Greta worried that the odor […] would settle into her canvases, but Einar told her it was impossible, not with the shellac. "They're impenetrable," he remarked of her paintings, which sounded—once it was said, hovering between the two of them like a bat—unkind. (6.6)
When we first meet Greta, she paints portraits and coats them with a thick layer of transparent shellac. It preserves the paintings, but it's also impenetrable. This makes Greta's paintings a lot like her: persistent (some might say stubborn), and difficult to get close to.
"Her painting of a young girl named Lili would be frightening if it wasn't so beautiful." (6.25)
An art critic says this about Greta's first painting of Lili, and she takes it as her first real compliment on her work. What do you think makes the painting "frightening"?
Over the summer she had begun to change her style, using brighter colors, especially pinks and yellows and golds, and flatter lines and an even larger scale. […] Nothing made her happier than painting Lili. (8.13)
Greta also leaves off the shellac, adding to the imagery here. The painting, even though it's of Lili and not a self-portrait, reflects Greta's attitude. She becomes happier and more open when Lili is around.
"That's what I want. Lili waiting, waiting for Hans." (9.64)
Perhaps Greta's portraits of Lili connect with so many people because she is able to capture Lili's powerful emotions. Previously, Greta painted mostly commissioned portraits, which have all the emotion of a Sears portrait studio photograph. Lili is passionate, and her feelings translate onto the canvas.
He'd begun to think of his makeup box as his palette. (9.25)
As Lili, Einar gives up painting landscapes for painting her own face with makeup instead. She becomes her own landscape, and with makeup, she can create whatever image she wants.
While she painted, Greta thought of nothing, or what felt to her like nothing: her brain, her thoughts felt as light as the paints she mixed into her palette. (10.2)
Greta spends a lot of time thinking, so painting is an amazing relief to her. She's able to switch off her thoughts and just feel instead. Ah…
Einar himself no longer painted. "I'm having a hard time imagining the bog," he'd call from his studio, where his canvases and his paints were kept tidy. (14.4)
Check out our "Symbols" section for more on the bog. Here, though, is Einar's rationale for giving up his life's passion: Einar painted to work through his feelings, but transforming into Lili is a real solution.
After thinking about it, Greta abandoned her latest portrait of Lili. (26.1)
Once the transition is complete, Greta decides to move on. Instead of dwelling on her thoughts of Lili, she leaves her behind. First she abandons her art; then she leaves Lili herself.
Methodically she unrolled each painting and anchored its corners and then aligned it into the grid she was creating of dozens and dozens of the little pictures that made up much of Einar's work. (27.116)
Einar's paintings are like his memories—a little mosaic of thoughts and images and feelings. Greta offers them to Lili, but Lili doesn't want them. She wants Einar to fade away, so she can't take his art with her because with the art come feelings.
There was another exhibition of her paintings in Hans's gallery, and for the first time she didn't attend the opening. Something in her felt sick of it all, though she was careful not to repeat such a sentiment to Hans. (22.2)
Perhaps painting Lili was a way for Greta to work through her feelings, too. Being married to a man transitioning into a woman will cause a lot of feelings, so Greta has a lot of complicated emotions to work through.