A subscriber wrote, “I was wondering what you would have to say about saving a painting by reworking it. I do watercolours and when things go wrong, they usually head south fast. But I sometimes go in and try to save things. Does trying to save a painting ever really work? Have you ever gotten a great painting out of one that was on its way to the dumpster?”
Watercolours are by far the toughest to save. The main thing is to be overflowing with benevolent desire — and have a few methods up your sleeve. A frequent problem with watercolours is overworking — so you often need to figure out ways to underwork them. If you’re prepared to compromise a bit, you might try one or more of the following:
Correct poor areas with opaque media
Obfuscate with spray or airbrush
Wipe down and off with a wet cloth
Scrape and scratch with knife or sandpaper
Reformat by cutting into smaller works
In opaque media — oil, acrylic, etc. — you have far more repair techniques available, including resurrection by total repainting. For those who would make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, here are a few things to think about:
Unify by glazing a mother colour
Obfuscate incompetence with a scumble
Strengthen elements by cutting down detail
Eliminate one colour–especially a primary
Look to subtract material more than to add
Improve compositions by using the classic rules
Shoot up the borinary by busting the rules
Return to reference for better understanding
Eliminate reference and get into your mind
Rededicate yourself to confidence and audacity
While you may often recognize the need to simplify, at other times the addition of further complication can help. Sometimes we err on the side of plainness and “unfulfilled space.” Judiciously putting more into the painting can be useful — a more complex sky, a metaphoric element, that sort of thing. In either case, change and improvisation are the lifeblood of art. When you continually ask the question, “What can be?” it’s amazing what you can make from what you already have. You can save practically anything from going to the dumpster — provided you are willing to turn a barn into a duck.
Esoterica: Workshop instructors are familiar with the student who holds up a painting and asks, “How do I fix this?” Often the best advice is to drop it and start another. Even so, a glaze can sometimes be pressed into service. More bad paintings are fixed by glazing than this world dreams of. Learn to glaze by starting with thin washes of black — Carbon, Bone and Mars — to see the differences. Graduate to transparent whites, Phthalo blues and various transparent warms. Dump reality, let fantasy prevail — change the weather, the hour, the subject. In oil you’ll have to wait a bit. In acrylic it’s instant gratification. “A solitary fantasy can transform a million realities.” (Maya Angelou)
This letter was originally published as “Saving a painting” on September 8, 2006.
“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” (Dolly Parton)
Location: between Puerto Vallarta & Mazatlan, Mexico
Week-long workshop in gorgeous paradise retreat for beginning and intermediate students in oils (or acrylics with experience). You will learn how to create a painting with beautiful light that captures viewers’ attention and keeps them fascinated. Small group size guarantees personal attention.
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