A Song for the Seventies was a 24 x 30 inch oil on canvas I painted in 1975. I had been to the High Arctic in the summer of ’74 and had taken some photos of a young Inuit guitarist by the name of Frank Panaktalok. The painting was conceived with a West Coast Native motif in the background — a bit of artistic license, you might say. Old records showed it had been sold by an Alberta gallery for $800.00.
The painting must have been purchased by someone in the oil patch, because somewhere around 1980 I got a letter from a Texas lady who had inherited it and had tracked me down through one of my galleries. I’m not sure whether I wrote back to her, but in any case the next time it showed up was in 1998 when a Mr. Farley phoned to let me know he had bought it in a junk store in Houston. Farley had been happy to pay 16 dollars for it — “framed.” He reckoned it was a bargain. Farley must have been a bit of a flipper because the painting soon turned up again in Toronto, Ontario in the hands of a George Bevis who phoned and told me he needed to sell it to his friend Elspeth Newton. He wanted to know how much he should charge. I remember looking up the going price, probably about $4000.00, and he seemed quite pleased with himself.
Then last week I received a phone call from a bilingual gentleman in Ottawa, Ontario, who said he got the painting in what he described as a “tax deal,” and that it now had a nasty cut in the canvas. “Original frame, though,” he assured me. I told him I was his man to fix the problem and he should ship it to me post-haste. I told him there would be no charge for my repair service. “My work is guaranteed for life,” I said. When we finally shucked it out of its box, shipped courtesy of the “Gouvernement du Canada,” it was like seeing an old, inadequate friend.
The repair required a patch glued to the back, some filler and a wee struggle to match the colours. I threw in cleaning, varnishing and tightening. When I phoned the Ottawa gentleman and told him his painting was all better, and we were shipping it back to him the next day, he asked me if I wanted to buy it. So I did — for $6000.00. I reckoned it was a bargain.
PS: “It is precisely from the regret left by the imperfect work that another can be born.” (Odilon Redon)
Esoterica: Even though it is an oil painting, the repairs are made in acrylic. First, the painting is washed with water and a small amount of mild soap. Subsequent gentle wiping with clean rags removes the last remnants of accumulated grime. The stretchers are then tightened and the painting left to dry. Later, hairy edges of the cut area are carefully trimmed with small scissors. Using acrylic medium for adhesive, a patch of canvas is adhered to the back — a bit more than needed to cover the cut. Light modeling paste is then pressed into the cut from the front and knifed to canvas level. Touch-up is done as only the original painter can do — fresh and bold. An acrylic isolation coat is then spread over the entire painting with a rag. After several days, a final acrylic varnish is applied over all. The date and materials ought to be noted on the back of the patch and signed by the artist.
by Walt Kozier, Sayre, PA, USA
I once studied under an old restoration artist in Baltimore. I never completed my studies because of the amount of time required in this field, and I decided to paint instead. We were taught that we should never patch when restoring but should replace the entire back with a solid piece of top quality canvas. Over time a patch will begin to show through the front of a painting. I saw this happen on a painting many years ago. That old restoration artist was a master, and after watching this kind of work being done by a professional, I know I made the right decision to go in another direction.
Japanese art restoration
by Dana Jenkins, Buffalo, NY, USA
Just this morning, in A Year in Japan, I read about the Japanese method of repairing very ancient bowls (the one illustrated was made in 1143 A.D.). While repairs of porcelain or pottery in the U.S. are meant to be undetectable, repairs in Japan are obvious and involve filling cracks with gold or silver. There’s a Japanese word for all this that indicates making a new and different piece of art from a previously complete piece. The craftsman/artist observes the design and spirit of the original piece and goes from there. This may not be what you did with your painting but its travels probably gave it a life of it’s own and your changes might reflect that in some way.
by Linda Way, CA, USA
I just finished reading your most recent letter about the Inuit guitarist that you painted back in the ’70s… What a special gift to come back to you! I have a question regarding acrylic canvas repairs. Does the technique that you mention apply to all acrylic canvases?
(RG note) Thanks, Linda. The patch system works for both oil and acrylic. Some artists (as well as collectors and dealers) don’t like to see patches. One way of getting around this, particularly if there are multiple damages, is to adhere new canvas to the entire back. This job is much trickier and in some cases requires professional conservators. Another solution is to glue the whole thing down to a panel of some sort. Acrylic medium is often used as an archival glue. Heat-set panels, both cradled and uncradled, are provided by Art-boards and other manufacturers.
Purchasing painting back
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
Congratulations on giving “new life” to an old painting. I’m curious as to whether you will sell it again or is this the end of the road? I never gave it a thought to purchase back one of my own paintings. My giclee prints usually suffice as a record of my sweat, toil and tribulations and they only cost me a few bucks. Well, perhaps if I sell enough this year I can consider an original Dyan Law!
Another painting story
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
I once gave a perfectly sweet little plein air landscape to a “friend” as an anniversary gift. A few years later, an acquaintance who made his living by finding lost art in thrift shops, stopped by my office with the little painting and asked if it was one of mine. I knew it was, of course, but it had been reframed and the signature obscured. I resigned it, and was told that the “finder” had paid 50 cents for it. He then flipped it at a consignment gallery and got $600. I found this out because the finder fellow sent me a nice letter and a check for $100 which he said was “for your signature.”
About the previous topic: I am not sure the Flynn Effect is working very well in Oakland, California. As evidence — this little cartoon sketch of one of my high school art students. It is a phenomenon I see all too often.
Fate of Paintings Unknown
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
That is great that you have been blessed with the knowledge of your work’s journey. Wow, $16 in a Houston junk shop, un-real. Then to finally put your hands back on it after all this time and even become it’s owner again, very good.
I used to do a lot of commissions for co-workers back in the 80’s. They didn’t pay much for the work, but I would always tell them that if they ever needed to sell the piece, to give me first option to buy. As of yet no one has returned a painting. I’m sure many may have found the shelves of the thrift stores by now though. Or even worse, the trash bins. I’m not sure of any of their fates. It would be a grand reunion for sure to meet one of them again!
by Cristina Monier, Buenos Aires, Argentina
The conservation and restoration of easel paintings is a profession and as such should be left to professionals who have studied the technicalities of the task for long years and have had lots of practice. Not two paintings are alike and each one deserves careful study and research before even taking it out of its frame. First and foremost to be done when a painting has a cut is to loosen the canvas so the edges of the cut are not stressed. Then you apply the patch, which is made of a fabric thinner than the canvas, larger than the cut and with the edges carefully frayed. If you leave a raw edge and use a heavy canvas, sooner or later the contour of the patch will show on the front of the painting. To apply the patch you must use animal glue or any other adhesive which is reversible, that is to say, can be removed easily. Acrylic adhesive is far from that. To ensure no movements of the canvas, the area must dry under pressure. Only when the patch is dry can you stretch the canvas, apply the filling to the crack and only then proceed to clean the surface of the painting. This must be done with outmost care, with almost dry Q-Tips in areas the size of a postage stamp and rinsed and dried immediately with a small cotton ball, otherwise water may seep through the microscopic cracks of the painting, reach the canvas and mold will ensue. And believe me, the cracks are there. As for wiping with a rag, pray that there are no loose flakes of painting.
The need for reversibility applies to the retouching. Acrylic paint is not reversible at all once it has dried and as in time the color of the retouching will change, it will be necessary to remove it and touch up again. This will be impossible, to do no harm to the original painting if you use acrylic paint. Some restorers use watercolor, others dry pigments and Paralloid B 72. There are also excellent tubes of varnish-based paints by Maimeri, never oil paint, never acrylic.
So you see there is a little more to this business of restoring than meets the eye. Restorers are not painters, unless they study with a good master, and painters are not restorers, unless they have a degree to prove it.
Ego affects value
by Lorelle Miller, CA, USA
Your letter caught my interest as it examines the concept of perceived value. There are those who have an immeasurable level of confidence and value both themselves and what they do creatively. Their work may vary from brilliant to bleak, but they never admit to imperfections.
In the middle ground are those who flow back and forth between the ups and downs of their work. They relish the home-run and sigh over the failed attempt, but keep going without expectation.
Then there are those who are brilliant and either can’t see their gift, or, if they do, don’t appreciate it; or they are shy, secretive, or selfish and never share their gift.
The value of the actual work appears to reflect the ego and eccentricities of its creator. Only when the ego recedes can the work be evaluated by the outside world.
Insight Gained from Injury
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
It’s been a month since I broke my painting arm. The cast finally came off Wednesday, but I’m still in a splint, and probably have at least another month of healing time before I can paint with my left hand again. I was amazed and delighted by all the emails your readers sent me, offering condolences and suggestions. I did try painting with my non-dominant hand as many people suggested and although it’s clear that the ability to paint lives in my mind, not my hand, everything is much more difficult and takes a lot longer with my right hand. On the bright side, I’ve gained a bit of insight about how it feels to be a beginner, which will make me a better teacher. I really appreciated all the emails; they cheered me up when I needed it.
Art on the Internet
by Bette Laughy, Surrey, BC, Canada
It seems that for every gallery that gateways visual art, two more are opening up to express the creative underbelly. Creativity is not scatology on the walls of a staid, trying-to-be-hip national institution. Innovation comes from the edge, not the centre. Right now, there is an explosion of online galleries; the cream will rise to the top. And perhaps every deviance will find an audience. Vive democracy!
This explosive movement may not make anyone rich. Yet it is vibrant and creative and fun. There are new visual art movements every day which will not fit into the square peg of the established criteria. We don’t have a name for them yet. We will have to find a name, for they will not go away.
No art speak
by Peter Senesac
I was inspired by your show with words and had the opportunity to show 3 paintings in a small gallery walk in town. It’s a one night thing so I didn’t expect to sell anything. All three were from a series called “beach people” and I put a short description under each one. I couldn’t do a hundred words but just a few to describe the feeling of the place and the beach on that day or in general. Not poetry but almost. Not art speak. No one commented on the words. I think most people that looked at the work read the words. I think it enhanced the paintings. I’d like to continue doing it but I doubt my local gallery will let me add this little “hang tag” but I will try. When you say an acrylic intermediate coat, is that soft gel or matte medium or is it a special coating material?
(RG note) Thanks, Peter, and everyone else who asked this question. The term is isolation coat and it’s a matter of preference. I use acrylic medium gloss — others swear by matte. Regarding your report on the written word accompanying your work, my dealer, on attending that retrospective, was wildly enthusiastic. He asked the curator, “How did you get Robert to write this stuff?” I think highly evolved dealers might just take to the idea.
Special pricing for special paintings
by Sandra Jones, NJ, USA
I recently received the honor of having a painting chosen to be used as the Official Poster of the Devon Horse Show. No money is involved, but the chairperson said that just the fact that it was used as a poster would raise the price considerably. My question to you is do you think it right to increase the price of a painting because it has received an award (or more than one?) or an accolade such as this?
(RG note) Thanks Sandra. Maybe I’m masochistic on this one, but I believe in keeping the prices of honoured or published paintings the same price as the regular ones. My rationale is that I don’t want to appear greedy or in the least bit monetary. Besides, it gives someone who obtains it at the regular price the feeling that they have something really special. That feeling shared is worth more than gold.
Fear of acrylics
by Evelyn Dunphy, West Bath, ME, USA
I confess to having a negative feeling about acrylics — based on seeing some that had such a “plastic” looking surface. Obviously, this isn’t the way they are supposed to look. Do you have any suggestions about where I might begin to look for information as I would like to get over this attitude? I believe that acrylics have many advantages over watercolor, which I use. And I’m told, over oil, as well. But I want a very “painterly surface.” Also, I paint out-of-doors a lot, and I’ve always thought that acrylics dry so fast that it’s very difficult.
(RG note) Thanks, Evelyn. You are in good company here. So many painters are asking this question these days. As a born again convert to acrylics, I’ve found that they can be made to resemble practically all oil styles. But the main point of Acrylics is what they can do above and beyond other media. When you work with them you soon find that most of the negatives are really positives. They give confidence like no other medium and the inventive and playful among us can really get away with murder. My best advice to anyone has been to “throw away a week and play with themhard.” A good book for getting your range is The Acrylic Painter’s book of Styles and Techniques by Rachel Wolf.
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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 Faith Puleston of Germany who wrote, “I can remember my mother buying a painting of Pandora and her famous box in a really elegant ornamental frame. But my mother was exceedingly prudish and could not bear to look at Pandora’s naked bosom, so she got out her paintbrush and some blue paint and ‘dressed’ the lady in a modest blouse! Her argument was that she liked the frame and thought it would be a pity to ‘waste’ the picture.”
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