My day of creative reckoning

betty ming liu Art, Relationships, Travel 14 Comments

This 10-day painting trip to France is more than a tra-la-la fun vacation. I say this because we just went through the first critique of our work — and it felt like a deep therapy session.

As you know from my daily postings about this adventure, our instructor Frank O’Cain, a master teacher with laser vision. Even though I barely know the guy, he’s figured out my story.

He asked each of us to bring three samples of our work for an afternoon group chat. One by one, he put them up on an easel. We each got a five-minutes of pointers while everyone else listened in.

Another thing about master teachers — they deliver straight talk with kindness. If they do their evaluations effectively, you’ll walk away thanking them for that punch to the gut.

You’ll also realize that you are worthy, that you can let go of the past, that you can become the real you. Yup, this is exactly what happened to me today.

Now, a word about abstract painting before we go on. It is the opposite of representational art, where an apple resembles an apple. Compared to the representational approach, people don’t know what they’re looking at with abstract art.

So abstract artists must make their work visually accessible. The elements probably won’t make their brains think “apple.” Instead, the goal is to get beyond the surface decoding of images and tap into emotional reactions to colors, shapes and texture.

“The clearer your work, the more naked you are,” Frank explained to us before the critique. “The painting will tell you who you are. Make your painting as simple as possible. To do that, you have to let go.”

When Frank looked at my first offering, he summarized its message this way: “I don’t know where to go but I’m going there.” Guilty as charged!

He eyeballed the extra squiggles at one end of the painting. They were a diversion, a smokescreen from having people see my message.

Frank noted that my painting showed that I was a painter “in hiding.” I am afraid to succeed. “Don’t start messing things up because you’re afraid someone will like it,” he advised. “Remember, you paint for you.”

When he covered up the distractions at the side of the painting, my piece was instantly transformed. I suddenly marveled at the genius of my work:


Then he interpreted the message of the painting. “She likes control,” he noted. “Your painting will always tell you who you are.”

Hmmm. I guess the razor edges of the dominating gray square were a dead giveaway. Or maybe it was the sharp sawtooth of the zig-zag lines that nailed me.

On my next piece, which was all soft curves and pale colors, he talked about how on this one, I captured the “poetry of abstraction.” Sweet.

From here, he suggested, I should make more of a commitment to shape and space.

“You need to trust yourself,” he added before moving on to the next critique.

Big sigh.

This is the kind of stuff I tell my writing and journalism students. It pains me to see them underestimate their own talent by not believing in themselves. When we get to talking, they share stories about difficult family histories and tough parents. Of course, I relate.

That was it. Frank turned to the next person while I reflected on how I’ve been feeling about this trip…

We started in Giverny, which was exciting. I was thrilled to visit Claude Monet’s garden and paint there. But the truth? I hate painting flowers and nature scenes.

Now that we’re in Honfleur, I am struggling with looking at old houses and boats. They don’t interest me either. Yet once again, I love being here and walking around such fantastic architecture:


No one is forcing me to paint boats, buildings or flowers. Which raises the big question: Do I dare go totally abstract?

I was raised to seek approval from my elders and peers. If I follow my heart, though, they won’t praise me for painting pictures of pretty apples.

They might not understand what I’m doing. They might say, “Oh. Um, nice.” Or maybe, like the tourists in Giverny who peeked at my easel, they won’t say anything at all.

So here I am, wondering if I can finally be my own person.

Paint for me.

Live for me.

Be me.

Really, there’s only one way to go at this crossroad. If not now, when? For crying out loud, I’m turning 59 this year!

If I can let go of the past, maybe I won’t be so obsessed with control. I might even find more interesting ways to pass the time.

So. That was my day. How was yours? :)

Comments 14

  1. Post

    I can’t wait to get home and organize some nice photos to post on my blog. Hard to do all the remotely from my phone. Anyways, glad you stopped by. Have a wonderful day of fully occupying your space on this earth. Enjoy being yourself!!

  2. Painting or writing. The same demand for truth, and that’s hard. Exposing your core with no shame, and allowing that others have the intelligence to understand,, get it, you describe Frank with awe. You, Betty, are my Master Teacher, Insightful and inspirational. I know how you feel about what he gave you. Turns out this trip wasn’t just a “me” experience. Your family, friends and students will reap the benefits of your discoveries.

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      So Diana, you think this will be like second-hand smoke, but in a good way? You might be right about that. I think I might also steal some of Frank’s best lines to inspire my classes. :)

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      Charlotte, I highly recommend a hands-on art trip for everyone. Or, any kind of activity-based trip where you’re not just listening but giving of yourself. The other thing about the critique was that there was so, so much talent in the room. Really fun to be around other painters. It was also great that we got to know each other before the first critique. That way, the person connection came before the art connection. No judgement, more understanding.

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      Thank you, Hillary! Might as well start getting more “naked” right here, on the blog. I used to write like this a lot but I figured people were getting tired of me going on and on about myself. :)

  3. Thar is a GOOD painting. I liked your work from the beginning, but this doesn’t look like the amateur you make yourself out to be. The way the paint is applied is very controlled and professional. And by controlled I don’t mean anything negative, but that your arm knows what it’s doing even though your rational brain doesn’t. You are definitely on the way to being a serious painter.

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      Ingrid, your opinion means a lot to me, always has. Frank said it’s clear I understand color. But now, it’s about developing the voice with more confidence. The thing I’m getting with watercolors is an appreciation for nuance. With my oils, I loved applying thick, saturated colors. With the watercolors, I’m going for more control (in a good way) and depth. The goal is to make the piece look like it’s breathing. More to come from me, I’m sure of it!

  4. I love this so much. I’m glad you’re in good hands there. Some teachers don’t fully realize that that sort of crit is like reaching down your throat to squeeze your heart. When it’s done right it’s one of the best moments of your life. (Done wrong, one of the worst.) Very happy for you! Dive in and swing from the shoulder!

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  5. Love your painting. When I looked at it control came to my mind right away. Don’t paint out of the box was another big then you brushed down into the blank space. The blank space whether left intentionally or not gives the message of change, a change of unknown.. What’s so cool is that you have blank area not to fill in with paint but your future. My change from 59 up through now (61) has been fantastic. I control what I want (plus others have some control such as work), but I’m learning to let it go . the best thing is that it’s showing up in creativity and my artwork. Thanks for sharing Frank’s insights and your passion for life. BTW I still prefer oils because of the added depth of texture…and control.

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      Julia, love your interpretation! What you’re seeing helps me to sort out what I’m doing. Frank talked about each painter having a personal psychology that comes out in the painting. What you said about the blank area of my canvas representing the future — that’s great. Will think of that now, whenever I leave some open space. In fact, thinking about your comment will encourage me to leave more white space! And, like you, I still love oils too.

  6. Pingback: Sixty is the new serenity | betty ming liu

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