his grandfather’s own brush resting against his small fingers — he felt the spirit of the great master rising up in his own muscles.
In that moment he decided that his best strategy would be to imitate the older artist as closely as he could. When the aged hands selected a color from his palette, the boy chose the same color from his own. When the man twirled the brush in his fingers, the boy tried to do the same. When his grandpa used particular strokes on the canvas — long and flowing sweeps, or brief stippled dots — the boy did his best to copy the movements exactly.
Of course, the results were anything but identical. Despite the boy’s most earnest efforts at imitation, every stroke he made seemed rough, crooked, and out of place compared to the effortless flowing strokes of his grandfather. The colors were off as well: his mixtures never seemed to have the right hue or tone. Then they would mix and bleed on the canvas in terribly disagreeable ways. The more he tried to fix things, the worse mess he made.
His frustration was mounting. His mistakes were multiplying. The hodgepodge of squiggles in front of him just seemed to mock him.
And then, just when he felt like throwing his brush to the floor in exasperation, the most remarkable thing happened. During this whole time, the old man had been working on one edge of the canvas while the boy worked in a small section of his own on the other side. The master painter had not seemed to be paying any attention whatsoever to the marks his grandson had been making.
But suddenly, all that changed.
With a grand sweep of his broad brush, the master painter brought the two sections of the painting together. With several agile flourishes, he brought swooping colors down and around the boy’s jumbled smudges. And in that instant, right before his astonished eyes, the boy saw, what only a moment ago was nothing but a blotchy mess, was now suddenly transformed into… art.
His grandfather not only incorporated the boys contributions into his own, but he did it in a way that made it appear that it was exactly the master vision he had intended to paint all along. He turned the boy’s jagged scribbles into a delicate pattern that blended and flowed seamlessly into the entire masterpiece.
After a few more moments of work, the two painters finally took a step back to survey their accomplishment. It was extraordinary: a brilliant showcase of artistry. Nothing seemed out of place anywhere from edge to edge.
Eventually the artists turned to look at each other. The twinkle in the older man’s eyes communicated a love and delight that filled the young boy’s heart to the brim. It was a gleam of joy which the boy instantly recognized, because he had seen it on every canvas in the room. It was a deep-seated gladness that danced on every painting. His grandfather’s smile communicated to the boy (in a way that words never could) how pleased he was to have been able to share his life’s passion with his grandson.
And now the boy, having experienced the deep satisfaction of watching his artwork become intertwined with that of his beloved grandfather, knew in that moment that his own life had been transformed as well. In that instant, not just their paint but their hearts had been knitted together. From that day on, he saw every blank canvas with new eyes, he saw the world with new colors, and whenever he picked up a brush, he felt his grandfather’s spirit within him.
And of course, he never painted by numbers again.
“And now we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His likeness, with ever-increasing glory that comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” 1 Cor. 3:18