We have looked in the past at some of the work of missionary artists such as Elsie Anna Wood and Harold Copping. The job of a missionary artist, very simply put, is to produce illustrations as an aid for those whose task it is to present God - and the message of the Bible to an unbelieving world. It's been my privilege recently to interview one of todays missionary artists Tim Shirey. Tim is a regular contributor on the Bible illustration blog and works for Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) at their European Regional Office in kilchzimmer Switzerland. The interview is slightly longer than our previous interviews but I'm sure that you will find in fascinating. Our hope is that this interview will inspire young people to become the missionary artists of tomorrow!
Tim, how long have you worked for CEF? Since 1985 and I was in the CEF European Regional office since 1986.
I often get asked the question "Are there many opportunities for artists in the mission field?" How would you answer this, and how did you become a missionary artist?
In 1979 (while in high school) the Lord laid it upon my heart for missions and more specifically the region of Russia and Central Asia. I wanted to use my art in some way – just not sure how. The Lord answered that prayer by sending me to Switzerland where, at the time, most of our literature was going into the Soviet Union. I share this because often the Lord answers our prayers and brings it about in the most unexpected ways!
In high school I spent several summers teaching children in backyard Bible clubs (CEF) using visualized Bible lessons and missionary stories. All the songs and memory verses were also visualized to help teach the truths and supplement the text. I saw the impact visuals had in effectively teaching God's Word. The pictures help hold the children's attention and besides visualizing the Bible story itself there were additional pictures to help teach spiritual truths. In some parts of the world visuals play an even greater role in communicating the Truths of God's Word to children and adults. I grew up in a printing family and now I'm thrilled to have a small part in sending out millions of "missionaries in print".
Over the years I've met missionaries where their skill and training in art played a central role in their ministry but I also met those who have used their art training to complement another area of ministry. For example, I met an art student who went on to be a youth pastor and used his art when developing teaching materials. This opens the door wide open for ways to use your art on the mission field.
CEF is working in more than 178 countries and we see many opportunities for illustrators not only in literature but also with the wide open field of multimedia and the Internet where we are reaching children not possible through literature alone. I could fill several pages listing projects we are unable to take on because we simply don't have the artists. Having artists that are familiar with a particular culture is very helpful because sometimes we customize the illustrations to meet the cultural differences of a particular country or region – for a child in Finland or Central Asia to hold a Gospel booklet and know that this is for me. The majority of illustration work is done at the CEF International office, with the regional offices supplementing with material that meets specific cultural needs in their region.For example, CEF Int'l produces a booklet called "Do You Wonder Why?" which is distributed in areas of the world immediately after a natural disaster or traumatic event. I customized some of the illustrations for Poland [see image] so it would better relate to the plane crash earlier this year involving the President, his wife and other officials. 40,000 copies of the evangelistic booklet were distributed in two days at memorial services around the country with an overwhelming response. Another 40,000 were immediately printed and distributed. This is an example of having artwork that relates to the culture and specific needs – something we are able to do at the regional level.
Do you only work on Bible stories or are you asked to illustrate other subjects too?
A single CEF Bible lesson will usually consist of 6-8 full colour illustrations. Visuals (in Europe) are reproduced at 24x34cm with the lesson text printed separately into the different languages.
A Bible lesson will include illustrations of present day settings that help teach a Biblical truth from the lesson. These are woven throughout the Bible lesson. We also produce series that teach doctrines of the Bible to children such as a 5-part series entitled "Great Truths in the Book of Romans".
Illustrations are sometimes needed to help teach truths like justification or sanctification.Illustrations in the Bible build a bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar. As a visual illustrator, I look at the culture the children are in, find something familiar from their small world and create a bridge to help them understand the unfamiliar truth being taught. I'm always working within the boundaries of a pre-existing Bible lesson text so the visual doesn't stand on it's own but is reinforcing what the teacher is saying. We are presently working on teacher resource packs. Illustrations are needed for visualized review games, take-home worksheets, memory verse tokens, etc..
We produce missionary and Christian stories from past and present. There is also a wide range of illustrations needed for the Bible correspondence courses for children (free). In Russia alone, 11,300 children are enrolled in these courses. One seven yr. old boy responded on one of his lessons, While going through the lessons, I trusted Christ as my Saviour. ... I need to ask for your forgiveness ... I'm not a seven yr. old boy, but a 70 yr. old man! – Put the food out for the lambs and the sheep will come and feed also.
The list of illustration needs is endless – not just Bible lessons.
I know that you're into photography. How does photography help you as an artist?
I went to Bible college to study art and photography. I eventually had to drop photography and just focus on Bible and art. I love photography and it's become a vital part of my illustration work flow. I also use it extensively in other areas of ministry. I do have to shift my thinking when jumping between the two because photography is the art of exclusion while painting is the art of inclusion. With photography I begin with clutter and choose what to exclude from the image. Photography has helped me find the "little stories" unfolding around me and isolating them within the frame. With illustration, I start with a blank page and decide what to include.
I start with a series of thumbnail sketches before deciding on the final one. I then make a list of what photo references I need. I would find willing models (family, friends or co-workers) to pose for me. I regularly use myself as a model and change my appearance at the drawing stage. My wife made a plain robe with velcro attachments on the back to fit various body shapes and to easily slip over clothing. It's much easier to find friends to model when they don't have to change out of their clothes. I can adjust the size of the robe with clips (wooden clothespins) down the back. This simple pull-over garment is a nice addition to my bathrobe I used for many years.
(I handed this tract (right) to a man in Moscow and he showed me a toothless grin after reading the title, How to get to Heaven from Moscow. He said, I don't know how to get to heaven but I do know you won't start in Moscow!)
I work on a tight deadline and taking the extra care with lighting and posing of people at the photo reference stage saves me extra work later on. This is important if I have 1-2 days to complete an illustration. For lighting, I never use a direct flash, otherwise I end up with flat, emotionless lighting. I use off-camera flashes or I will just use my trusty shower curtain liner (translucent white) with a natural light source to soften direct sunlight or draped from a doorway or window to create a large softbox. I'm always taking reference photos of trees, rocks, architecture, etc.. I especially like to photograph textures to use later (stones, tree bark, walls, wood grain, ...) It's important that I enter a metadata description for each photo so that a computer search using any of those descriptive words will bring up that photo instantly. You can enter this metadata using most photo programs like Google Picasa (free).
I import the photos into Adobe Photoshop and use them as a starting point or reference to work from making adjustments at the drawing stage. I use a Wacom Cintiq monitor that allows me to draw directly on the screen. I do as much as I can in Photoshop before moving to Corel Painter to paint and then bring it back into Photoshop. I would much prefer to stay in Photoshop but I don't have the most recent Photoshop CS5 that includes natural media brushes. :-(
If you plan to use photography in your illustration workflow, I encourage you to do several tests with the same subject photographed at different focal lengths and observe the distortion characteristics at each focal length. A wide angle lens will distort and exaggerate distance and size between objects while zooming in too much will distort by compressing depth and making distant objects larger than life.
Has working with computers changed the way you work over the years and in what way?
While using computers saved me some time, this wasn't the biggest reason for me to switch.
My daily working environment is a series of interruptions. That's not good or bad – just part of the ministry. Even now I'm getting ready to go teach a puppet seminar. Never a boring day around here! With the computer I don't need to set up and clean up my paints and brushes throughout the day. I used to work in watercolors, gouache, but mostly used a combination of gouache and color pencils before switching to the computer. I adapted some of my painting techniques to the computer – I loved to use a toothbrush to spatter paint textures so I created a Photoshop toothbrush spatter brush to create the same effect in the computer (with less mess!).
The illustrations may be reused for the internet, video, Powerpoint® lessons, etc.. Having a layered digital file from the start can be useful. I can also use layers to create various images from one illustration. What I like most about working with the computer is the ability to attempt something new without ruining a days work. I love the cmd+Z (undo) button!
I definitely plan to use my traditional tools again for upcoming projects. I look forward to working with oils as I stare longingly at my assortment of brushes and paints on the desk.
How were you first introduced to the Bible?
I am so thankful for loving Christian parents who taught us the Bible at home and shared the Gospel from an early age. I trusted the Lord Jesus as my Saviour at the age of seven.
How do you go about illustrating a Bible story for CEF and how much research do you need to do?
The lesson text is written first and divided up for the illustrations. I'm the last stage before going to the printer. While I'm working on the illustrations, the lesson text is being sent around to the national offices to begin translation. Time constraints and other ministry needs limit how in-depth I can go with my historical research. Doctrinal research always comes first. As a result, I need to prioritize my research time and adapt the composition accordingly. Because the illustrations are for a teacher/group situation and not close viewing in a book it allows me the flexibility to simplify details in the background and surrounding props. I've built up a useful research library over the years with the latest addition to my library being the photo CD reviewed on this blog – Historic Views of the Holy Land/Traditional Life and Customs. Thanks!
One area of research I do is to ask our teachers around Europe how children respond to certain illustrations. For example, I wrestled with how much blood would be appropriate to show children when illustrating the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. It was interesting to hear about the reaction of children from a rough neighborhood outside London. It wasn't the amount of blood shown that caused a reaction. One young girl walked right up during the lesson and touched the bruises on Jesus' cheek. Some of these children are beaten at home and know about bruises and how it goes below the surface. I realized that just adding some blue bruising in the illustration had a far greater impact on these children than excess blood. It's finding the right balance. With all the Bible pictures, it's important for children to know that this was a real event in time and place.
CEF pictures are being used all around the globe in many different cultures. When producing pictures for other cultures are there certain issues that need to be taken into account, and can you give us an example?
For Bible lessons that include Jesus, I try to avoid showing the face of Jesus when possible. This came up as an issue in some cultures and with children of Muslim families. I still include direct frontal views of Jesus but I've limited how often I include them. As an artist, there are times I actually prefer to show the view from over His shoulder and focus on showing the reaction/response of the person looking into the face of Jesus. It's far more important that the child leaves with a clear understanding of the character, attributes and person of the Lord Jesus.
Have you illustrated the entire Bible yet?
Not yet... You're already doing a great job of that. I'll leave that challenge with you! :-)
Ha ha! ;0) Can you think of a particular Bible story that was difficult to illustrate and why?
I find the doctrinal series challenging. The series Five Great Questions addresses question like, who is God?, why am I here?, why did Jesus have to die?, etc. The text for the first picture was "in the beginning God". How do I illustrate that for a child who has never seen a Bible and has absolutely no concept of who God is. Thankfully, the illustration accompanies a text.
I needed to illustrated the following verse from a doctrinal series we did on the Person and work of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 8:26 "... The Spirit also helps us in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."
How does one illustrate for children the Holy Spirit helping the Believer and interceding with groans?! I showed a child (see left) who might be going through a difficult situation (fear, loneliness, sickness, anguish, etc.) and coming to the Lord in prayer. I tried to express this through the tension in the fingers and hiding of the face. I added the directional light breaking through the darkness to help show how the child is not alone and the Holy Spirit is sharing in our feelings with us and helping the Christian.
What other Bible artists have inspired you?
Before the Internet, I was only exposed to the work of a few Bible artists. As a child growing up in the 60s and 70s and later as an Bible artist starting out, I will always remember the Bible illustrations of John Steel and his work for Scripture Press. I saved most of his pictures from our Sunday School materials.
I've not come across John Steel before - I must Google him. What are you working on at the moment Tim?
A single lesson (10 illustrations) on the Call of Jeremiah. The central theme of the lesson is God has a plan for your life. Every CEF lesson (Bible lessons, doctrinal lessons, missionary stories, etc.) clearly presents the Gospel and includes teaching for the saved child.
What advice would you give to a young person wanting to become a missionary artist?
Continue to study the Bible in addition to your art training. Share your desire with the leaders in your church and ask them to be praying for you. They can also suggest solid mission organizations to contact.
Becoming a missionary often involves raising financial and prayer support through churches and individuals. Nurturing relationships is a big part of it. I mention this specifically because artists sometimes have a reputation of not being strong in communication and relationship building.
The Bible verses I've kept before me over these years in ministry as an encouragement and daily prayer reminder – Exodus 35:30-35.
We read how the Lord called (chose), equipped and empowered Bezalel and Aheliab, as craftsmen to do a special work.
Pray daily for wisdom, understanding, in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship. Striving for excellence to the Glory of God.
Tim, you and your family live in a very beautiful part of Switzerland - where are you from originally?
I'm originally from York, PA (USA). I absolutely love the view in Switzerland but there's nothing quite like the Appalachians and rolling hills of Pennsylvania's "Amish country". Where is home? I tell people, home is where my wife is. We have three wonderful daughters – two are presently attending university in the US.
Thanks so much Tim for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to share with us about life as a missionary artist with C.E.F.
As always - we look forward to your comments!
All illustrations above are © CEF Europe 2010