The first time someone told me I could paint over an old piece and start anew, I was hesitant (read: I wanted to grab my canvas and run away from them, lest this information somehow painted over the piece in question against my will). They introduced me to the concept of underpainting, they explained that all artists do it, but I wasn’t really buying it.
I wasn’t under delusions of grandeur about the nature of my work. I hadn’t sold any paintings at that point and was very aware of my steep learning curve as a self-taught artist just starting to move beyond the therapeutic hobby stage. I wasn’t even to my autism diagnosis yet, and so I’d never even heard the term pathological demand avoidance. My mind conceded that the suggestion made practical sense--my studio apartment doubled as my paint studio, and thus there was not endless room or money to make each piece an eternal artifact.
So what was I fighting, and where was it coming from? Did some part of me think of my mother, who repeatedly says that her life before her conversion to Christianity doesn’t matter? Or maybe my dad or grandmother changing their last names to run from some part of their past? Was I guarding against the threat of similar erasure and dismemberment?
I honestly didn’t know, and so, with a distinct knot in my stomach, I slathered a thick layer of gesso over that piece. Total white-out. Part of me was relieved--the unanswered questions and unresolved lessons of that piece were instantly off my artistic ‘to-do’ list. Part of me was embarrassed--it felt like I’d interrupted a friend in the middle of telling their life story simply because I didn’t have the patience to sit through the rest of it.
But the thing was, it wasn’t really gone. As I sat with it and the next few white-out pieces, a feeling rose. There was a profound vulnerability in sitting in front of something I’d tried so thoroughly to hide, only to have ridges of resistance rise on a field of white. In my non-painting life, I’d finally been feeling like myself in the three or four years before starting to paint. I’d started my somatic studies, left a job that was killing me, and finally stopped waiting for a relationship to bring me happiness. But clearly, these past me’s weren’t willing to just be erased and forgotten. As I ran my fingers over the textured, white canvas, I wondered what this meant. Could current and past me’s find a way to interact, or did one invalidate the other? Was there a ground between continual annihilation and being just one thing forever?
Though I didn’t know the answers these textures held, I felt them as opportunities rather than threats. And maybe that’s why, weeks or months after first learning about underpainting, one day, I did not completely white-out the canvas I was re-working. As each stroke got closer, I realized what I was about to lose. The white acted almost like a highlighter to shout the message at me. My first layer hadn’t told the whole story, but it told some of it. I put my brush down to stare at my uncovered patches. The effect was disconcerting, but captivating. It was a little like watching two strangers at a party try to make small talk. I started to wonder about how they were connected. I started to pull paint off the shelves with intensity, melting into that space where intuition leads, and intellect shuts the hell up.
Once I realized that total white-out wasn’t the only option, I dove into underpainting like the spiritual practice I’ve since come to view it as. It wasn’t long before what I was doing at the easel started to strengthen and speed the transformation already in process in my life. Turns out that one of the keys to my unmasking, both autistically and in a broader sense, was the fundamental confusion between two very different things--hiding and integration.
Hiding is the default when no one teaches you how to integrate the many layers of your story. It will do for survival but not for long-term thriving. Integration is a much longer process. It takes patience and an honesty that, quite frankly, feels like your skin is coming off at times. I’d had some powerful moments of integration since first going in search of my “real” life, but nothing sustained enough yet to break down a decades-long habit of hiding.
Underpainting invites me to practice integration every single time I pick up a brush. What color in me needs to lead now? What linework am I done learning from so I only need to save a tiny squiggle? Where is the texture timeless, and where is it ready to surrender to new patterns? As I started finding these answers, I started telling people when I’d had a meltdown. I stopped manipulating the expression on my face to appear more acceptable. I stopped talking myself out of my newest special interest (BTW, it’s hammers as of the writing of this article). This unmasking released me from much of the need to hide from previous me’s.
I used to be a devout Christian. It messed me up in some ways, and it was my first entry into magic. Welcome to the party in my head, past me. I used to blame my parents for all they couldn’t give me, and recently I’ve started complimenting them on the shit they did right. Come on in, past me. There are snacks over by the window.
And wouldn’t you know it, but as the party in my head continues to fill up with past and present me’s, I head back to the easel to watch the conversation unfold. Not everything is equally important, but nothing is lost. They are me, and I am them. Nothing. Is. Lost.