It’s often been said that writing is re-writing. Why then cannot painting be repainting? Because, for some silly reason — like a concert pianist’s reason, we have a need to get it right. When you think about it a painter has permission to keep reworking a painting until she sees what she wants to see. Lines may be found by many passes. Colors by many swatchings.
Did you ever stop to realize that only the originating artist (and perhaps a black light) knows how bad, or how different, it is under there? Many of us think that the ideal is to make it look like nothing was ever wrong. We labor on the illusion of perfection. “Mine is the horny hand of toil,” said John Singer Sargent — and yet there was seldom an artist whose surfaces looked so effortless.
Here are a few ideas for effective reworking that you can live with: It’s generally a good idea to revisit your reference and run scenarios on the cortex canvas. Often, you’ll go for the simplest and most direct solution. Take the time to scrape off, sand down, re-prime. Don’t allow faulty underpainting or unpleasant texture buildup to jinx you. Do your reworking and overpainting with larger, not smaller, tools. Don’t noodle. Don’t panic. Know that persistence is the main virtue. Sargent was apparently a “ragman” — that is he kept putting on and wiping off until he thought it right. Further, try the simple habit of placing the brush at the beginning and moving your eyes to the imagined stroke’s end — then connect. Also, reconsider mixed media — what does it matter — is anything pure anymore? If you’re working in the sanctity of oils and all else is failing, consider the heretic miracle of acrylic — particularly if you change your mind a lot.
Isn’t that what it’s all about — changing your mind a lot?
PS: “I’ve always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have the light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me.” (Henri Matisse)
Esoterica: My friend Joe Blodgett has a rule to never repair unless he can cover his tracks. “In watercolor particularly,” he says, “it’s almost always better to chuck than fix.” Joe likes to quote Manet: “When you’ve got it, you’ve got it. When you haven’t, you begin again. The rest is humbug.”
The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.
Into a wet glaze
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville FL, USA
I find this to be a useful technique for working into a painting that is already dry: I glaze over the entire area to be repainted with an appropriate transparent color, like Archival Red Gold (a fabulous transparent yellow) or Alizarin Crimson or French Ultramarine Deep. These are lovely transparent pigments that have a fairly weak tinting strength, so it’s easy to paint into the wet surface with my opaque colors (current favorites: LeFranc & Bourgeois Chrome Green Deep, Rembrandt Lemon Yellow, Archival Titanium White.) I use Archival Classic Medium for glazing. I like the effect of painting opaque paint into transparent washes and use this process in a lot of my studio work. It doesn’t really apply to plein air painting, but it’s a good way to keep a fresh surface on pieces that I work on over a longer period of time.
Reworking as methodology
by Michael Csontos, Arizona, USA
I often start with abstract imagery. The very first wash is the most fun. Just put on a thin application (often burnt umber) of shapes and strokes. I dip the brush into solvent (I use a citrus based safe solvent). Wet enough to be transparent. The abstract imagery appears in a matter of minutes. I don’t blanket the entire canvas with one color as that would leave no negative space to pull an image from. I generally add a geometrical element such as a circle at this stage. Its just something I do. So this wash is basically the compositional achievement. I now begin to see the painting in my mind’s eye and the image to be takes form on top.
(RG note) Michael Csontos gives a thorough explanation of his technique on his website.
Reawaken the genius
by Joan Justin, Vero Beach, Florida, USA
The first time I read about reworking… always had conflict about it… listening to others… but did it anyway, didn’t talk about it!… Methinks this has to do with our inner wishes for perfection and specialness… primitive rumblings… and competitiveness, stuff that artists and non-artists like to deny… its supposed to be above the practical world and materialistic. A reach to a higher, better part of our nature It sounds sophomoric, simplistic, but like lots of cliches we know — it somehow makes sense. It’s fun to exchange ideas, isn’t it? And now off to maybe rework an oldie, and reawaken the genius!
Bugaboo of underpainting
by Susan Holland, Issaquah, Washington, USA
My personal favorite paintings are those that have been done over other previous paintings. The only bugaboo is that annoying characteristic brushstroke belonging to the old painting. If you can love it for what it is, that’s okay, but your admonitions to sand down the bumps and cover your tracks is very important when you want your reworked “masterpiece” to stand unashamed in the gallery of someone other than yourself!!
Shooting an arrow
by Keith O’Connor, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
An interesting item in your letter: “Try the simple habit of placing the brush at the beginning and moving your eyes to the imagined stroke’s end — then connect.” As a teenager I read something like this in a book on drawing exercises printed in the late 19th century. Touch the paper with your pencil — focus at the desired end point and move your pencil towards the end point — like shooting an arrow at a target — you only look at the end point.
Mud, mud, glorious mud
by Barbara Kerr, Inverness, Florida, USA
People sometimes ask me, “How long did it take you to do that?” As a watercolor artist most of my best pieces come together very quickly — sometimes in a couple of hours — and I share that idea with my students, particularly. Mud in watercolor art is very visible, and ‘toiled over’ is easily recognizable.
An aid to character
by Lawrence Butigieg, Attard, Malta
I enjoy scraping off previous brushstrokes from my paintings as much as I enjoy applying new ones. The first thing I do when I restart work on a painting is determine whether colour blotches from previous work need to be removed. The painting is taken ‘backwards.’ The fact that it is technically impossible to remove undesired paint completely, gives the work more character. The minute remnants of ‘undesired’ paint add a certain richness to the final paint surface. The trick is to keep a fresh look, being careful not to betray the hard labor which had gone into the picture!
A grinding solution
by David Stanley, Manchester, UK
I read your latest letter with great interest since it deals almost directly with my normal working practice. I use a hand-held electrical sander fitted with wet&dry 400 grade paper to deliberately efface the conscious, often gestural marks I make when starting my acrylic paintings. And what discoveries I make! Using the work itself as my guide I build compositions through glazing, scumbling, semi-wet work and more sanding as I progress to a finish I am satisfied with. Even with acrylics this can sometimes take weeks so I always work in series to keep myself busy and the work fresh. There are all sorts of theoretical reasons (and some psychological ones too) about working in this way. But one thing I will certainly say to recommend it is that it releases the creativity. Over the last two years I have run workshops on my methods and in every case the participants have been thrilled with their results. What a great thing painting is! Just handling the paint and pushing its (and ones own capabilities) can be so rewarding.
by Monika El-Seroui, Graz, Austria
I was looking into two of my watercolor paintings done in 1997. They always seemed good but without being finished. There was something missing and I was unable to find the clue and that’s why I had put both pictures aside. Then I tried the mixed media technique: For one I was using newspaper clip-outs as well as acrylic paints on some places and for the other I used an old piece of lace and dried flowers. The results astonished me. I’d like to mention that using mixed media means giving oneself enough time to really make a picture look complete and harmonious. Mixed media is one of the most creative tools, endless possibilities, lots of fun. I would overpaint again without any hesitation. I run through the house to find usable things. The brain does the creative mixture. There are no limits.
by Ginny Brink, Wales, UK
I too have been struggling with the need to not paint in oil for the very reasons you describe in your article “In Praise of Acrylic.” I wondered what experience anyone might have had with water-based oil paint? It does sound odd I know but it’s out there!
by Carol Hama Chang
Remember that all painting mediums are toxic to some extent. Recall that cadmiums, barium, chrome, lead, manganese (more toxic than lead) are highly toxic heavy metals and they are in your colours whether you use oils or watercolours or even coloured pencils. It amazes me that artists think that oils are the only toxic medium!
I too was put off by solvents like turps, kerosene, mineral spirits, odorless turp…ugh. Most toxic stuff those! But when a recent round of non-toxic cleaners and thinners hit the market I gave oils a try. I also gave Genesis (the heat set paints) a try. In the end after much experimenting and soul searching I opted for the traditional oils. I don’t like turpenoid… it has a heavy odor, is not such a good cleaner and lengthens dry time and it ought not be used as a thinner. I don’t like Demco turpentine substitute… takes too long to dry… not as long a Turpenoid, but still too long to suit me. It doesn’t clean as well.
Then I happened on Eco House mild citrus thinner. Great thinner and cleaner! Does a much better job and has a wonderfully light citrus fragrance and dries fairly fast. Overnight it becomes tacky if I use Alkyd Titanium white. (by Winsor Newton’s Griffin line) Eco House material is used in cosmetics, so it’s pretty safe although there is a disclaimer on the label, which I suspect is there only to protect the manufacturer from lawsuits. I am one of those “three-colour-people” so I don’t need many tubes and I can still get vibrant secondaries.
I recently tried some old oil paint (London Oils) while I was teaching. That stuff is potent. The older stuff was made before this “toxic” revolution!
by Cissy Gray, Mercer Island, Washington, USA
It was a joy to read the article about you and your daughter in International Artist Magazine. It was rather like meeting you in person. Also, how wonderful to be able to see the paintings that you talked about in your emails last summer.
(RG note) The article is in the current issue: February-March 2001. Sara and I will finish the trip down the Mackenzie River to Tuktoyaktuk this July. The boat is currently in storage in Norman Wells, NWT.
You may be interested to know that artists from 78 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.
That includes Sonja Picard of Vancouver, BC, who quoted something she thinks I said in a seminar: “Never underestimate the power of alcohol in your studio to rework a piece.” Sonja says, “It works for me.”
And Gerald Liu, who writes, “In Chinese Painting, we say “one writes a painting,” not “one paints a painting.”
And Ming Kong Lim of Hong Kong who says, “The only thing that’s important is the fung shui of the place you work in.”
And Ilia Travine who simply reads willingly in Russia.