What I learned from abstract painting class, part 1

Recently I took a six-week class in abstract acrylic painting taught by Maria Nikl. My interest in painting arose from a meditation retreat about creativity that I went on several years ago at Spirit Rock. During this retreat, we painted every afternoon, and I discovered that it was an entirely transformative experience. Without that retreat and without all that painting, I think I would have never finished writing Ash. I went into the retreat feeling extremely restricted and blocked, and when I left I was completely open to the creative process. Part of this unblocking came about because of the painting — because I was not a painter, and yet I discovered that painting was a wonderful pathway into writing.

Afterward, I bought some paints and dabbled a little bit, but I never really did much on my own. This past winter I decided to finally go there, so I signed up for this class. I knew that I wanted to do abstract painting because I had no desire to paint objects that were recognizable; I wanted the canvas to be wide open to any experience and emotion.

Well, the class was amazing! I have very little background in art, and a lot of what I learned was revelatory to me. I think that's because I went into the class knowing that I knew very little, and therefore was open to learning a lot. Also, I went into it believing that I'm a writer, and thus whether or not my painting was good didn't matter. It was very freeing.

With that beginner's mind, I learned many things that are useful in writing. Today I'm going to blog about the first two weeks of the painting class; next time I'll finish up with the last three weeks.

For the first class, our teacher blindfolded us, and then a partner handed us paintbrushes already loaded with paint. We did not choose the color of the paint or the type of brush we were using; we just painted blindly. This is what came of it:

I was totally stunned when I saw this. (After our blindfolds were removed we were allowed to finish the paintings with our eyes open, but what I did was mostly enhance what was already there.) Our teacher explained that even if we couldn't see what we were doing, we clearly had an image in our head of what we were painting.

I think this says a lot about trusting the artistic instinct. Sometimes I do feel like I'm writing in the dark, and it's only when I've stepped back and taken another look at it that I realize what I mean.

Of course, painting blindfolded is also just a lot of fun. It was a great way to begin because it removed any expectations. We were blindfolded! We had no idea what we were doing! It's a good reminder to let go of those expectations when writing, as well.

During the second week, we were told to paint in only rectangles, using only three colors. This is what I did:

At first, I didn't like this painting at all. Then, a few weeks later, I took it out and turned it around. Originally the red bar had been at the top (you can tell because the paint drips down the white bar from top to bottom), and that felt very oppressive. But when the red bar was turned so that it was on the left side, it finally clicked for me.

I think this painting showed me a few things about writing. First, painting with those restrictions — only three colors, only rectangles — is a lot like retelling a fairy tale. You might say, huh? But it is very similar. It's about setting boundaries within which you're freed to play. By only using three colors, I had to focus on composition in order to make an impact. Where do I place those rectangles to be most interesting? When do I use the color red?

Within the boundaries of a fairy tale, there are certain things you must do, but within those boundaries, your composition of the fairy tale elements can change. Sometimes putting some limits around your writing is a great way to actually stretch yourself. This is why I think fan fiction is so useful. You have to play within a set of rules, but having those rules can enable you, paradoxically, to think outside the box.

The other thing this painting showed me is the value of perspective. With an abstract painting, you can turn it 90 or 180 degrees and discover a totally different image there. This different perspective is gained by physically stepping back, away from the painting, and seeing it from a distance.

It's very important to do this with writing, as well. With writing you can become so deeply enmeshed in a fictional world that you lose sight of the forest for the trees. You have to figuratively step back and take a look at the whole story. Does it begin at the right place? Is there a chapter in the middle that should be moved to the beginning or the end? Distance and perspective: these are absolutely vital for writing. The ability to separate yourself from your work and view it as something distinct, with a life of its own.

Our teacher told us that it was important to take these moments — to step away from the painting and view it from across the room or from a different angle. This allows you to listen to what the painting is telling you; it allows you to engage with it and, hopefully, understand what it's trying to say.

I think this is the struggle every author has with their book at some point. What is the book trying to say? What is the story being told? It's not always the one we start off telling, and the only way to figure it out is to gain some perspective on it.

Next time I'll blog about working with color and narrative in painting, but I'm curious: Are any of you painters or artists in addition to being writers? Do those different practices inform each other? How?