What I’ve learned about abstract painting & life

betty ming liu Art, Inspiration, Travel 4 Comments

The sun is setting on my 10-day dream vacation in France. When I fly back to JFK tomorrow, I will be packing a ton of new experiences, insights and concrete skills.

Learning to paint abstract is all about simplifying what I see down to the elements that matter most — to me. Doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I just have to be inspired.

Simply, simplify, simplify! Eliminate distractions! Say only what I mean!

Of course, my ability to carry on in such a liberated way depends on The Condition of Betty’s Brain. I lot of clutter inside of me got cleared out during this trip. It’s been wonderful to do and think for myself.

Letting go is fabulous. Running away from home also meant fleeing the expectations that suffocate me. How nice to realize I’m not here to make masterpieces.

The evolving me got one last workout in the morning. The day began with one last breathtaking sunrise in Honfleur, a port town in Normandy that was a go-to spot for Impressionist painters:


A group of us spent the morning painting on the beach with our instructor, Frank O’Cain, who teaches at the Art Students League of New York, which sponsored this trip.

It took a while for me to settle down because there was a young couple making out on the dunes. Plus, a wind kicked up and I was getting cold.

Then, I found this view:


During this trip, I learned to compose my pictures by drawing rough sketches. The goal is to map out the key shapes and colors to figure out an internal logic. the elements need to interact with each other:


What we have here is basically a three-stroke painting of three rectangles: tan sand in the foreground, greenish water in the middle and gray-blue sky in the background.

The simpler the painting, the more complex it actually is. Being a true minimalist takes incredible finesse. Still, I got to a place that made me happy:


In this photo, I’m holding my painting. If you look behind my hand, you’ll see the edge of a scrap paper dabbed with pinks and tans. That’s my test strip, another new best practice I’ve acquired during this painting adventure in the Normandy region of France.

To create a palette for a painting, Frank recommends working with just three basic colors. I’ve been amazed at the range I can get from such a seemingly limited palette.

For this painting, I’m working with two warms (burnt umber, permanent rose) and a cool color (ultramarine blue). Here’s what the full test strip looks like:


Of course, all this talk about simplifying and abstraction is really about a lifestyle. This trip has been a marvelous immersion in the possibilities. I love the idea of exploring my own psychology and putting colors to it.

When I get home to New York tomorrow, I’ve got the whole summer ahead of me. Can’t wait to see what happens.

So merci beaucoup to you all for putting up with my daily blog posts for 10 days and sharing in the journey. By reading and commenting, you really added depth to my trip! xo

Comments 4

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Betty! Kudos on the exploration into the abstract. And I am glad you found a place of healing with your mother.

    1. Post

      Beth, thank you for putting up with my daily emails over the past week and a half! It’s been a great trip on so many levels. Getting thrown in over my head is a great way to grow — fast. I’m feeling much more confident now about working with watercolor and abstracting. As for Mom, feeling such empathy for her, more than I’ve had in the past. :)

  2. Good morning Betty,
    Really enjoy your blog…love the humour.
    I have taken many painting workshops and find each instructor so different in their beliefs. It is wonderful learning something new from each of them and using it in my art. It is a never ending journey this learning thing.

    1. Post

      Jean, you speak the truth. I’m thrilled about the time with Frank. There were about 18 other artist/students on this trip. They were wonderful too. Wasn’t expecting to make new friends. But, I did anyway. And glad for the new relationships.

      I also expanded my color palette to include Frank’s choices. I never heard of pthalo turquoise before…now I’m hooked on it!

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