Long ago and far away, when I used to paint, I found that my best paintings were blessed by accident. A line would wobble, I’d use the wrong color, I’d rub up against the canvas. The undercoat of gesso would go on rough, causing the colors that came on top of it to catch and build in unexpected textures. I would paint what I saw – the surface of an enamel sugar bowl – and discover myself in its reflection. Unhappiness, too, produced useful effects, and if not accidental, this certainly was unintended.
I was anorexic then, silently flailing against family and dependence and my own inert terror of stepping out into the life I yearned for. I spent the summer of my sophomore year in New Haven working alone matting prints and drawings in the Yale Art Gallery by day and painting alone in the studio evenings. I painted countless self portraits, a memorable bowl of oranges, which were my primary sustenance, and a haunting angled and empty picture of the studio with a mirror and my reflection. This last hangs in my office now, along with the sugar bowl series.
Nothing in these paintings was planned except the most rudimentary architecture and sense of subject. Usually, I could not tell whether the paintings were even worth keeping until I had left them and returned the next day, or put them aside for a week or two before turning them over again. In another painting on my wall now, the brush marks of the sizing I used to prime the board come through the paint. It is a picture of brushes in a glass jar, white rings to suggest the lip of the jar, deep cuts of alizarin crimson to sharpen the outlines of bristles above, and blurred strokes to convey the jumble of handles behind glass. But it is the accident of lateral striping, the effect of that undercoat that somehow makes the effect of glass most real. The painting is flawed in other ways – the planes of table and wall, the hanging rag behind the brushes do not work at all – but the sense of glass and shine and bristle and mass, and the wonder of accident remain a lesson.
I keep these paintings around me even though I no longer paint because they remind me what can happen if I let myself go. I would work in an almost trance-like state. My best results came when my hand guided itself, when my mind focused only on seeing and NOT on getting it down. The getting-down happened on its own. It was the seeing that was vital.
When I turned to nonfigurative art, when all I saw was what I was putting down, my work fell apart. I spent two years squandering what I now realize I’d gained. As a result I did not pursue my painting. But slowly, through writing, I’ve reclaimed the lessons of those early paintings.
You cannot make art if you do not see. You cannot control the reflection. Sometimes you see the most clearly when working in the dark or closing your eyes. (I painted one of my most pitch-perfect paintings, a still life of a living room, without any light on the canvas and without any sense, until morning, of what I had accomplished.) Always let the work sit awhile before rendering criticism. And finally, when accidents happen, go with them, at least till you see where they’re taking you.
All good fiction writers, I believe, depend on accident. A phrase overheard at the grocery store will change the course of a scene. The effect of sun slanting sideways through trees will develop into a guiding metaphor. Phone conversations, bad news from home, will insinuate themselves into story lines. In painting and writing alike, the aim is not to prove what you know but to explore what you cannot fathom. And in that process, while struggling to describe the surface of a sugar bowl, you may catch an accidental glimpse of your true self.
Causes Aimee Liu Supports
PEN USA, Academy for Eating Disorders, Women for Women, UNICEF, Amnesty International