The other day I was talking to my friend Jack Monk. Jack’s an irascible guy who is always devising new and creative ways to hold himself up. His latest is doing Mylar overlays on the problematic parts of his paintings. One acrylic landscape he brought with him had a pathway starting in the foreground and zipping off the edge on the left. His first overlay shows the path going straight in and disappearing mid-picture into some tall grasses. His second shows the path furtively wandering off toward the right. These Mylars fitted over the work like animation cells and perfectly covered whatever was going on underneath.
“Why bother?” I said to Jack, admiring his ingenuity. Jack also enjoys Scotch, so we could go both ways. “You mean,” he said, “this is okay if you don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s really just a form of procrastination?”
I mentioned my “commit and correct” system, where you just go ahead and put something on your painting in the full knowledge you can change it. Good painters, I figure, are self-editors — they do it on their feet, on the canvas, not on Mylar.
I admitted I had just come off a workshop where I had witnessed first-hand both timidity and valour. “Virtus est optimus,” I said, quoting the great Roman poet and philosopher Kjerkius Gennius, 36BC. “Valour is best.”
Jack, who had never heard of Gennius, allowed that those really old guys were sometimes right.
I went on to note that Rembrandts and Sargents, to name just two, when put under 365 nanometer ultraviolet lights, showed how they had moved this mouth from here and that eye from there. UV light has also revealed that Leonardo originally gave Mona Lisa some decent eyebrows. Why he plucked them will forever remain a mystery.
Painting is not like live music. If you lay down a boo-boo in live music, everyone hears it and it’s there for posterity. In painting you cover up your sins and everyone thinks you’re naturally talented.
That was when I spilled my drink. Some of it got into my shoe, but most of it oozed into the broadloom. I took an old canvas and pressed it over the Royal brownness.
“Nobody knows what’s under there,” said Jack.
PS: “You will never do anything in this world without courage.” (Aristotle, 384 BC)
Esoterica: While oils can be effectively modified or ragged-out on the run without losing effect, acrylics, with their swift drying, can present problems. In proposing a passage in acrylic, it’s often best to lay in your motif thinly. When you see it to be right, more impasto and definitive stroking can be used. And when it’s wrong, it’s so easy to paint over. If the accumulated slubs and bumps of previous incarnations begin to jinx you, sand them down and re-prime the area. In a way, acrylic is the ultimate experimenter’s medium. It’s just the top layer that counts.
Secret out in public
by Jack Monk, Surrey, BC, Canada
All the transparent Mylar is gone, never to reappear. The paintings are painted in the preferred form. Yes, you are right, one cannot see the stuff underneath. However, I just got a call from one of your devoted readers tweaking me about my timidity. So my secret is out in public. Ah well, so be it. However, that pine tree with its impasto bark looks good even to my most ardent critic (my wife, Lori). Thanks for your good advice, but please be more careful with the Scotch. I trust your impeccable broadloom has been satisfactorily cleaned without incurring severe damage.
The art of correction
by Beaman Cole, NH, USA
You hit a soft spot with me on this one. I have a bunch of mantras that I teach to my students and pass on to friends. The Beaman Cole corollary numero uno is: “All Art is About Correction.”
The addendum to that is: You Can’t Correct What Isn’t There. As Nike says: Just do it. Every artist eventually realizes that art is a series of decisions. If all art is about correction then make a decision and move on! Don’t worry — be happy.
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In the beginning — be loose
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
When I was in college I took several semesters of sculpture. My college taught representational art, which often was based on the study of the human figure. It was a long process to create an accurate 3-dimensional rendering of the human form, as close to life as possible. One of my professors told us that anytime we had to alter our work and repeat an area on a sculpture we would not only do it better the second time around, we would also do it faster… normally in about half the time it originally took us to sculpt something. We also learned when beginning a new work to sculpt loosely so that we would not get bogged down with too much detail too quickly. I heard over and over again, “Anyone can do detail!” It is getting the essence of the form down that is most important. So is true with oil painting. Even though oils stay pliable much longer than acrylics, I always try to work out the major compositional issues before getting too detailed. I remember doing portrait paintings where I felt sick over having to move a perfectly painted eye or ear because once I stepped back from the canvas I realized it was not in the correct position on the head. If those major elements are put in loosely at first, it is much less painful to make corrections.
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One thing to the other
by Tony Angell, Seattle, Washington, USA
I’ve found that my disposition/inclinations and energy levels often predict what I’ll be working on. One hopes that there’s no shutting down the creative urges so I apportion my time amid writing projects, drawing and stone carving and modeling work for bronze. The results I could argue is some “rareness” in all of them or, someone else might suggest, too much of everything and not enough concentration on one of them. I would argue the former as there’s no escaping how I work as each one of these interests and various commitments inform the others.
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Ride, boldly ride
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
Robert, here’s a video that’s illustrates the trial and error method you’re talking about: Ride, boldly ride!
(RG note) Thanks, Warren. This 12 minute video does indeed give insight into letting an image emerge from the interaction between what the artist commits and obscures, and the machinations of the on-site imagination. Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Eldorado” plays its part in Warren’s painting–what I call a “drag up” from the unconscious. Because Poe’s poem plays such an evocative and vital part in Warren’s painting, we’ve included it here.
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
But he grew old-
This knight so bold-
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow-
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be –
This land of Eldorado?”
“Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied-
“If you seek for Eldorado!”
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The poured watercolour method
by Cheri Isgreen, Montrose, Co, USA
In watercolor, there aren’t many alternate solutions once you’ve committed, so you do have to ponder and plan, then you are pretty safe to be bold. I do detailed value sketches before every painting. In the painting below, I masked all but the tree, the two horses, and the foreground shadows, so that I could give those areas a watercolor pour. Being lazy and running out of Frisket, I only painted the Frisket close to the outlines, then used masking tape on the big areas. Imagine my horror, when I pulled up the mask and saw a glowing lovely pour ruined by leaky tape and streaks of dark green!! I’ve been warned about overworking a painting, but this one was already ruined in the state that it was in, so I dove in head first. First lifting as much of the leaks as possible, then softening the edges in the leaky area to blend it with the foreground wash. When all was dry, I went back in to create weedy patches and some flowers. I learned a ton about the poured watercolor method!
Live with it awhile
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
Jack’s method with the Mylar sounds like a great way to figure out how to fix a problem in a painting. You can try some different possibilities and see which works best. I just finished an interior scene that has a door in the background. At first it was closed. Then I repainted it open to connect to the outside. But that turned out to be completely wrong, so I closed it again. Maybe if I’d thought of Jack’s method, I could have tried it out first and saved some time. But making decisions like that requires a lot of time and thought… and maybe a little bit of whiskey, too. In this case, it took a bit of time living with the open door to realize it was wrong.
Not working? — change it
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
I constantly tell my students to use any tool to get the under painting exactly as they would like, make any marks, wipe off, change directions, alter whatever because no one is going to know what is underneath. Even through mid process, if they find something isn’t working, change it, erase it, wipe it off, repaint it, add, subtract. It all will be hidden under the final process.
John Singer Sargent was known to paint heads on his figures multiple times until he got what he wanted. Madame Gautreau or Madam X was changed after it was exhibited. Her shoulder strap was down and caused a scandal. Only after the exhibition was over and the painting removed did he lift it to its proper place. Never worry about what is underneath.
Of artists and lobsters
by Vasile Radu, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Nice and true your story about lobsters and art.
How can you change this? Consumerism stimulates the hunger of clients. Or, you can change the ingredients of the meal. You serve octopus instead of lobster and so you change the taste of the public. Public’s taste is not a rule because he is governed by the rule of pleasure (or other interests).
Marketing says that public’s opinion can be manipulated. As in the case of socialist state that wanted to be the greater Mecena, forcing the artists to work in the interest of the state and buying their works.
This form of wealth was not embraced by many artists. Hard to change was the principle of pleasure which governs the artist’s work. Also, an artist cannot give up his pleasure without feeling betrayed.
How can an artist be himself and be appreciated by others?
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by Barbara Gibson-Dutton, Merrickville, ON, Canada
Ever since you published the book of your twice-weekly letters I wanted to buy it but never have. Now I would like to know how I should go about this. My shared and cantankerous computer has been replaced by a shiny new iMac and now I am back to reading your letters. However, I no longer have the file of the first ones I received and I believe getting the book will correct that! If I can accomplish getting that book, I’ll cross it off my Art Bucket List.
(RG note) Thanks Barbara. The Letters includes every one of the twice-weekly letters from July 10, 1999 to September 25, 2009, and none of the ones subsequent to that. A second, complete volume, even heavier, will be published and distributed when I run out of marbles. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. I recommend you read the Zingers at the back of the book first. These are short, cryptic, often insulting gems that readers have sent in. The Zingers put it all in perspective. Grown men and women are known to sit around campfires reading them to one another and falling on their toasted marshmallows with laughter.
Enjoy the past comments below for Nobody knows what’s under there…
oil painting, 36 x 60 inches
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 Susan Warner of Farmington, MI, USA, who wrote, “Wouldn’t it be nice if whenever we messed up our life we could simply press ‘Ctrl Alt Delete’ and start all over?”
And also Jeffrey Hessing of Nice, France, who wrote, “Oscar Wilde said, ‘I put my talent into my work. I put my genius into my life.’ It is not enough to simply paint. It takes a tremendous amount of creativity to make a life which supports, or allows for, full time painting. In this respect, paintings are more of a witness to creative thinking than the source of it.”