Check out my latest abstract paintings :)

betty ming liu Art, Inspiration, Money 21 Comments

For me, nothing beats the wordless joy of globbing paint onto canvas. It’s all about the trance of letting go. Stop thinking. Do it.

Overthinking kills spontaneity.

Overthinking makes me miserable.

Overthinking obstructs the truth.

Overthinking is a bad habit ingrained by my control freak Chinese immigrant parents.

Haha, you knew I’d work in that last point somehow. But seriously, painting frees me from the reflex to conform/obey because it’s all about celebrating my feelings. To create a painting that gives an audience pause is a chance for them to step back too. If they can connect with their own subconscious emotions, even if only for a fleeting second, then we’ve got magic — making my work an act of generosity, my gift to the world.

Well. That certainly was a very confident paragraph for me to write! It flows from fingers to keyboard following an inspirational Saturday in a Frank O’Cain workshop at the Art Students League’s bucolic Rockland County suburban campus in Sparkill, N.Y. 

Some of you might remember my first O’Cain workshop experience from 18 months ago. In an earlier blog post, I explained that going abstract with Frank was a huge stretch for me. And going back for more over the weekend was very exciting.   

Once again, Frank delivered. This particular quote is my new mantra: 

It’s not always about what you want. Sometimes you have to give in to desire.


On that note, here are the six feelings that surfaced from me on Saturday:

I’ve never done so many paintings in a single sitting. Then again, it actually took me more than 50 years to do each one; that’s at least how long I’ve been on this quest for uncensored self-expression… 

The workshop ran from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It was a marvelous cocktail of painting technique and emotional release. Frank sets up a canvas using the golden section theory. He favors a small palette of white plus only three more colors — either two warms and a cool, or two cools and one warm. I also took notes on using a variety of mediums and materials, which will someday get me to my real passion: Collage.

On Saturday, though, all I wanted was pure painting. To make the most of the time, I brought along a bunch of little 6″x6″ canvasses, each one no bigger than a slice of toast. Their small, snack-y scale minimized the pressure to feel artful.

After doing a few of these thumbnail paintings as a warm-up, I switched to a larger, 10″ x 10″ canvas that instantly triggered self-doubt about Making A Statement And Not Wasting Expensive Art Supplies. I began wavering, second-guessing every brush stroke.

Of course, Frank knew what to say, leading to the next mantra:

Most artists struggle with their own bad habits, and breaking them.

Thankfully the canvas survived that brief panic attack. Now all my babies are safely in the house, drying out behind a closed door in a cat-free zone. Sometimes, I peek in on them. Ssssh, they’re sleeping, resting, curing:  

As for Mommy’s favorite:

When Frank walked by my easel and eyeballed this one, he took a paper towel and smudged the lower right-hand corner to create dimension. As I questioned how the golden section might work on this canvas, he reached for my palette knife and scratched out an explanation, leading to more depth. Suddenly, we were looking at an expression of increased movement, mood and texture.

The moment also helped me as a writer. Like many superb teachers, Frank is a great editor. With a few deft, simple actions, he showed me how to transform my work. He also had respect. We both loved my decisively angled red line on the left. That section of the painting, he never touched. The best editors know when to stop.

So there you have it. Painting takes me full circle back to my writerly self. It’s all the same thing, actually. Whether I communicate with words or images — or both — the challenge is to be authentic and original. What is my question? How do I answer it? 

I have a hunch I’ll be painting a lot more in the days to come. Until then, I’m wondering…do any of these thumbnail paintings vibe with you? If so, which ones and why?

By the way, if there’s some heart-of-hearts you need to get to, please feel free to write about it in the comments below, saying as much as you want. Sometimes, publicly articulating a wish makes it realer, sooner. It’s one of the secrets of blogging. :)

Let us be true to ourselves.   xo


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Comments 21

  1. Carrie

    As always, I love your paintings and enjoyed learning how the finished product came about. I’m not sure how to relate to abstract paintings. I usually try to figure out what I’m looking at, as if there were a hidden recognizable object – a body part, animal, household item, etc. to find. I’m thrown off guard when I look at abstract images and am not sure how to look at them and feel them. Any advice?
    I look forward to your posts and paintings from Giverny.

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  2. Zoe

    Thank you for sharing these. I came upon your blog when I looked for ways to deal with allergies. Looking at these abstract paintings is very mind clearing for me. I can find so many elements of the compositions to think about, but wirhout overwhelming my brain. It’s like a perfect balance between focus and free floating. I wish I had even a smidgen of your talent. Your work looks deceptively simple, a quality I admire is many aspects of life. Abstract art is the perfect complement to a word- and concept-heavy activity like writing, editing, or designing the scope of a new project… Or plain old stress due to overthinking everyday things. Thank you again for sharing these. The 2 cool, 1 warm colors, or 2 warm, 1 cool is a great idea that I, as a creatively-challenged individual in general, will be borrowing when I plan outfits or other design-related things.

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      betty ming liu

      Zoe, what a lovely comment you’ve left me. Thanks for inspiring me with your experiences. Humbles me and thrills me to have an impact! Never thought about using the cool-warm formula for dressing myself but it’s a great, great, creative solution! You’ve also hit on why I love the whole abstract art thing…people think, oh, it’s just paint smudges, anyone can do it. But I can only do it when I feel totally unself-conscious and free. Can’t be thinking about anything about how I feel about that blob of color on my palette in that particular second. :)

      As for your own artistic gifts, girl, you don’t know what you can and can’t do — yet. It took me a while to find classes and teachers that I truly vibed with. This process is no different than finding a good dry cleaner, hair salon or favorite coffee shop. Took me a while to demystify art and see that it’s just an extension of life and that I can do it! Hope you’ll give yourself a chance to explore. And good luck with the allergies. Thanks for visiting!

      P.S. — Here’s a link to an earlier post about how I got into an art head:

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  3. Chuck Zoeller


    Yes, bold colors and textures — I always love your work. Which is why I was your first collector.


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  4. Jean

    Yay Betty – it’s great that you’re back at the easel. Abstract is a logical step toward collage. What media are you thinking of throwing into it?
    and subject matter?
    I miss Vyt !! and you AT Vyt.

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      betty ming liu

      Jean, miss you too! And it was great to be back at Vytlacil. Campus is as beautiful as ever. Btw, O’Cain studied with Vyt, which was interesting to hear. I want to work with newsprint — big surprise, right? Some word art might be fun. :)

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      betty ming liu

      Erika, thanks for the encouragement! I appreciate the specific examples from your life and think you’re right. I probably would love to go big. In fact, you just triggered a memory for me. From my teens through my 30s — before I even thought of becoming a painter — my only interaction with paint involved changing the colors of the rooms in my home. And I did it more often than the normal person.

      I hate painting rooms now. Too hard on the back. But I always thrilled at the big gesture, the physical movement of laying out a swath of color. Down the road, I think there might be a place for the pretty little squares too because in my heart of hearts, I am also a quilter. Little squares make big squares, or not. We’ll see. But thanks for the feedback. As for the little green painting, I mushed it this morning and it looks a bit different now. Will show you another time. Thanks again!

  5. Erika Siobahn Kenny

    Wonderful work, Betty! I’m absolutely taken with your colour choices, especially that purple! <3

    I too, was terrified of large canvases for the longest time due to the waste if I screwed it up. I think there was also, for me, the fear of this BIG work out there with my name on it, large as life for everyone to see – at least that's how it felt, even though it's not like my paintings are in galleries (other than my own art-infested home) or anything. ;) The first really big painting I recall doing since I admitted that I am, in fact, an artist, was a painting on my basement wall. Then I didn't do one for a few years.

    As it turns out, it's easier for me to paint larger works. I gradually painted on larger and larger canvases, now I don't feel right painting on anything smaller than a 16"x20".

    Of course, as many of us do, I love pretty little things. However, I can't wait for the day that you become comfortable enough to let your psyche out onto a monstrous canvas! Dig deep and shout it out, lady!

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      betty ming liu

      Thanks, mj. You know what I was looking at when I did the one at the center lower row? A glass vase with a long branch of forsythia against a red wall with a purple tablecloth. In paring down the moment to the essence, it was all about the yellow streak of tiny petals.

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