How do we add compassion to our art?

Photo of hand holding tea bag label saying "Compassion will make you beautiful."
How can we add compassion to our art?

Art serves many purposes. One of its greatest qualities is that it encompasses and embraces every single human emotion. It has no need of language and ignores cultural and religious boundaries. But its most impressive quality (and its most socially important) is its ability to express compassion. But how, as artists, do we add compassion to our art?

We can begin by adding compassion to our lives. By committing deliberate acts of thoughtfulness and charity in our home and in our community.

Recycling, picking up litter, helping a neighbor, volunteering at homeless shelters, rescuing a dog, or complimenting a co-worker. Simply remembering to tell your spouse of twenty years, “I love you,” before they leave for work is a deliberate act of compassion. 

But more specifically, we can find time to visit a place that is vastly different from the one we live in. We can take the time to walk or drive to a random location and put on our artist eyes.

 What immediately makes it different from our home? Is it the architecture? Is it the number of people there? Is it the trash on the ground or the clean streets? Are you attracted to these things? Are you repelled? And why?

Take photos of the parts that are the most and the least attractive to you and go recreate them on canvas or paper. Or edit them if you’re a photographer. Sometimes a change in perspective is all we need to add compassion to our craft. This exercise can apply to writing as well.

black and white portrait painting of a man who passed away
Rest in peace, Lou.

Capturing a person’s face, and even more so their eyes, on canvas or through a lens is a very intimate act.

We can also think of a person who is our exact opposite and paint or photograph them. Capturing a person’s face, and even more so their eyes, on canvas or through a lens is a very intimate act. It draws a bridge between the artist and the subject, which in turn draws a bridge to the person viewing your art. When I paint memorial paintings of loved ones who have passed away, it’s the eyes that reach out to me the most. It takes time to recreate the look in that subject’s expression, the areas of light and shadow that form the window into their soul.

There’s a lot of redoing and painting over when you’re trying to perfect this. I save the final touches, the reflection of light off the iris and cornea, for last because it’s the most sacred part of a portrait. And it’s the part that gives me a glimpse into the heart and soul of that subject. I start to wonder, ‘What did this person love? What was their biggest regret? Did they choose to live with an open heart or did they let fear dictate their decisions?’

It’s humbling to see the answers to these questions appear with a simple brush stroke. And then that “Aha!” moment when you know you’ve gotten it. You’ve captured the expression, the look, the emotion in their eyes. And that’s the moment of compassion, where you truly connect with the subject and UNDERSTAND them. The people looking at your artwork will feel this same spark. Perhaps they’ll interpret it differently or see something you didn’t even know was there. And that’s the beauty of art, those bridges of compassion that we build with paint and light and words. 


What bridge will you build today?

black and white portrait painting of young man who passed away
Memorial painting of Matt


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