A “second breath” is a restart of a work after getting a second opinion from yourself. I made up that line while I was walking this morning — so it’s my lead-in to an overdue letter on methods of reworking half-finished or unsatisfactory paintings — and what dangers may be lurking.
Paintings that are not quite right or that are wrong to the point of abandonment sometimes deserve a second breath. It’s all about the deep-seated human desire to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Clean, clear thought is necessary. This is most often possible after a period of time where the painting has been turned against a wall. Clever artists teach themselves a kind of time travel so inadequate stuff can be spotted and fixed right away. Using and applying your critical brain requires detachment and honesty. “The hardest thing to see,” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “is what is in front of our eyes.”
You need not consider the time you’ve already wasted, the cloud of your ego, or the riveting need to keep some particular part. This is business and you need to make the business better. You need to ask yourself, “What could be?” Remember the part about not being hung up on keeping something? It’s when you remove that aircraft carrier from the foreground and replace it with an albatross that you start to get somewhere.
“What could be?” might well be the artist’s credo, but a different type of thinking is required than when you are painting. It’s speculation mode, and you need to think outside the box — even if you don’t end up going there. The human imagination is far richer than we know. Understand this, and you will need fewer books and teachers. The answer is within you. Self-anointed genius awaits all canvasses.
The main problems in second breath come in execution. It may be a fresh new idea you are introducing, but it must not appear as add-on or overworking. In short, you must toil to make your changes look like there was no toil. One stroke too many and you have let the weasel out of the sack. Try not to tighten up. Very often a work requires a few definitive strokes rather than a bunch of minor ones. “Finish,” said John Singer Sargent, “with a broom rather than a whisk.”
PS: “I waited for the idea to consolidate, for the grouping and composition of themes to settle themselves in my brain. When I felt I had enough cards I determined to pass to action, and did so.” (Claude Monet)
Esoterica: The second breath is a way of thinking that can be learned. In my observation, a main factor that separates amateurs from professionals is the trained clarity of the professionals’ sight. Occluded by inexperience and a host of other blockers, the amateur may make the fatal error of continuing with the work without a pause for breathing. “You need to get out of the way,” said John Marin, “to see how the new order will be revealed.”
From the ‘forever corner’
by Les Ducak, Burlington, ON, Canada
Who among us don’t have those half-finished or poorly-finished paintings? I call them my dogs, no offence to dogs intended. Unfortunately, with watercolour medium there is not much flexibility when it comes to reworking and fixing. Having said that, I am one of those who will pick up an old work and give it a second look after a period of time. And just like you said, the problem will hit me right between the eyes. Sometimes it will require de-emphasizing some area and strengthening another. On another work a darker brushstroke may be the solution to a better painting. Of course, there are some without hope, and perhaps those will sit in the corner piled up forever.
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Give it a rest
by Taylor Ikin, Tampa Bay, FL, USA
I have never completed a painting from start to finish without giving it a couple of days rest, usually just set aside more or less out of view. I then study the reflection in a mirror and give it my “What if?” Clearing the mental record of the image by studying the reverse reflection in the mirror, I have a new fresh eye. I get excited when I think I have an adjustment. Sometimes it has evolved into an entire overhaul for the piece, and sometimes it is a minor tweak. The “What if?” second look is most often a profitable experience.
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A whiteout sale?
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
Oh my, do I have a problem with holding on to work that isn’t quite right or what? Can you see my squirming under your questioning? It’s actually funny you should bring this up now, because I’ve been thinking of having a whiteout sale — offering all the paintings I consider okay but certainly not great for a mere fraction of their selling prices — and if they aren’t bought by the end of a week, they get gesso’d over and that’s just that — bye-bye — new life as interesting textured under-surface for new images. Second breath, indeed. Matter of fact, I think I’ll go write the copy right now.
(RG note) Thanks, Angela. I recommend against having a whiteout sale. If you can’t fix ’em, don’t sell ’em. Offering half-baked stuff at half-baked prices does nothing for your reputation and sullies the world with more half-baked stuff. There’s enough around already. Go directly to the whiteout.
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Second breath is really a ‘breath’
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA
I have been doing this for years just under a different name. I like second breath better. I might start actually with a walk. Clears the head and lets the creative thoughts start poking in. Sometimes I dive right in to the second breath. Then I simply take some deep breaths concentrating on the breath. I had to learn to let the constant interrupting thoughts “Did you take the pork out of the freezer?” “Did you call your mother?” etc. etc. pass along like moving clouds. Once I could actually concentrate on just the breath for several breaths then I knew I was ready. I asked my question. This could be any question about anything at all. I listened. I had to learn that. Listening means that you stop directing. This took some practice. But finally I did get there and could ‘just be’ and just listen. Then, always, the perfect answer for me emerges. I have never, not once, gotten bad or ego-driven advice that way. It is, for me, that I have somehow linked with either the entire river of knowledge that I may know or the best parts of myself. I don’t know, and don’t much care. What I do know is that the advice I get is always correct for me. And that includes advice on what the heck should I do with this painting now?
As a painter who loves plein air and who creates her studio paintings from her plein air work, sometimes this break in time from the plein air to the studio painting work is awhile. Then asking, and perhaps even remembering what it was that I loved so much to paint it, will emerge.
by Bela Fidel, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
As somebody who normally takes a few months to complete a painting, I am aware of the tortuous path to creating work that I am proud of and pleased with. I often say that I do not paint in oils; I paint in gesso.
I am now reading deKooning: An American Master and feeling less lonely as he, too, would work on one single composition for the whole summer, for example. He would destroy paintings that had been highly praised by his peers until he was satisfied with the results. I have also read Cracking Creativity by Michael Michalko. While the book is a how-to for every creative field of endeavor, his SCAMPER technique can easily apply to the visual arts. SCAMPER are questions we ask ourselves when searching for the “second breath”:
P=put to other uses? (I’d say, cut it up and collage elsewhere…)
Honest work destroyed
by Anne Copeland, Calimesa, CA, USA
I made this art quilt about the character in a favorite fairy tale, The Little Match Girl in 2006. It was made for a challenge and, at the time, I was fairly new at making art quilts. When I finished the piece, I sent it off, but then I looked at my photo and realized that the piece was not straight, and I felt it had some other problems, so I wrote to the curator and asked to get it back.
Once I had it again, I began to totally take it apart, feeling it was not good enough to enter in that exhibit. Today, I think back on that time and I think it was one of the truly worst things I ever did to myself and my own art. That art had a sort of honesty and spontaneity that I have seldom experienced since; I could have just cut it so that it would be straight and sent it back, but instead, I began to pick apart each thing I had done.
Sometimes this judging of our own work, while it might be a good thing, can also be our ruin, in my mind. We need to learn to accept the work we do at any stage and to “leave it as it is” and go on and make the next piece. We can always look back on what wasn’t right, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to do anything to change it. Many of the early works of famous artists I have seen weren’t especially perfect, but perhaps that is the very thing that makes them collectible and desirable. We are who we are at any given point, and it is okay to be that person, for we will definitely change with time.
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Problem with finishing
by Janny Gudites
Once I decide what I want to paint (watercolor), I jump in and tackle about half the picture. This is normally the center of my attraction to the subject and I am usually very happy with the progress. Then I procrastinate and have to keep pushing myself to do more. It seems like I will do just about anything to avoid picking up the brush to finish it. Finally, all but 10% is complete and I’ll start something new with all good intentions of fitting in the last 10% alongside the new project. Surprise, surprise, that never seems to happen. I’ve tried starting with the uninteresting parts of the painting first, which isn’t exactly inspirational, so it’s very slow going. But soon enough I move the entree and the incomplete cycle repeats again and, while I occasionally finish it completely, more often than not they seem to remain 10% undone. I may be afraid of ruining a good painting by continuing (which I occasionally do because watercolor is so unforgiving). Do I have a confidence problem? I’m afraid if I force myself to paint everything but the center of interest, I will just not start anything beyond the drawing and a few brush strokes before the big stall. Am I broken? Do I need an art psychiatrist?
(RG note) Thanks, Janny. You’re not broken and you don’t need Dr Freud, but get on the couch anyway. “The big stall” is quite common and there can be many reasons for it. Fear of failure (as you suggested) is one of them, as is fear of success. Avoidance and procrastination are often factors but there is generally something deeper. In many cases artists are subconsciously hearing a voice from the pasta mother, father, art teacher or other early influence who induces the “Imposter syndrome.” I’ve written about this and you can find it here.
Avoiding areas of the work where you cannot be accused of being an imposter (leaving out the difficult parts as you also suggest) is the chicken way out. As the condition can be chronic and go on for years, I recommend some sort of shock. Make yourself do only the hard part. Make yourself do only the hard part over and over until you are genuinely impressed with yourself. Then, and only then, try throwing in the rest.
Here’s the shock part: If you can identify your negative voicemother, father, etc., write their name on a brown paper bag. Now blow up the bag and pop it between your hands with a loud bang. Do this several times over several days. You will find yourself finishing more work almost immediately.
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Keeping track of art
by Chris Wachsmuth, San Francisco, CA, USA
I’m not an artist. I’m helping a friend organizing the many aspects of her art business and the teaching she does. She is in need of a method to inventory or catalog her works. I’m thinking surely there must be software available to assist artists.
(RG note) Thanks, Chris. There are several art management software systemsmost of them aimed at art galleriesbut sometimes used by artists. ArtWorks and Artlook are two of the best known. Perhaps our subscribers can point to others that I’m not aware of. In my case I’ve used an old fashioned file card system that predates computers, organized alphabetically by title, that traces when works were made, where they went, where they were sold, as well as size, medium, etc. There are two main banks-those paintings that are currently in galleries and those that have sold. The latter file is terribly useful when people are enquiring about older works. One benefit of computer systems, unlike mine, is that they can be archived for safety in more than one place.
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The malady of “unknowing”
by Betty Brooks
I want to thank you Dr Genn for your twice-weekly letters, full of insight to pass on to the new coming-of-age kids. There’s no escaping all the traps life has to offer. Happily there are ways to get out of them besides chewing off one’s leg. They usually come from the seasoned older and wiser generation who at the same time say grace over how we learn by our mistakes. I learn from your writings and I think they’re good fodder for a college kid like my nephew. You are the good doctor serving many a patient needing a new prescription for that ancient malady called unknowing. It’s comprised of such things as whether to trust in all you know or only part of it, to discern if you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water, and when to jump or stay put.
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