About jmgatlin

Just a guy who loves Jesus and like to paint watercolors. And ride motorcycles. And enjoy his family. And other stuff. :)

The Northern Minnesota BWCA

A few years ago I took a week-long canoe trip to the BWCA, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, in northern Minnesota. It was a chance to retreat, find some great peace and quiet, enjoy to great outdoors, and hopefully do a little watercolor painting. And while I did get to produce a great many smaller drawings and paintings, this particular painting has long been one of my favorites.

BWCAIt was near the end of the day and the sun was getting low in the sky. And when this happens the colors, the light just seems to keep getting warmer and richer. And this rich, warm light was reflecting beautifully off the rocks as we paddled by. And the water was not quite perfectly still, rather it sort of seemed like we were looking through an old poured-glass window that slightly distorted the scene being reflected into it. The entire scene was so stunning, so warm and inviting and peaceful that it was etched into my mind for years to come. Whenever I linger at the original watercolor which hangs in my studio, I revisit the calm peacefulness of that evening.

Over the years I did many paintings of this scene, capturing it from different points of view, because I just sort of memorized it as we paddled past that evening. In fact I probably just stopped paddling as we drifted past…thinking, reflecting, praying, absorbing, memorizing. And as I’ve remembered that scene, the evening calm as we slowly made our way to a campsite, the richness of life—as I’ve remembered and re painted that scene over the years, I’ve constantly come back to this verse from the great Hebrew prophet Isaiah:

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30.15).

IMG_1169For me, this scene has become a reminder of the way our heavenly Father offers his salvation and strength to us. In this verse there are four words describing what we do and to words describing what he provides. And there is so much contained in these words: repentance, rest, quietness and trust. I experience each of them in this painting. Here’s one way to think about it. Picture each of these words like individual paddle strokes, activities we do, to help us get more in touch with the one in whom real salvation and strength lives. These activities do not bring us salvation and strength, but they put us in a place where we can finally receive what our Father offers. And what he offers is so well worth the paddling, so well worth the effort.

In this scene I’m resting in the place of being able to receive what he offers, what my soul has always longed for. This painting is one of my reminders that repentance, rest, quietness and trust, is a very good place to be.

This print, just like the rest of them, is available if you’d like one!

Cannon Beach, the Oregon coast

A few weeks ago Brenda and I were graciously invited to spend a few days at a retreat with many of our Vineyard worship leaders from around the country, in beautiful Cannon Beach, Oregon. What a great week that was!

IMG_1090The place where we were meeting is the same campus that hosts the Ecola Bible school which I attended right after graduating from high school in Dallas, Oregon. It was such a treat for me to visit this place again after so many years.

This was the place I really began to pursue God with my whole heart, the place I wrestled with him about which way my life was to aimed, the place I experienced his kindness and mercy through so many different kinds of people, the place I really began to learn from the scriptures, and the place I fell in love with trying to depict his creation in artistic expressions. As you can tell, this place represents a great number of beginnings in my little life!

IMG_1094We arrived early in the day the retreat was to begin and I headed off right away to Ecola State Park, an absolutely stunning stretch of beach, with my sketchbook and a couple of well sharpened pencils in hand. Seriously, I was almost drooling with anticipation. And the day did not disappoint. Even, and perhaps especially with my friends in tow, it was so great to be back in this scenery, experiencing the wind, the spotty sunshine peaking through the clouds, the long winding and wet road leading to the beach and feeling of putting it all on paper again. Ah, such sweetness!

Throughout the week I occasionally snuck away to get in a few more sketches. Hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I enjoyed doing them!



And the time with the Vineyard worship leaders? Well that was just as sweet as theoutdoor experience. We worshipped together, prayed together and for one another, looked at the character of our heavenly Father as revealed in the scriptures, and left that campus very much refueled and recharged to the next part of this great journey. IMG_1102


Painting at a Worship Conference

I had a great time today, painting during a worship conference at the Vineyard church here in Duluth, Minnesota. Here’s how it happened.

It was just a regular worship conference. You know, a couple of days together with a larger part of the church, great biblical teaching about God, absolutely great musicians, lots of prayer time, both alone and in praying for others, lots of conversations with friends, tons of good stuff.

And off in a back corner of the auditorium there is a table with all sorts of brushes, acrylic paint, some pastels…and the thing that really did it to me, a selection of smaller stretched canvases. As I innocently walked on by those stinkers just called out to me. The pull was tangible–sort of gravitational, if you will. Wow. That was Friday night.

And then on Saturday morning my previous plans didn’t work out. So there I was. Feeling the pull of the canvas, blank and crying out for something, lonely and inviting my pencil to begin drawing. And dang it if I didn’t just jump right on in.

I wanted to focus on the line where the horizon of the land meets the sky. That line is where all the action is. It’s just like my life. The line where the sinfulness of humanity meets the holiness of God as a result of his grace. This line is where all the action lies, the color, the contrast, the beauty.

Hope you like it!


A Graceful Old Tree

A few weeks ago, as winter was winding its way down (or so we thought) in Minnesota, I found myself sitting outside in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the warm sunshine with a couple of days to refocus at a Franciscan retreat center.

And so, with the sun shining through the towering overhead palm trees I sat down next to a gnarly old olive tree. I loved the way this tree looked from every angle. The way its trunk crawled up out of the ground and headed off in so many different directions. The way it was anchored to the earth by hundreds of woody fingers gripping so tightly. The way it had been in this place since before the Franciscans had purchased the property, or so I imagined.IMG_1091

The first day as I began to draw I focused on mostly just the oldness and gnarlyness of the tree. To me it looked and felt tough. It was strong, but oh so weathered. It was tough. It was prickly. It had wrestled whatever life it could, during it’s long and dry years in this unforgiving climate, through the hard and difficult work of being a tree. I admired its long and difficult life.

The second day I sat in a different place and began another drawing. And this day it felt completely different to me. There was a gentle breeze and the sun didn’t fee quite so scorching on my head as I began to draw.

And not too far from me was another retreatant, a lady who had been coming to this retreat center for a number of years. She saw me drawing and began to strike up a conversation. I was so impressed with her graceful curiosity of what I was doing. Of how my quite time that morning communing with my heavenly Father involved drawing and praying—talking with God about what he’d so loving and perfectly created, myself, this tree and the kind lady asking me questions.

After awhile, as she got up to walk away, I noticed how her legs could barely carry her. How she had to walk so slowly because of whatever she had suffered throughout her long life. I noticed how much she was like the tree I was drawing—somewhat gnarly. And I also noticed how incredible full of grace—graceful she was.

IMG_1092Both this lady with her wobbly legs and this old olive tree were deeply graceful. Neither still possessed the grace of a young shoot, a young woman, rather a deep, deep grace that almost defies description. A grace that put others at complete peace in their presence. A grace that doesn’t hesitate to meet other’s needs. A grace that seldom makes itself the focus. A grace the reflects the creator because of all the years and experience that helped to shape it. A deeply imbedded grace.




The Farmer’s Market

Farmers Market

I painted this from some sketches I had done at an early morning market I once visited in Chicago. Yep, that’s right, a farmer’s market in Chicago. I had heard some restaurant owners talking about an early morning place they all went to get their fresh produce for the day. So I got up very early, for an art student, and set off to find this place.


IMG_0100Picture this with me…lots of the restaurant owners and all the produce sellers converged on this couple of block indoor/outdoor area for a few early morning hours at least a couple of times a week to exchange cold cash for raw produce so that they could feed the city, or at least those who eat in the local restaurants. It was a glorious madhouse. People running about shouting out orders for so much of this and so much of that. I sketched and sketched as fast as I could for about three hours until I had hand cramps. And then I went back to my studio to begin to turn it into paintings.


Over the years I’ve gone back to those sketchbooks over and over again. This particular piece came from those original drawings, but many years later. It’s really interesting how, when I look at drawings in a sketchbook like this, I can still hear the shouting, smell the produce and feel the bone-chilling early morning air.

The passage I wrote on this painting is from Genesis 27, and is an ancient Hebrew prayer for blessing, for a full richness of life, “May God give you the dew of heaven, and the richness of the earth, and an abundance of grain and new wine.”

If you’re interested in a print of this painting, well it’s available and waiting to get rescued from my closet.

The Minnesota Museum of Art

A few years ago. Quite a few to be exact. The Minnesota Museum of Art purchased one of my paintings. That was quite an experience for me. Why is that, Michael? I’m so glad you asked.

IMG_0969For years and years I had visited museums and loved every minute of it. I loved the large open rooms, the huge expanses of white walls and the uninterrupted time to study all the various kinds of art. I found it absolutely fascinating.

And I love the artwork. Everything from the solid colored 1960’s canvases to the ornate ancient Chinese body jewelry. It was wonderful. The creativity and craftsmanship was spectacular. But I especially love the marble sculpture, the paintings and the drawings. I would sometimes sit for hours in front on one painting, studying every line and shade and color and stroke. And I would often bring a sketchbook to jot down what I was learning.

At one point, while living in Chicago, I got special permission to bring my easel into the museum to spend a day copying a painting I especially admired. I had read that artists throughout the centuries learned in this way. And I just wanted to learn. The painting I was working from was painted by a fellow called John Singer Sargent. And needless to say, his was much better than any of my three attempts. But I did learn something.

There was one thing I didn’t appreciate, the museum tour guides. As I would be sitting for one place for some time, tour groups would pass through with one guide after another explaining all the things they thought the artist was thinking while working on the work being studied. It seemed to me, as someone who painted every day at that time, that most of what they were attributing to the artist’s thought life just wasn’t reality. But I digress, this is a whole different subject.

Back to the Minnesota Museum of Art. When I walked in that day to see my painting hanging on a wall next to others that I had long admired. Well, it took my breath away. Seriously. I had to sit down and a security guard came quickly over to see if everything was alright. I assured him I was healthy and went back to trying to find any unclaimed oxygen. I just sat there for a while and tears ran down my cheeks. I was thanking God for the ability and joy of recreating his creation on little sheets of paper.

IMG_0971Here is one of the original drawings that led up to the painting. I sometimes get asked if the work I’m creating exists out there in the real world, or is it all made up in my head—and the answer is yes! You can see the various elements in the original drawing, but they are rearranged or changed in the painting. In this way the artist can communicate and create a workable composition.

Anyway, that’s the thought for today. I have recently enjoyed paging through some older sketchbooks and reflecting. Enjoy winter!

The Pilot House – A New Print is Available

Pilot House - Pencil

Here’s a print of a pencil drawing I did a few years ago. The cabin is called “The Pilot House” and it on the shore of Burntside Lake just outside of Ely, Minnesota. It is a very beautiful and large lake, a great place to set up the watercolor easel and spend a few days being creative. I taught watercolor workshops up there over a few summers and grew to love the landscape. The camp where this cabin is located is called “Camp Du Nord” and is owned by the YMCA. If you’re ever looking for a place to get away from it all, this just might be a good choice.

And that cabin, well it is a special place. I don’t remember all the specifics. I think the cabin was originally built in the 1920’s or 30’s. Left over from the old days on the screened in porch which hangs over the lake there is a trap door built in to the floor to retrieve water from the lake. Now days the cabin has real plumbing so the trap door doesn’t get used as much…or does it?


Brenda and I stayed here for a week while we were celebrating our fifth anniversary. We cooked and hiked and kept the fireplace burning and played lots of cribbage. There were no phones, no cell service or wifi, no one to interrupt the peacefulness of that slow week.

Anyway, when I look at this drawing I can still smell the fire softly crackling, the food cooking away. I can feel the crisp fall breeze and even see brilliant colors of the leaves. I can hear the waves gently lapping the shore and the birds singing overhead.

Drawing are kind of like that. I can shoot hundreds of photos, especially now that I don’t have to pay to get all that film developed. But as I look through all the photos I’ve shot I can hardly remember why I thought I needed that image. Perhaps you’ve had that experience as well. But with a drawing it is completely different.

As I comb through my sketchbooks and see all the drawing I’ve done over the years, I can still hear the sounds and smell the smells I experienced while making that sketch. It’s amazing to me. But there is something that gets triggered in our minds as we take the time to really interact with the landscape or person we find ourselves with.

Perhaps there a lesson in that for us, whether we like to draw or not. Perhaps we could remember the experiences in our lives a bit more, and enjoy the people in our lives a bit more if we just took the time to listen and look and study their faces and enjoy their smiles.

If you’re interested in a copy of this print, I still have a few available. Just head on over the the “Other Prints” page and get yourself on of these. I doubt you’ll be disappointed!



Creativity In Love And Freedom


“There is no creativity without freedom.”

Really, is that true? I think so. If, as an artist (or anyone else for that matter), we must constantly ask ourselves, “What will people think?” or “Have I taken everything into account?” we will not achieve much, at least in the area of creativity. Why? Simply because we will always be relying on the rules made by others. We will stay within the boundaries other determine for us. And as someone who loves to think and write and paint and draw, this legalism, this staying within other’s predetermined boundaries stifles the creativity that longs to be expressed. Legalism and creativity have never been good roommates.

At the same time, creativity is also not meant to be completely unbounded. Hans Rookmaaker once wrote:

“Christian freedom is not a freedom from something, but  to do  something. It means openness, freedom of movement, exploration, and mental adventure.”

“Basically,” he goes on to say, “one should be free to do what is right.” As the title of this little thing states, our creativity is meant to exist in love and freedom.

Little GirlOur freedom never exists apart from love. Our freedom cannot be only an individualistic kind of freedom. We do not live on this earth in merely individualistic ways. There is a deep interconnectedness among all of humanity. We feel it strongly whenever something goes drastically wrong in the world. For instance, we ache with those who loose loved ones in a senseless act of violence. We must allow our freedom to be bounded by love.

Love means that we have responsibility, as servants of the living God, to direct our creativity for the benefit of others. As Jesus so succinctly put it, the purpose of our lives is to love God and to love our neighbor. And our creativity falls within this boundary. Creativity it turns out has a purpose and that purpose is love. And God, in his wisdom, has given us an amazing amount of freedom to express this love. We obviously don’t always get it right, but we have the freedom nonetheless.

So for me, when I want to take aim at getting it right, at expressing the creativity that is constantly bubbling up within in ways that are loving to God and those around me—when I want to get this right I have to be securely connected to my loving heavenly Father.

This freedom is a fruit of my relationship with God. According to Paul, the Spirit I received is not one that makes me a slave, but one that resounds within, crying, “Abba Father” (Romans 8.15). So this freedom is a fruit of the Spirit of God in my life. I am now free before God to call him ‘Father,” to enjoy him and his beautiful and wonderful creation, and to express his creativity in ways that help others. I experience this freedom because of his love towards me and so it is within this context that I give it away to others.

And if my life is rooted in Christ and is free before God, then I am free towards myself. I no longer need to be afraid to be of myself. Christ has accepted me as I am, with my own unique personality. And this helps me to live in freedom towards others. I am now free to work without pressure, without fear, without superiority or inferiority complexes. I am never alone. I now get to work hand-in-hand with the ultimate creator, experiencing and expressing his love and joy and beauty.

Issac MoellerLet me bring this down to earth a bit. When I paint I experience a bit of the joy and creativity of God, or at least it feels that way from time to time. There are all sorts of levels of experience and pleasure and thought going on at once. I am talking to him pretty much non-stop about whatever I’m looking at. I’m enjoying the shapes, the slender curve of a face, or the dramatic sweep of a landscape. I’m listening to the sounds, the birds or the breathing. I’m participating in the weather or the emotions of the thing. And I’m just thankful to be a small part of what is going on all around me in that moment. It’s pretty powerful and these words I’m typing do it little, if any justice.

And when I am done painting I step back and see something that expresses just a tiny bit of the love and joy and beauty I’ve experienced. And my prayer is that you get to experience just a bit of it as well.

May you be blessed!

Finding Inspiration

“Inspiration exists, but is has to find you working.” Pablo Picasso

One of my first-year instructors at the American Academy of Art, was Mr. Krajecki, and he used to tell me, “Michael, you’ll find plenty of inspiration when you get hungry enough!” I remember sitting at a little wooden desk that had probably been used by art students in downtown Chicago for for more than fifty years before my rear end found its way to it. I had been given a design assignment and want to do something no one had every thought of before. Something that would cause Mr. Krajecki to take notice of my substantial talents. But the great ideas seemed to be living very far from where I was searching.

It was at that point that he came up beside me, and with a hand on my shoulder told me where to to find the inspiration I longed for. Mr. Krajecki wasn’t the first person to say someone like this, and he surely won’t be the last. And I have discovered that what these quotes espouse is absolutely true.

Simply put, as I give myself to working each and every day, sketching, drawing and painting everything and everyone around me, noticing and drawing and watching and painting day after day after day—as I give myself to this work I have never ever run dry of real inspiring inspiration.

The banana paintings I shared on an earlier post were a day just like this. I was at the studio and it was time to work. I didn’t have anything that had to be done that day and I didn’t want a day to go by when I was not painting. So I set them up on a table and set easels all around. And as I was waiting for one painting to dry I would start another from another point of view. I was a whole lot more fun that it probably looks!

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you.” Chuck Close

This has been true in my life as an artist and it has been equally true in my walk of faith, following Jesus in my daily life. As I set aside the time each day to read the scriptures, to pray and interact personally with God, to reach out to others sharing my faith and praying for other’s needs—as I do this consistently day after day I have opportunities, I’ve place myself in a position to experience God’s presence in powerful ways.

And just like with my art, if I waited around to experience God’s presence before I went out, or if I waited to paint until I felt particularly artistic, there’s a whole lot of work that would never get accomplished. There’s a whole lot of what God is doing all around me that I would never get to join in on.

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. Thomas Edison

Becoming Human… Again

 “Christ did not die simply to make men Christians. That is not enough; his work too great. He died so that we might be human, living and acting in a human way, as God originally made us to live, in love and freedom.” H.R. Rookmaaker *

One of the unspoken things I felt when I began to follow Jesus, way back in 1976, was that I needed to give up, to walk away from some of the artistic activities I had enjoyed previously. That somehow playing the drums was inconsistent with being a Christian. And this was especially true if I was playing the music I really liked! I tended to feel the same way about drawing and painting. Looking back I can now realize how silly that is. But at the time it felt very serious. That somehow, to really follow Jesus, I was to leave all creativity behind.

During those years there were several things that kept me wondering how true it really was, did I really need to walk away from the art and music that I enjoyed making and listening to? One of those thought provoking songs was sung by Larry Norman entitled, “Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music.” Great title, huh?

larry-norman-only-visitingI want the people to know that He saved my soul,
But I still like to listen to the radio,

They say Rock ‘n Roll is wrong, They’ll give me one more chance. I feel so good I want to get up & dance.

I know what’s right, I know what’s wrong, I don’t confuse it. All I’m really trying to say Is , Why should the devil have all the good music?

I ain’t knockin’ the hymns, just give me a song that has a beat,
I ain’t knockin’ the hymns, just give me a song that moves my feet,
I don’t like any of them funeral marches, I ain’t dead yet.

I discovered along the way that many of us have felt this way. Some of us were told this outright. Others, like me, just felt it. But many of us have experienced this struggle. And personally, I think this struggle is a good one. Really? Yes.

As I heard and began to understand the message of Jesus from the New Testament and from the lives of those I knew who were trying to follow him; as I began to understood the implications of the gospel, I rightly realized that this message, this new way of life, if it was true it was going to effect every single area of my life. Nothing would remain unscathed. Nothing would be untouched. Nothing would be left unhealed.

Rightly so, this leads to a thorough examination of every part of our lives. An overreaction at this point could easily cause us to jettison even good things from our lives. I am so thankful for discovering the writings of Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer, and a couple of relationships with really good friends. These writers and friends kept me from the knee-jerk overreactions and helped me to see how God had been shaping my life long before I had become aware there even was a God.

Self Portrait : 300dpiOne of many things I’ve learned along the way is how God blesses and encourages the human part of my life. My spiritual life and my bodily life are not at odds with one another. Rather as I follow Jesus he is inviting me to become more human, more the way he intended me to be. More able to appreciate and enjoy everything and everyone he’s created. More in love with him in all the depth and breadth of his character. And so much more free to be the person he created me to be.


*H.R. Rookmaaker, “The Creative Gift, Essays On Art And The Christian Life”, Crossway Books, 1981, p. 25