Early this morning, Nancy Bradford of Scottsdale, Arizona wrote, “I have many old oils-on-canvas that I would like to paint over and use again. Can I use gesso to do this? If I plan to sell a painting painted over a painting, can I do that, or would it affect the quality of my piece? I want to proceed correctly.”
Thanks for that, Nancy. Covering up and reusing old paintings has technical and creative problems. And, as usual, these problems can be turned to your advantage. Improperly prepared surfaces can end up having paint falling like dandruff. For many of us, the possibility of this event is enough to make one stick to fresh materials. If you must paint again on your schnauzers, (I call them schnauzers) here are some tips:
Sand the offensive oil surface until it’s evenly dull. Then prime with an oil or alkyd based gesso or other primer. (Gesso was traditionally made from a combination of animal hide glue (rabbit), titanium dioxide, marble dust and water, and did not always sit well on oily surfaces.) Nowadays acrylic takes its place but the jury is still out. Another time-tested oil primer is a combination of titanium white and zinc white together with copal oil medium or linseed oil. Add other colours to tint if desired. Give some consideration to partial coverage — that is a kind of scumbled or semi-transparent priming — a higher proportion of zinc white for more transparency. I use a rag and I like to cover more thoroughly what I consider to be the “bad” areas, and to leave more clearly open the “good.” It’s a compromise between fighting the jinxed image underneath — and yet taking advantage of some of the subtleties that are already there for you.
Re-priming and painting over acrylics is a different kettle of fish. Acrylic molecules remain forever “sticky” and have the capacity to grab onto other molecules of a similar type. You have to make sure that there is no final varnish (another molecule altogether and typically with ultra-violet blockers) on the surface. Old acrylics should be cleaned outdoors with household ammonia and well flushed with water before proceeding. They can then take a normal water-based gesso, thick or thin.
PS: “The nature of our work is to prepare for a good accident.” (Sidney Lumet)
Esoterica: You may know that writing over the top of previous writing is known as “palimpsest.” As well as ready-made texture, paintings that take advantage of former paintings can have subtleties that are not as easily available to purpose-built works. One time a lady was admiring one of mine and I told her it was an example of turning a schnauzer into a palimpsest. She looked at me sideways and never did inquire as to what I was talking about.
Salvage oil paintings after six months
Bob Abrahams, Australia
I paint with oils on medium-density fibre-board which is sometimes covered with canvas. I have been salvaging my “schnauzers” by sandpapering to remove the obvious textured paint and then coating with two coats of oil-based artist’s primer. (Art Spectrum) I only salvage schnauzers where the paint is at least six months old.
Dangerous chemical warning
Sanding of paintings can be very dangerous especially if lead, cobalt or cadmium pigments have been used. These chemicals are dangerous if inhaled and any sanding should be done with proper dust control measures and with the person doing it wearing an approved mask.
(RG note) Douglas Purdon is Educational Advisor for Winsor and Newton in Canada.
Major purge needed
Sharon Pitts, Montclair, NJ, USA
Again, thank you for a timely subject. Maybe it is Spring cleaning or something. I have been looking through my flat file and thinking about tearing up some watercolors on paper that I no longer wish to represent my work. Is there any reason to keep them after many years? When I have done some limited “tearing” in the past it has felt like a good thing to do. Now, I am thinking about a more major purge and it is a bit scary. What do you think?
(RG note) Think of it this way: If you were going to the big studio in the sky — tomorrow — would you want this stuff for your heirs to sort out? As you get older you will find yourself getting meaner and meaner when spring comes and you head for your archives.
A wonderful surface may appear
When I’ve decided a painting is a “schnauzer” there are two things that are fun to do. I wipe excess oil paint off my brushes, before cleaning them, onto the schnauzer as well as rubbing parts of the used paper palette on it. Out of this muddle a wonderful surface may appear! The brushes are then easier to clean as well and unused paint on the palette will have a chance of a life!
Oven cleaner cleanses sins
Darlene McBride, Havana, FL, USA
Here’s a trick I’ve used successfully for years. If you have an old Oil painting (not acrylic) which is no longer wanted, spray it in a well-ventilated area with heavy duty oven cleaner (it must be the kind that contains sodium hydroxide, or “lye”). Let it sit, as you would a dirty oven, then scrub lightly with a “scotch-brite” pad or something similar. Then rinse. Most of the oil will come right off. If there are some stubborn areas, re-apply. To completely neutralize the lye, rinse with a weak vinegar solution, and then once more with fresh water. For the most part, the gesso underneath will not be touched, but you may wish to re-gesso the surface for a perfect finish.
This system can even be used to remove a small area on a painting. In that case, I first spray the oven cleaner, away from the painting, into a small container, and then use a Q-tip or cotton ball to apply to the desired area. Then proceed as above.
This does not work as well on cardboard-backed canvas panels, as it is difficult to keep the water off the back, and the cardboard can become damaged, but it works great for most other applications.
Pentimento is an Italian word meaning “repent” suggesting that an artist has changed his or her mind. Eventually the under image will “ghost” through, revealing the artist’s original thoughts. I have found that removing the canvas from the stretchers, folding painting into a neat square and tucking into the garbage is very satisfying. Fresh canvas on the old stretchers is less money than a ‘whole’ canvas and there can be no ghosts.
(RG note) Watch out. Garbage men have eclectic taste. So do some of the neighbors. Rather than referring to the priming of whole paintings, pentimento refers to areas on a painting where you can see the artist changing his mind while the painting is in progress — for example the ghost of an earlier arm or attempts at finding a line.
Put on a new face
Sometimes, let’s face it, we have a dud. I have all my canvases custom made. I tell artists all the time to do quality work and use quality products. Those economy canvases are fine, as long as you have them framed (otherwise they warp after about a year). But with the price of framing and canvas, it is challenging to look at an old painting that has not had any interest and not feel the urge to paint over it. Ten layers of gesso later and the painting suddenly weighs more than it looks. I recommend just carefully removing the staples, rolling up the canvas and then stretching a new one. I bought myself a spiffy pair of canvas pliers and a good staple gun and can have a new canvas stretched in minutes. This gives you a fresh clean surface, free of any bumps or lines to start a new painting on.
I often think that in 100 years (when they are having a retrospective of my work at the Louvre) the restoration department will be looking at one of my paintings and discover another painting underneath. There will suddenly be a whole new interest in my work. Won’t that be cool!
Honouring your artistic history
Sheila Norgate, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
I have friends and colleagues who consider painting over previous paintings to be horrifying and at the least, disrespectful of the original work underneath. But I see it very differently. I consider it a form of standing on my history, honouring what has come before by allowing it to be the base for what comes later. I firmly believe that everything we do in the studio informs what we do next, it’s all valuable. Often, I find that completely unconsciously, I end up making some reference to what is underneath… that is, the paintings are really connected to each other. Another form of honouring the continuum.
Restoring a primed-over painting
Patricia Ross, Chase, BC, Canada
Is it possible to recover a primed-over painting? I was given some old canvases from a friend and one happens to be a schnauzer! Holding it up to the light I can see some of the design underneath and am curious about the possibility of removing the white primer.
(RG note) If it was primed over by the artist, it was primed over for a purpose. Let the puppy be.
The smell of the oil
Sebastian Chiri, New York, NY, USA
When I moved to New York in the early ’90s as a young artist from India, the questions I had to face were mainly about the relevance of art and the relevance of color on canvas and its remaining possibilities. I didn’t know this was such a complex affair. Either canvas was already dead or there were too many dead canvases.
But I still like the smell of oil color and linseed oil. Sometimes Monet’s cigar, as if he is standing behind me! It is hard to explain how one feels when the wet brush touches the surface and to see the magic of color and forms beginning to dance. The surprise element in daily life is so precious, magical and of mysterious origin. It is the thing that makes this life worth living. Life is too short to be dragged through boredom — in spite of all the foolish destruction and tragedies we bring upon ourselves. A life force is still spinning this home, killers cannot kill everything and most of the remaining children still have the wonder in their eyes! Spring flowers bloom over the rusty gun barrels and minefields. All we leave after this drama is a handful of memories and a few wild flowers which will make this planet a little more welcoming to the future souls. The secret whisper of a dewdrop before falling to the ground is communicated in its twinkle of surprise with that Zen “ha!”
Clients pay for new studio
Jeff Schaller, Downingtown, PA, USA
My wife and I along with our 2 daughters recently moved into the country — back to my roots. We have a small house but enough land to build a studio. After buying the house the studio budget was a little on the slim side. During that time I remember reading a letter you wrote about making 8 x 10 Bentley paintings. You had made paintings to pay for your Bentley. I thought this was a wonderful idea, and borrowed the basic principle.
I wrote letters to my 30 best clients explaining my situation on moving and not having a space to work in. The letter was to entice them to pre-buy a painting for that year. Thus giving me the capital to build my studio. I created 20 patron spots where my clients would buy a painting in advance. This special group of people would see my work as it came off the easel. I would email them images before the galleries or public had a chance to see them. As an added bonus I would select one painting and do a silkscreen print, limiting the edition to 20, as a special gift. I am happy to say I sold all 20 spots and raised enough money for a two-story 1200 square foot bank barn to do my painting and screen printing in. I’m still in the process of putting up trim and some odds and ends. I hope to be in there working by the end of spring. In the fall I plan on having a big party to thank everyone that has shown their support and patronage. I’m having a great time building the space of my dreams from the bottom up.
Curious about selection process
Lesley White, Prince George, BC, Canada
I’m curious how you select from the Painter’s Keys links page at the end of these clickbacks. By the way, I love your sense of humor — I like people who are “multi-layered” but don’t take themselves too seriously — it’s refreshing and entertaining while informative and helpful.
(RG note) We dig around in our community and find artists we feel are worthy or whose work will be of value to others. Sometimes I choose, sometimes Andrew does. Neither of us can be bought. We are not about to run out of art to choose from. Apart from your connectivity to the wider world of collectors, it’s a good idea to let us put a link to your work on our links pages.
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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, 2004.
That includes Jan Woodford who wrote, “My schnauzer, Rufus, was at first offended by your referring to old paintings that need to be covered up as schnauzers. But then I reminded him that, after all, he was rescued from an animal shelter, and perhaps these canvasses can be salvaged, also. Rufus sends his best.”
And also Brian Carroll who wrote, “Sounds like spending ten bucks on new stuff would be worth it.”