Recently, I’ve had my knuckles thoroughly rapped for recommending one of my favourite creative acts — burning bothersome paintings. Environmentalists have pointed out that it’s not only anti-social, in some places it’s illegal. Chastened, I’m now turning your attention to the fine art of hanging onto your dogs. And what to do with them.
“Hope,” said Alexander Pope, “springs eternal in the human breast.” Hope that you will eventually be able to breathe new life into some of your old failures. Truth is, given the confluence of desire and understanding, you can — with many of them. Half-finished or unresolved paintings, after being put aside for a while, can sometimes be figured out and fixed. You must often wait until the “knowledge” comes to you. If you’re growing fast, this might be only a couple of weeks. Some of us must wait for decades. Here are a few suggestions, many of which will not apply to watercolourists, whose work, due to the nature of the medium, can often be permanently beyond redemption.
Glazing. More things are wrought by glazing than this world dreams of. In opaque-media a toning glaze almost always gives an opportunity to reorganize values and improve compositions. Often, the main thing that is needed is a “mother-colour” that pulls the painting together. Overworked and unfocused works can be revitalized and re-evaluated. Centers of interest, comings to light, colour surprises can then be found and cut in. For starters, I recommend a thin wash of Carbon black, Pthalo blue or Quinacridone gold. Go ahead; amaze yourself.
Take out. Very often it’s what you take out that makes a work stronger. Simpler compositions generally win the show. Very often we tend to keep an element in because of the effort of putting it there in the first place. If it can be fingered as a distraction — chuck it.
Put in. I call it PMII (Put more into it). This doesn’t mean cluttering it with another element — a new figure in the foreground or more birds in the sky. It means looking for the essential drama that already exists in the work, and building on it. Make storms stormier. Let lights shine brighter. Let flames burn higher. (Oops)
PS: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” (Thomas Edison) “Every path you take educates you and leads you to the next.” (Martha Sturdy) “There, I’ve failed again!” (Vincent van Gogh)
Esoterica: Artists are sometimes guilty of underplaying intellectualization and practical thinking. Lists that I use in my dog-resurrections include queries about pattern, design, grays, mid-tones, clutter, focus, style-force and condition. I accept the idea that problem-solving is one of the most rewarding aspects. One must patiently comb one’s dogs with thoughts of “What could be?”
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Mind-bending tools for re-evaluating
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
As for resurrecting the dogs, a good technique is to turn the painting upside-down, on its side, and/or view it through a mirror. This kind of breaks the conceptual blocks and lets you see the painting in another way. Sometimes in this way, what’s wrong with the work becomes evident. A stubborn painting that just doesn’t seem to work, no matter what you try with it, should be put aside and forgotten (for the time being). Then, it will be seen differently and it might then be possible to get out of the rut with it. Another remarkable thing… did you ever notice that a painting that you thought was no good, and you put it aside and then look at it after a few years, turns out to be really pretty good? Possibly we were so tied up with some unattainable and unknown Olympian goal at the time, that we didn’t see what had actually come together on the canvas!
Excitement in fire
by Stacey Shulman
I must say that I disagree with your critics who are not in favor of burning paintings. The idea of burning things is very exciting to me as an artist who works in clay. Fire is a necessary element to my creative process. I teach creative expression to older adults, and I often tell them to “paint like you’re going to burn it!” to help quiet their inner critic and open their creativity. There is something freeing about knowing that all things are impermanent. It helps us keep our ego in check and our feet grounded in reality.
Thank you very mulch
by Patty Bacon
If you must “destroy” it, as an organic gardener, I can tell you that canvas and paper make great mulch. You can think of it as planting seeds for more of Mother Earth’s natural art. Just place the piece in your garden, cover it with leaves or grass clippings. Weeds won’t grow, the piece will biodegrade in about a year, and the ground underneath will be rich and fertile.
Love that “Phoenix” feeling
by M.A. Tateishi, Cambridge, MA, USA
Stick to your guns about burning artwork. I burn mine in the fireplace, and find it a wonderful and cleansing process. Although I repaint all my canvas work and boards, getting rid of paper artwork through fire is much better than throwing it out. There’s a “phoenix” feeling of releasing energy. Too many people get attached to bad work, either by framing too soon or hanging on. Keep moving so only your best work is around you.
(RG note) In my protest to the environmentalists I stated that a very small amount of undesirable art makes excellent kindling. We have three fireplaces in our home. We burn the abundant wood-waste from our property. This way we make a token contribution to the conservation of fossil fuels. The sacrificial art ceremony makes it an event.
Foster homes for dogs
by Alexandra Bell
When I have a painting that “is not quite” and I know it won’t ever become what I want it to be, rather than burn it I simply remove my name from the canvas and set it out in a laneway — away from my house! It’s always gone when I drive by the next day, and I smile thinking that it’s bringing warmth and colour to someone’s bare wall!
One person’s garbage is another’s treasure
by Sharalee Regehr
A friend of mine — a well known artist — has his studio in a high school. One of the teachers from another school was in his studio and happened to see a discarded painting in the garbage can. She asked if she could have it and with a quizzical look he said OK. A year or so later he was invited to her house for a meeting and there on the wall was the discarded painting. He was horrified — and then it got worse — she asked if he would mind signing it. I was in his studio when he was telling me the story and as I left I noticed a piece of cardboard with overspray from spray paint. As I was about to leave, I could not resist asking him if he was throwing out the cardboard. He laughed and said I could definitely not have it. This became our standing joke.
Exotic collages from unwanted watercolours
by Dianna Segalin, Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada
Don’t throw out those watercolours, just collage over them. Those not-so-perfect paintings in watercolour can be given new life with the use of collage. I have reworked pictures and ended up with surprising results. I use Japanese papers, unyru? and natsume. I glue them with watered-down PVA glue. These papers make wonderful textures for rocks, or anywhere were you want extra texture. The papers are very absorbent, lending themselves to some interesting results.
by Lida Van Bers
Since I work in oil and mixed media, it is, to an extent, easy for me. The ones on paper I use for collages; even the canvas ones I cut in attractive shapes and paste on canvas. It is amazing what beautiful paintings can come from that. And one can use cropping for cards or even miniature paintings. There are lots of ways to use discards. I am a packrat so very little goes in the garbage, or gets burned.
by Jane Shoenfeld
I never burnt artwork until a year ago when I had to move. I did a ceremony with other people saying goodbye to a space I held dear. I also burnt artwork and it was great. I went through work carefully and chose pieces that I worked and reworked and could never pull off. I realized that lack of value contrast and boring predictable use of focus was why I chose to destroy these pieces. This really highlighted for me how contrast, unpredictable use of edges and dissolving were what I wanted — burning was great and one of these days I’ll do it again.
Every dog has its day
by Michael Schlicting
In regards to what to do with “failed” paintings, over the years I have come to rely on those problematic pieces. In fact I think sometimes I subconsciously sabotage a painting so I can have the fun of repainting it. Some of my most satisfying paintings are ones that have come out of this process.
When I pull one of the “dogs” out of the reject pile, I look for some little bit of interesting colour, a shape relationship or just a sense of movement in the composition. Starting with that, I create a brand new painting, freed from the constraints I placed on myself when I started originally. The results are usually quite dynamic, and the process is enjoyable. I usually include a day or two of this when I teach a workshop and the participants find it very helpful and fun.
The three R’s: Reduce – Reuse – Recycle
by Judy W.
Maybe if we were put on a deserted island with only the meager means for survival along with one blank canvas then we would value not what we produce, but the tools with which we produce. How many wonderful paintings from the past have been found under paintings that were being restored? Was the artist displeased with his ‘dog’ and painted over it, or was it out of necessity that he used the same canvas? So in today’s society what do we do with the dogs instead of burning them? We recycle them. Sure we can always go to the store and buy more paint and canvas but because we have been listening to the warnings about the state of our Mother Earth we want to have something beautiful left to paint. If our Earth is still inhabited in another 100 years someone may come across one of your paintings damaged from pollutants and inadvertently during restoration discover that what you thought of as a dog turns out to be a highly prized painting made from real paint by an actual person and not a computer generated image.
Nothing beyond redemption
by Nancy Hughes, Huntsville, Alabama, USA
As a multi-media artist, art instructor and art marketing consultant, I must say that your statement about a watercolourist’s failed paintings, “can often be permanently beyond redemption,” is false. Each of the steps you listed for oil painters can be used by a watercolour painter.
1. Glazing: Watercolour painters can use glazing techniques to reorganize values and improve compositions. They can combine water media paints; i.e., gouche, casein and acrylics.
2. Take out: Watercolourists can lift out pigments using several techniques. The staining pigments can be removed to a faint stain, which sometimes creates a wonderful illusion. A last resort could be to soak the whole painting and remove most of the pigment. Then stretch the paper and start over.
3. Put in or PMII: A watercolour painter can easily create an exciting piece of artwork using a number of collage techniques.
When all else fails
by Theresa Daily
I’m a watercolourist and destroying paintings is as easy as ripping them in a million pieces, depending upon how much I hate the painting. I have been told by numerous teachers to keep the bad ones and learn from them. I do keep unfinished ones, in the hopes that someday I will have the technical skill to finish what my mind sees. But as you said an overworked watercolour is dull and lifeless. So after I have worked it to death and not achieved my goal, I reluctantly throw it away. I keep a photo of all paintings and can look back and see where I have come from and that is enough. Thanks for giving permission to destroy the old baggage! I even go back in my book, and if a painting is still around, even if at the time I thought it was good, I take another look at it and either give it away, or throw it away. I’m glad that not all artists keep their lesser than great works!
In praise of burning
by David K Louis, UK
Sometimes it is best to burn paintings that just don’t burn. This act alone can make sure you don’t mindlessly stroll into painting a piece again. How great it is to produce a spontaneous painting that has had everything but, in its planning and creation. Great things rarely happen by chance. Watching your work go up in smoke hits that important message home.
Merits of re-working
by Veronika Funk
I have often thought how liberating it must be to burn unsatisfactory work but because of my heritage I cannot bring myself to waste canvas. Sometimes the work I feel I cannot live with has a life of its own and ends up selling from the studio, and could have been sold countless times over. To each his own, I guess. But there are also times I gesso over the acrylic paintings and begin again. Each time I “paint out” a piece, I am reminded of Jane Urquhart’s novel, The Underpainter, and I am satisfied with what I have done (if you are unfamiliar with the story, basically the artist completes an entire painting and ends up painting over it in white — his completed painting underneath is essentially the under painting — wonderful imagery). And though the work is still a part of the whole, I am given an opportunity to re-think the composition, colour, all of it, and begin the journey again.
Memory of failure is lasting
by Judith Jones, Pleasant View, UT, USA
The problem of what to do with failed watercolours is twofold in my studio. I search for and save any successful elements in a piece; i.e. cut it into pieces. And then there is the recycling bin. I had an instructor once, who told me to save my failures, so that I would know where I had been and could see progress. However, that became a big storage problem, so I fill the recycle bin. I find that the memory of failure is quite lasting anyway.
by Kim Joyner
How do you mix your glazes? I used a mixture with oil, turpentine and varnish. After six months it is still sticky.
(RG note) If you’re working in oil you should add in a trace amount of cobalt driers. This speeds up the drying. My current work is practically all in acrylics. I mix my glazes in yogurt cups: About 90% water, 5% acrylic medium, 5% colour — or more depending on the tinting strength of the colour. (for Pthalo blue, for example, you don’t need much) Put the glaze on with a rag — either over the whole work or in selected areas. Dryish for scumble, wet to get into all the nooks and crannies.
Camera a problematic tool
by Liz Reday, California, USA
Although I love the concept of observation, I personally have found that the camera can be an obstacle to personal observation. I first noticed this on vacations, where I was spending more time composing the perfect shot, and not being in the moment. We don’t need a camera to see things, we have eyes. We are also artists, and can whip out a small sketchbook and pencil and draw a quick study. Or get in the habit of keeping an easel, small canvas panels and paint in our car — Or, if you’re young and healthy, in our backpack. Direct observation from life really can’t be beat, and its depressing to see artists “stuck” in the trap of painting from photographs. A camera doesn’t “see” the way our eyes do, and paintings done strictly from photographs look like paintings done from photographs… why bother? For a start, photos lie, they change colors and values, they give us way too much information, and they can take the soul and individuality of the artists personal vision out of the painting. Speaking for myself, the more I use photos, the less “me” is in the painting. So I like the idea of observation, just minus the camera.
(RG note) My idea in the exercise that I proposed was not to go out to get photos to work from, but rather to use the camera device as a prompt for seeing and heightening visual creativity. The letter and responses to the use of the camera are at Shining path.
Information on synesthesia requested
by Melanie Stuparyk
I’m a journalist in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and am seeking artists who have synesthesia. I’m writing an article on the condition.
(RG note) Synesthesia is where some people hear sounds when they look at colours, or see colours when they hear sounds, etc. My letter and the responses are at Synesthesia
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, 2003.
That includes Dell LaVelle, who wrote, “Good art materials are spendy… what’s wrong with paint, plaster or gesso over a bad or questionable painting? The old timers were famous for this.”
And Jim Rowe, who said, “I find the most common cause of a painting being inadequate is lack of shadows. I’m always striving to repaint my shadows, and still they are never dark enough.”
And Francoise Olivier, who wrote, “I remember, when I was painting in oils, destroying them because I was not satisfied. If only I had kept them, today I would love to have them. Now I paint in watercolour, which I simply loooooove.”
And Maggie Penney, who wrote, “My friend and I recycle our watercolors by shredding them with a paper shredder and then make woven baskets and mats with them.”
And also Susan Neill, who wrote, “There is no point in hanging on to poor work when the canvas can be used to create something better! Sometimes I sand the old painting down. If there’s a good texture it can be used to make a new piece.”
And also Ilania Abileah, of Morin Heights, Quebec, Canada, who wrote, “I apply a fine layer of Gesso, sand it down (where there is impasto) and paint over a completely new image… the resulting transparencies are often wonderful.”
And Bill McCusker, who writes, “A bit of calligraphy, a frame and this little reminder hangs on my studio wall and the walls of some of my artist friends: ‘God takes care of imbeciles, little children and artists.'” (Camille Pissarro)