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Decorative image - Secondary

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Looking at a Blank Canvas

We can all paint on the canvas of our lives

by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2009)

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider that we have the power to change the images on the canvas of our lives (SEAL theme: Learning about me).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need an image of a painting that features at least one person and was painted by an old master. You will also need the means to display the image during the assembly:

    - individuals, available at:
    - groups, available at:


  1. Display the image of the painting as the students enter.

    I have a few questions for you to consider.

    - Where would you start if you were an artist and had been given the subject of this painting as a commission?
    - Would you start with the background?
    - Would you begin with the main figure in the centre?

    Imagine how the artist would have felt, looking at the blank canvas. A huge expanse of white, an empty space that needed filling. It would be more than a little daunting.

  2. I wonder if you would start by sketching the outlines and some rough shapes. Many artists begin in this way, sketching and drawing in pencil or charcoal. It would not necessarily have been on the canvas itself, but in a sketchbook. We have sketches, or ‘cartoons’, that Michelangelo made on parchment, showing how he developed his ideas before he began the enormous task of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This shows us that even a genius needs to plan and develop his or her work.

  3. However, the focus for today’s assembly is not just how people like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Rubens painted their amazing and beautiful works. Our focus is to consider how, when we are young, our lives are like a blank canvas, ready for images to be painted on.

  4. At birth, we have little that is imprinted upon us. We have our genes, which will affect our looks, how we behave and how we develop; we have the influences that scientists increasingly say affect us in the womb; but otherwise, we are blank canvases, ready to paint on ourselves! As we get older, we gain more control over how we develop that canvas and what we put on it.

    Imagine yourself as an image: what colours would you be? Would you have gently started filling in that background colour, or would you have just thrown the paint on?

  5. In a moment of quiet, I want you to imagine that you are painting your life on an enormous canvas. See yourself painting your choices, actions and decisions. Have you had big choices to make? Have all of them been good? Do you have big choices that you are making right now about your friends, your future or your family? Watch the colours and images blur and change, with everything merging.

  6. Let’s stop for just a second. Is there anything on that canvas that you would like to change, to scrub out or replace? Im sure that everyone has something: an image, an action or a person they would much rather wasn’t there.

    We cannot remove things totally from our past, but we can move them away from the centre of our canvas to near the border so that they are less noticeable. We can learn from experiences, even unpleasant ones, but we need to allow ourselves to move forward without fear of the mistakes that we made before.

  7. Going back to the subject of paintings by old masters, modern technology has enabled us to see some of the preliminary workings of artists of the past. It has enabled us to see when artists changed their minds, got things wrong and made errors. It also shows us that artists learned from their mistakes by scrubbing out figures, changing their stance or facial expression or even adding others to complement it.

    The same is true of our own lives. We learn from our experiences and from the people who come in and out of our lives. They can enrich us, or help us to learn from our mistakes, and that process helps us to develop as people.

    We are who we are because of our learned behaviour and our experiences. It helps us to remember what we have ‘painted’ in the past; the colours and images may well contribute to the future painting.

Time for reflection

Our canvases are not fixed. They are not the same year by year, day by day or even hour by hour. We can change things and perhaps go in a different direction. We can wipe parts of the canvas clean and start sections again, making different choices. For the most part, we are in control of our lives and can change the things that are in our power.

Remember that no canvas will ever be the same as another; each one is unique. What will you paint on your canvas today – or tomorrow, next year or in the next ten years? Its up to you. Im sure that you will be making changes, adding new images, painting over others, repairing mistakes and healing wounds. Embrace that ability to be creative and free, and live your life in bright colours!

Dear God,
Help me to see my life as an artists canvas, something for which I take responsibility.
May I see that I can live my life as I choose, giving colour to myself and those around me.
Give me the inspiration you give to our great artists, to paint and draw as I see fit, to learn from other people and from my errors, and so develop and become a better person.


‘Father, hear the prayer we offer’ (Come and Praise, 48)

Publication date: December 2016   (Vol.18 No.12)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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