© William Cho
I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve come to understand that appreciating abstract art is about how a painting makes you feel. It’s not about what you think it is. But this is a difficult mindset to get into. Like a lot of people, I like to understand something. I like to know what it’s about. I need to be able to articulate what it is telling me. I’m not used to asking myself how a painting makes me feel.
I visited another abstract painter’s studio yesterday. She had a canvas leaning up against the wall that looked unfinished to me. There was an outline of what could have been the figure of a woman in the middle, and a pool of yellow in one corner and some bright splashes in the other. I wanted to know what it was about: was the woman falling? Was this the sky and this the ground? Which way up was it supposed to be? I wanted to be about something – I wanted to understand the message. “It’s not about anything,” said the artist. “It’s what it is, that’s all.”
A Young Lady's Adventure by Paul Klee
This painter works by feeling. She doesn’t know what she’s going to paint before she starts a canvas, she only knows the colours she wants to use, and which brushes. Then she’ll ‘play around’ until some combination of colours appears that she can ‘have a conversation with’. Then she follows the conversation to see where it leads – which might be nowhere. Or it might become something bigger than she herself was capable of, if she’d tried to impose a plan on it beforehand.
Painting and writing are both creative activities, and I recognized parallels in how she described her process. I know that my trouble with writing is that I need to know where it’s heading, I need to know what the message is, well before it appears. I know that this inhibits my creativity, and presents me from feeling the ‘conversation’ that the book might want to have with me.I asked her how she managed it. “The first thing you have to do,” she said, “is stop. Then, you have to feel with your heart where you need to go next. You need to be playful, you need to be brave, and you need to take risks. And you mustn’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
I know she’s right. The best stuff is always the stuff that we never intended to write about. The best things can’t be articulated, and the most wonderful thing about writing fiction is when a story surprises you, and turns out – to your delight – better than you feel you could have made it. The same process would seem to apply both to painting and to writing – and also, in fact, to life.