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Outside the Lines with Michelangelo

Photo credit National Geographic, December 1989

Photo credit National Geographic, December 1989

Outside the lines detail

Outside the lines detail

I was 25 years old when I first saw God separating light from dark and seeming to change his mind.  I’ve remembered it clearly for over 20 years, OK 23 years – do the math if you want.

I’ve seen thousands of pictures, probably hundreds of thousands since then – this one sits in my sub-conscious and pops up every now and then.

A few years ago, I tracked down the picture and looked at it again.  I know why it stuck with me.  Taken during the restoration of the Sistine chapel, it shows Michelangelo living, and painting, in the moment.

Frescos are a pretty unique art form, they need to be painted into wet plaster – it’s why they can retain their color for so long, BUT they have to be painted quickly.  Once the plaster’s dry, it’s done…whether it’s done or not.  So – first you draw a full size cartoon* – just the outline and then transfer the outline into the wet plaster.  On this piece, Michelangelo pushed a pointed object (a stylus or the end of a paintbrush into the wet plaster, but here’s why I LOVE this picture.  He went outside the lines.  He was a consummate planner, drove people crazy with his insane attention to detail and his insistence on doing it all “right”.  I personally think he was a bit of a curmudgeon…but I haven’t actually met him, so I’m not judging.

He plans it all out meticulously, carefully transfers it into the plaster and then – in the moment of creation, he goes with his guts and changes the arm of God.  If you look carefully, you can see that the outline of God’s left arm is not where the etched outline is. I LOVE IT!

I know I have a tendency to over think things – for decades this picture sat in my brain telling me it was OK to go outside the lines.  Michelangelo didn’t outline God separating light from dark and then get up there and paint David and Goliath, the structure and form were the same and most of the fresco is exactly as he planed it, but he gave himself freedom to be in the moment and as a result, we have a great masterpiece.

The greatest work of art we will ever create – our consummate masterpiece – is our own lives; plan it all carefully, but in the moment of creation – when we go to actually live our lives…go outside the lines trust your guts, trust the moment – it’s where genius lies.  I wish I’d know this when I was 25 – but I’m working on it now.

*This was the first use of the word cartoon – the outlines for frescos – kind of nerdy cool don’t you think?

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