Yesterday, Anne Swannell of Victoria, B.C., wrote, “A couple of years ago one of my paintings sold in a group show and also won the Viewer’s Choice Award. The other day, I printed a copy of it to be made into a card, when I noticed it had an error. It’s a painting of people walking in the rain, with reflections of them and their umbrellas. But one of the reflections is missing an umbrella! Would you call up the buyer and offer to paint a blurry upside-down umbrella in, or would you consider that mistake part of the picture’s mystique and leave well enough alone?”
Thanks, Anne. There are times when you need to repair your sold paintings, but this is not one of them. You have produced what is known as a “conversation piece,” that is, something the owners and their friends can talk about long after it stops raining in B.C. My guess is your customer will want it left just the way it is.
Whether by intent, intuition or error, artists do well to take liberties in their work.
Art has the potential for another kind of truth — the truth of illusion, distortion, anomaly, enigma, exaggeration, paucity, understatement, embellishment and error. If everything in a picture were exactly as in nature, there would be little to engage anyone, much less give them something to talk about. Art fascinates for reasons the artist and the viewer cannot always define. We sit in front of our work and say, “There’s something funny about this, but I don’t know what it is.”
Just the thing you can’t figure out may just be the basis of its charm. Further, with the exception of a short hint in the title, your work is mute. Here are a few ideas to encourage your viewers to speak up on its behalf:
A personal connection to either you or the owner.
An intriguing style that has them wondering.
An incongruity that begs the question, “What’s this?”
Artists are supposed to be the ones with imagination. A good part of our job description is to get regular people to use theirs.
PS: “Those things which are most real are the illusions I create in my paintings.” (Eugene Delacroix)
Esoterica: Recently, I was a guest at one of our exclusive men’s clubs, an establishment I’ve visited a dozen times. There’s a painting in there that shows a steeplechase horse knocking down part of a fence. The cast shadow of the fence shows the fence in perfect shape, as if the picture was painted faster than the speed of light. Our host delighted in asking, “Can you see what’s wrong with this picture?” I pleaded ignorance, of course, so that he could get the upper hand in the conversation. It was kicking a dead horse for me, having seen it before, but his other guests were mighty impressed and continued to discuss the painting at length during dinner.
Charm and perfection
by Gerti Hilfert, Langenfeld, Germany
What an interesting point; charm and perfection! I imagine Anne’s feelings about producing and even selling a mistake from her own view of perfection. Catherine Deneuve once said, “Charm and perfection hardly cooperate. Charm premises little mistakes which one would like to cover.” In Anne Swannell’s painting both charm and perfection meet and complement one another. I believe most will overlook this missing umbrella reflection. But once discovered it makes the painting something very special. Guessing from that fact this painting could be once all the more interesting for art collectors or museums. This painting is brilliant work and what counts is the special spirit that makes the point; I can feel the wet as if I am part of it. Why not make a series of such conversation pieces, each including a mistake.
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Never spoil the magic
by Linda Anderson Stewart, AB, Canada
Never spoil the magic. Folks love to think they see something wonderful in an image whether planned by the artist or not. I often want to hide at openings so no one will ask me to “explain” what I was thinking when I put in a certain touch. Inevitably it will be way off what they hoped for and it loosens their connection to the work.
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Dragon with two right feet
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
I made a worse mistake than that once. I painted two right feet on the “dragon” in my St. George & the Dragon. I must have been looking at my own left foot in the mirror while I painted it. The painting was in a traveling museum show that visited four museums in four southern states. Nobody said anything about the anatomical anomaly. A year or so after it returned, my local gallery hung it in a show. At the opening, my friend took me aside and whispered, “Warren, did you intend to give him two right feet?” That was the first time I saw it. If anybody else did, I guess they were too polite to tell me. I took it home and fixed it. If it had been two left feet, I might have left it as a comment on my subject’s gracefulness, but two right feet made no sense. Fortunately it had not been purchased yet.
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by Barrett Edwards, Naples, FL, USA
Several years ago I painted a larger oil commission of a Colorado landscape. The client’s only request was that I show a bit of wildlife in it, and in particular he loved foxes. I painted in two not-very-obvious foxes and titled the painting Three Foxes. A week after receiving the painting, the client phoned: “Where is the third fox?” He had an entire dinner party searching the painting. And he loved my answer.
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Mistakes by the greats?
by Joseph Hutchinson, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Anne Swannell is not alone; even the greats have their moment. There is also a “mistake” in The Last Judgment fresco on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican by Michelangelo. He neglected to paint the colors of a hand of a figure in the central group. The hand may have been “corrected” when the fresco was restored in the 1990’s. Perhaps Michelangelo never intended to paint the hand, who knows? It makes for fine esoteric discussions in art history classrooms.
by Sonia Gadra, Frederick, MD, USA
I recently painted several pieces en plein air for judging in a competition. I sent 5 images of the pieces I created to a group of friends in order to have them help me choose 3 which they thought to be the best. The favorite was a piece of our local city hall, which surprised me because it was not my favorite, but I left out something which could be considered a very important element, the flag pole with the flag flying at half-mast. I painted it on the day of the Arizona shooting. I left out the flag pole because I couldn’t see it very well from my vantage point and because I thought putting it in the painting would take away from the focal point. It would have had to be placed right in the center. My intention was to bring joy to the viewer not sadness.
by Barbara, WA, USA
In my kitchen hangs a series of 4 prints. Each depicts a small vintage kitchen appliance. They were purchased for their style and bold colour. Quite some time after hanging them, we noticed that the toaster was made to hold three slices. We looked farther, and behold, the blender control dial has three speed settings, but no ‘off’ setting. Hard to say, but it seems the stand mixer may only have one beater. The real “conversation piece” is the kettle, because there doesn’t appear to be anything irregular about it. Many kitchen conversations have begun with a casual comment about the pictures, then the ahah!s as the anomalies are discovered and, always, the kettle’s mystery becomes a puzzle. The simple blue panel with its rotund electric appliance gets more than its share of consideration, scrutiny, speculation and discussion. Guests, friends and family visitors aside, after all these years I still sit sometimes with my tea and am drawn to study this fat enigmatic kettle who certainly hides an imperfection that I cannot perceive. Thanks to a three-slice toaster and its friends, my engaging kitchen prints have yet to become wall flowers.
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by Mac Grieve
Awhile back I attended your two-day workshop. The third day was offered to paint en plein air in the area of the Stewart Farm House. The weather was not great so I opted to take camera and shoot reference material. With one eye on the view finder and one on your method, you sat on a bench and began to paint what was in front of you. I could have sat in that same spot until they declared Bentleys non collectable and never saw a thing to photo or paint. When I see a turnip truck I see turnips not diamonds. This ability to see what others do not could be why some make it in this game and others don’t.
The artist’s dilemma
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
At first I laughed thinking that the question was silly, but on the second thought, I think that I understand the artist’s dilemma. This kind of thing actually pops up quite often. Just the other day a gentleman criticized my painting saying that not all the trees reflected accurately in my lake. Reflections are notorious to get wrong. Some of the old masters studied them in the gory technical detail, such as Leonardo and Thomas Eakins. I think that realist painters shouldn’t get away without a thorough understanding of reflections. Even when we paint what we see, we should be able to consciously choose when to be technically precise and when to leave things ambiguous or intentionally inaccurate. This artist seems to have wanted to be accurate so she sees this detail as a mistake, but as you say, it’s water under the bridge and a conversation piece by now.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Bobbo Goldberg of Orlando, FL, USA, who wrote, “I really like Anne’s painting from last week’s clickback. The ‘mistake’ takes an everyday experience and lifts it suddenly to the level of the surreal. Done is done, but Anne’s ‘flub’ is fun.”
And also Ken Paul of Eugene, OR, USA, who wrote, “Some art answers questions, and some asks them. Hemingway was quoted as saying that leaving out what you know is OK, but leaving out what you don’t know is cheating.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Conversation piece…