Nestled in my cozy covers, I’m awakened by a blinding light penetrating my closed eyelids. Opening my heavy lids, I leap out of bed, wanting to capture a photo of the light streaming through the back lot, where a row of trees are in shadow, with golden rims of light around their tops, highlighting their unique shapes. Below them, a field of intense burning light with the silhouettes of dozens of twisted, gnarly tree trunks, and from them long shadows are cast.
Perhaps it’s the time of year combined with the position of the sun, but these shadows are so long they reach across a couple of acres as they do a lanky dance over the property, highlighted by the intense light of blades of grass, bushes, and weeds.
Depth in Shadows
To those of us who consider ourselves artists, shadows are the foundation of all painting and one of the more difficult things to master, because they are not just dark blobs; they are alive with warm and cool color variations. Since painting, with the limitations of color and paint, cannot possibly replicate the intensity of light, it is the shadow that creates contrast. A light looks lighter when surrounded by the dark of a shadow. A color looks warmer against a cool shadow.
The Halo Effect
If you study shadows as I have, you learn that shadows can have sharp edges when close to the object blocking the light, and they soften with distance. Often the edges of a shadow, if you look closely, create a halo effect, and there can be intense color at that magical spot between dark and light. My mentor used to call it a “bedbug line,” though I’ve never known why.
The Eye Path
Shadows in paintings, and often in photographs, are also a tool to move the eye to the places you want the eye to go. Yes, a little secret is that great artists tend to create a path for the eye to follow through an experience, with little surprises until you get to the point they most want your eye to go. Kind of like a curvy board game where you stop, roll the dice, then go on to the next block until you’ve hit the jackpot.
As a kid I would come home from school every day and turn on the TV at 4 o’clock to watch a show called Dark Shadows, which was essentially a vampire soap opera. Hitchcock made shadows into symbols of evil. Even the 1930s radio show The Shadow had men learning in the shadows. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”
The Earth Shadow
Shadows cannot be avoided. If you and I stand out in the sun, there is a shadow behind us. Sometimes it’s short, especially if the sun is directly overhead, but in the early morning or late afternoon, shadows are long. There is a shadow most people don’t know exists: the shadow of the earth, which you can see just as the sun goes down behind the horizon. Cat Stevens even sang about moon shadows.
But what about the shadows we cast as humans? These shadows are more like those in a painting: Once they are laid down, they are a permanent record of that moment in time. The shadows we cast can be dark and evil or filled with light and color, and they can be short or long, meaning they can have a short-term impact or a more lasting effect.
Two Kinds of Shadow
There are accidental shadows and intentional shadows. For instance, years ago I ran into a former employee at a radio convention who said to me, “You probably don’t even remember this, but I was over at your house one day looking for some advice. Though you could have given me advice to stick with my job, which would have been to your benefit, you told me you saw something in me and that I needed to take advantage of it. You told me I should start my own business, tap the dreams living inside of me, and go for those dreams. I left there with a clear mission, and immediately started working on that dream, and today I own a bunch of my own radio stations.”
That, my friends, is a long intentional shadow because I saw something in someone they did not see in themselves and tried to set them on a path to consider. Though I had no idea what the outcome would be and how long that shadow would last, it was very intentional.
My mother (happy Mother’s Day, Mom, I love you) left a lot of important lessons with me and my two brothers that were accidental shadows. Though I’m sure there were many lessons she wanted us to learn, it was her consistent loving demeanor that affected me most. That was a long shadow that not only has impacted my entire life, it hopefully will impact the lives of others beyond me, especially my own kids. And knowing my grandparents and great-grandparents and their loving nature, I suspect my mother’s love came from being in the accidental long shadow of generations before her.
What kind of shadow are you leaving? Is it long and lasting, or short and fleeting? Is it dark and evil, or is it filled with rich, subtle colors?
Our time here is brief. No matter how much time God gives us, to us it never seems like enough. To Him, it’s perfect timing.
As a kid who hated school, I could not wait till the day I graduated from school, so I never had to return. In spite of being anxious, I also knew I was getting what I needed to help me get ready for life. Though there were still important lessons to learn, I knew graduation would be a new life, a new level. I look at life in a similar way: There is a time to learn, to grow, to guide others, and then suddenly we graduate to what lies ahead, which is where these lessons can be put to real use.
You can I cannot control our accidental shadows much. Like it or not, we will cast shadows on those we encounter, and that shadow will have an effect. I’ve cast a lot of bad shadows accidentally because of a rotten mood, or my out-of-control ego. I look back on my early years in business and cringe. I used to think a manager was the boss and was supposed to push all the time, but the problem is that when you push all the time, stress cracks develop and you can destroy people. It took a lot of years to understand that it’s more productive to pull, to make people want to do something. Though there are always times when a little nudge or push may be needed, less push and more pull brings better results and joy-filled people.
Throughout life I’ve encountered stories from others who have shared the impact I’ve made on their life. Sadly, not all of them are good stories. Recently I received a call from someone who told me he felt I had bullied him. I had never realized it, yet when he pointed out why, I could see how he felt that way. I was mortified, apologized profusely, felt awful, and pondered how I can change my behavior so I never do that again.
We all have our perfect timing. We all go at our own pace and realize things we need to do when the time is right for us. I burned through a lot of life trying to grow my business, trying to make money, but my happiest times and the most gratification have been since I’ve lowered the money priority and elevated the priority or helping others. Now my goal is to leave a long intentional shadow by using the gifts I’ve been given to enrich the lives of others in some way. That’s why I’m driven to teach so many people to paint and to amplify that effort to touch millions, because I know painting changes lives. (If you’re not a painter but want to be, I’m convinced anyone can. You can start here.) It’s also why I started teaching marketing so that artists could truly live their dreams and why I recently wrote a book. It’s why I write.
I’m trying to make my own long shadow list. What impact do I want to leave on others before I’m called off this earth? But I’m also trying to listen and observe carefully and be willing to make a quick left or right turn so accidental shadows can occur. Of course, we really never know the impact of the accidental shadows we leave, which is why I try to manage my anger, keep my spirit happy and loving, and try not to be a jerk. Sadly, it still happens from time to time. Hopefully, I learn from it.
Today, since it’s Mother’s Day, we can reflect on the shadows left by our mothers. For some those shadows are long, loving, and fruitful. For others, we must be careful to escape those shadows and not carry them forward so we don’t destroy lives or create hurt or angst in others.
(Just as I wrote this, I glanced up from my keyboard and a mother and baby deer were about 40 feet away, grazing on my weed, the baby staying close to mom’s side. Talk about perfect timing!)
Unknown Shadow Casters
Our shadows are how we will be remembered. But in most cases, the shadows can last and impact future generations without you and I being known or remembered. My dad talks a lot about the impact his grandfather had on him, how it molded who he is, and the lives he touched as a result of his grandfather’s shadow. And though he is known and remembered with a couple of generations, the person who cast a shadow on him is unknown to me and will someday be forgotten. Yet the shadow lives on.
Each of us has a gift, some have several gifts. In many cases we don’t yet know what they are, in some cases the gift is not ready to be used, but there lies within each of us something so powerful that it will have a lasting effect on generations. The same is true with whatever darkness lies within us, which is why we want to be conscious about what shadows we leave behind. We can cast a shadow so long that it impacts people for generations. Think, for instance about the shadow cast by one man born in Galilee over 2,000 years ago. Whether or not you personally buy in, there is no denying that shadow touched lives for generations.
In what ways are your shadows affecting others? What is it about you that will live on that perhaps should not? What shadow can you cast that will impact the world and its inhabitants forever? You may not think that big, yet your shadow may touch someone who becomes an author, a world leader, or a great orator. A woman who comes to my June Adirondacks paint camp each year raised a son who became a world-famous author who is touching the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Her shadow had a big influence on his success.Though we’ve not spoken about it, I’m sure some was intentional and some accidental.
The shadow of my own parents is long. Brief moments at the dining room table painting with my mom led me to my passion for art. Listening in to my dad conducting business on the phone at home trained me for business. Who knows the impact those long shadows will have? I’m sure they never envisioned a kid who became a publisher, a radio broadcaster, an artist, a blogger, a podcaster, and an author. Yet they formed my shadows with their shadows.
Today, as we celebrate and honor our moms, or the woman who raised or is raising our kids, let’s give some thought to the impact of our shadows and the impact of their shadows.
What can you do to leave a long intentional shadow on the world?
What you can do to make sure that even your accidental shadows have a positive short- or long -term impact?
You have it inside of you to cast a long shadow on the earth, on the world, no matter your state of life at the moment.
Happy Mother’s Day.
PS: Today in our house we not only celebrate Mom, but the date of our wedding, 23 years ago. The long shadow cast by my wife, Laurie, has impacted my life and my kids’ lives in so many wonderful ways. It was she who bought me my first art lesson at age 40, which resulted in my passion for art, resulting in our art magazines, art conferences, art instruction videos, and so much more. Happy anniversary and happy Mother’s Day.