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Angels on Canvas

Actress Jane Seymour shares the secret to serenity—through painting.

Photo by Charles Bush

Brushes and paint were spread around me in my den.

I laid the first layer of blue paint across the paper, a “wash” I remembered my teacher calling it. I closed my eyes and tried to envision what it was I wanted to paint. But all I could see was a vast dark void, swirling, menacing storm clouds that seemed to envelop me. My mind was full of anger, fear, panic.

My eleven-year marriage was over. Our finances, I’d discovered, were a shambles. In a few days I would have to leave this house, the place I’d hoped to make a home for my children and husband. Everywhere I looked I was reminded of failure, of cherished dreams that hadn’t turned out the way I’d planned.

Like this painting, I thought. A few shapeless strokes on a piece of paper. I stared at it, trying to imagine a scene, someplace far away, something soothing. It was no use.

I’d been an actress all my life, but painting was new to me. I’d only had two one-hour lessons from an artist who had offered to teach me the basics of watercolor. I’d happily accepted, eager for anything that could take my mind away from court filings and financial documents.

“Visualize the details of what you’re painting,” my instructor said. “See the shapes and colors, the whites and darks. Sometimes it’s what you don’t see that’s most important.”

How was I supposed to do that after two lessons? I thought as I looked at my nondescript brush strokes on the paper in front of me.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, but all I could see was darkness. All I could think about were my worries. I said a quick prayer: God, please be with me. Show me a way to find comfort.

In my mind, I looked again into the gray haze. My muscles relaxed slightly. It was a relief to shut out the world for even a few minutes. I let myself enjoy the peace. I felt almost as if I were floating, a gentle rocking motion. I tried to focus, tried to look into the distance.

Slowly, I began to make out water, a lake. And then, I could see it! The whole picture in front of me, with unbelievable clarity. There was the sunlight catching the water, creating a kaleidoscope of colors. And a gentle breeze rippling the surface. In the background a marsh.

I opened my eyes, but the scene remained in my mind. I dipped my brush in the green paint and began layering it over the blue, the lake coming alive on the paper. It was amazing, how many shades of blue, green, brown, white and gray there are in water. It was as if I was seeing it for the first time.

I added the marsh with a few strokes of my brush, and then closed my eyes again. I could see it clearly: There was a brown, wooden boat, empty, but floating peacefully on the water. As if it were waiting to carry someone to the shore. How had I missed it the first time?

Little by little the dinghy took shape on the paper. I noticed its curves, how part of it was hidden under the water—seeing what wasn’t there! I stepped back and looked at the painting. I’d done it! Maybe not a masterpiece, but a beautiful work of art all the same.

I felt the most incredible feeling of warmth and support, as if a heavenly presence were there beside me, guiding me, teaching me to see the world with new eyes, in all its beauty and exquisite detail, a future so much bigger than any of my immediate troubles.

I looked closely again at the painting. There were no angels visible in the swirls of color, but I knew they were all around. And like my teacher said, sometimes it’s what we don’t see that’s most important.

Life, I realized, is constantly changing and evolving, like a painting. And that it only takes a few brush strokes and eyes open to possibilities to change your entire perspective. It worked for me at a difficult time in my life, and I haven’t put my brushes down since. 

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