Nobody knows what’s under there

Dear Artist, 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.

Jack Monk studying colour

“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.

Could Mona’s eyebrows be in the da Vinci Code?

Best regards, Robert 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  

Jack’s colour charts

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  

“Gazebo Girl”
original painting
by Beaman Cole

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.   There is 1 comment for The art of correction by Beaman Cole
From: Susan — Sep 12, 2013

Ha-Ha! I have a similar corollary: 99% of art is fixing your mistakes.

  In the beginning — be loose by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

bronze sculpture
by Diane Overmyer

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. There is 1 comment for In the beginning–be loose by Diane Overmyer
From: Judy P. — Sep 18, 2013

Well said, and a lovely sculpture as well!

  One thing to the other by Tony Angell, Seattle, Washington, USA  

“Shadow hunter”
original sculpture
by Tony Angell

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. There is 1 comment for One thing to the other by Tony Angell
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Sep 10, 2013

WOW! I have several technical questions, but will leave them unasked…Mystery made concrete or, stone…I love this.

  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. Eldorado Gaily bedight, 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!” (Edgar Allan Poe) There are 7 comments for Ride, boldly ride by Warren Criswell
From: Anonymous — Sep 10, 2013

I thoroughly understand letting an image assert itself; equally, necessary correction to achieve the desired painting. But this took on so many false starts and “do-overs” I felt confusion instead of watching the creative process. Seems to me all that could have been eliminated with thumbnails and studies prior to paint.

From: Rose — Sep 10, 2013

What a treat…Thank you.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Sep 10, 2013

Criticism is not needed here! False starts are no crimes, just part of the deal. This was an unexpected wonder and just what I needed to get up and get going today. I’d have waked up happier if I knew I would be hearing a bit of Mozart’s Dissonant Quartet!

From: PKW — Sep 10, 2013

What wonderful absorption, truly present. It is the journey not a place called Eldorado.

From: Anonymous — Sep 10, 2013

thanks for the wonderful video enjoyed every changing moment angie

From: Mary — Sep 11, 2013

I thought it was all about false starts and growth. Loved the video and would use it as a teaching tool if I could download it to my computer.

From: Warren Criswell — Oct 05, 2013

  The poured watercolour method by Cheri Isgreen, Montrose, Co, USA  

“Best friends”
watercolour painting
by Cheri Isgreen

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  

“Welcome to Sarajevo”
original painting
by Skip Rohde

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  

“The Checked Shirt”
original painting
by Rick Rotante

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  

acrylic painting
by Andreea Radu

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? There is 1 comment for Of artists and lobsters by Vasile Radu
From:Sharon Knettell — Sep 10, 2013

Insightful comment. I can see by your beautiful painting you follow your own dictum. Here the art is not dictated by the state but the tastes of the ruling class dominated by hedge fund managers. I see little in contemporary American that follows the pleasure principle- only art that is cynical and derivative. I am talking about the art that is the most prominent in our biggest and most important modern galleries and museums. It seems that the only pleasure that these artists seek is a big bank account.

  Lost letters by Barbara Gibson-Dutton, Merrickville, ON, Canada  

original painting
by Barbara Gibson-Dutton

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.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Nobody knows what’s under there

From: Susan Holland — Sep 05, 2013

Some of us “try on” solutions by monkeying with a photo of our work in paint programs. It’s just another kind of mirror. I think mylar sounds funny, but if you are frugal with materials, it might work out for you. What I like is a stack of paper, or canvas to just charge into without regard to frugality. Mess them up! Paint over them. I like to paint gesso over old drawings on paper and recycle that paper into a nice loose oil on paper! It makes you feel wild and free and extravagant. Sometimes you get a nice painting out of it! Got a roll of gessoed archival paper waiting beside me here! Yippee!

From: Carole Pivarnik — Sep 06, 2013

“Nobody knows what’s under there” except when you’re a watercolor artist and the big mistakes are difficult if not impossible to conceal. Thus, the importance of planning (e.g., sketches, value studies, etc.)!

From: Maren Malm — Sep 06, 2013

I assume a fair number of watercolorists read your letter! What about those ‘corrections’? Thumbnail sketch to get it ‘right’ would be one possibility. I’ve also seen Mylar used there.

From: Herman Gale — Sep 06, 2013

Painting is not a job for the timid. And yes, Jack is right when he says it’s just another form of procrastination. Painters, in the process of developing, will figure out all kinds of ways to delay the business of going in there and fixing things. Maybe this is where the much vaunted “big ego” comes in.

From: Don Cohen — Sep 06, 2013

There will be all kinds of painters who will think from your letter that Mylar overlays are a good idea. Unfortunate. The watercolorists have it right–figure it out and get it more or less right from the start.

From: Richard Aung — Sep 06, 2013

From: Marvin Humphrey — Sep 06, 2013

Unless the work is going to be a clean crisp watercolor, a painting shows more interesting character with evidence of the composition being strengthened in mid-stream. One theory explaining Mona Lisa’s lack of eyebrows, is that the very thinly painted hairs have flaked off over the centuries. Lookin’ forward to a little single-malt libation myself this evening.

From: Cecelia Campbell — Sep 06, 2013

No matter what the media, experimenting with reworking the composition a la prima is not always such a great idea … especially if you want your work to look clean and crisp. Granted, the design could have / should have been settled with a thumb nail done before ever picking up a brush, but once underway, your friend Jack’s use of mylar for revision may save the painting from looking overworked. But then with enough libation, and who will notice?

From: Suzette Fram — Sep 06, 2013

When you’re working on a painting that just doesn’t feel quite right, it’s nice to experiment with different possibilities as to what could really turn it around and make it a great painting. The use of Mylar or some such material, is actually a great way of ‘trying out’ different solutions. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not about bravery, it’s about working smart.

From: Dimitri Prokop — Sep 06, 2013

As far as I would go with these sorts of shenanegans (Mylar, etc) would be a rough sketch. Doing a few of these beforehand, especially with broad areas rather than lines, gives an overall idea of how the thing might look and potential compositional hazards ahead. It’s also important not to make the sketches too definitive as you don’t want to expend your spirit or make too too many decisions before you get to the main bout.

From: Dwight — Sep 06, 2013

From a 50+ year watercolorist to those who wonder about how to correct w/c mistakes. There are numerous ways, but too many to list here. I suggest those artists take a workshop from someone who has experience in making “mistakes” and corrections.

From: Susan Warner — Sep 06, 2013

I can’t tell you how many times I have painted over or reinvented a piece of work. But sanding down an acrylic is new to me. I somehow thought it would damage the canvas. Of course we are NOT talking about a “belt sander” here! So I will try it. I have a piece that was rejected from two shows and then I started really looking at it. I SAW what the errors were and realized the rejection was SO valid. A learning experience for sure. Now I am trying to resurrect the piece. One can only hope!!

From: Paula — Sep 06, 2013

Love this regarding Acrylic – “no-can-do” with transparent watercolor, or even transparent Acrylics. For those, mylar is not procrastination, it is a necessity – either that or a new sheet of paper.

From: Jeannie — Sep 06, 2013

I smiled when you mentioned Procrastination. My new middle name! I look forward to your helpful hints. It was good to know others have the problem of where to put what. I thought I was alone in the problem of each thing I brush on a spot, then it becomes something I eventually will have to correct, change or try to cover up! It will be fun when I get started, right?

From: Catherine Wagner Minnery — Sep 06, 2013

Your letter was exactly what I needed this morning. Stuck at home, and not at the studio where I’m stewing over a painting that was painted with an interested party in mind. BUT after many, many hours, it just won’t get right! My daughter said, “Mom it looks like two paintings”…and she’s right. So back to the studio it must go. I was hesitating sanding the thing down, my usual method and considered being more timid in its revisioning…BUT you are correct…it needs a good scrubbing with sand paper and a fresh eye to pull it all together. Preliminary overlays are too timid to fix this. It needs a lot more fire in the brush.

From: Theodore M. Amenta — Sep 06, 2013

These mylar overlays —- very architectural —- the eraser is better.

From: Fred Bell — Sep 06, 2013

When I am wondering how to solve a painting problem I have been helped by Photoshop. It allows me to see several ideas quickly and no bumps to sand off.

From: Libby Dodd — Sep 06, 2013

When in doubt, paint it out.

From: Margaret Organ-Kean — Sep 06, 2013

Not working in watercolor, I take it. There the rule is get it right the first time, every time.

From: Barbara Callow — Sep 06, 2013

From: Dwight — Sep 06, 2013

Some still don’t get it. Watercolor is correctible. It’s nice to get right the first time, but it’s a myth that it’s got to be absolutely right the first time or all is lost.

From: JoBeth Gilliam — Sep 07, 2013

Mylar seems like a great tool for watercolor artist…..much better to know than scrub out mistakes. I enjoy and look forward to your letters.

From: Pvt Lennart Sachshausen — Sep 07, 2013

The commit and correct system is by far the best because it is dynamic and participatory. In other words the painter gets into the “zone” and evolves with each and every stroke. Other systems such as Jack’s are too mechanical and left brained and actually end up derailing creativity.

From: Jackie Knott — Sep 08, 2013

In the time it takes to fuss with Mylar just take a turp-soaked rag and wipe the error clean. Do so as often as necessary; it’s faster. We all edit our work while painting but surely drastic changes in composition should be decided beforehand. Looking at Sargent’s paintings as closely as the museum guards will allow, his strokes appear not only perfect in value but casually deliberate. The man is maddening. After reading about his technique we know he wasn’t perfect but seemed to be – such is the beauty of wet on wet, but particularly his mastery.

From: Tony Kampwerth — Sep 09, 2013

I saw a Degas ballet dancer with the legs of the dancer lengthened and moved. The old image was clearly visible where he made the change. The painting is still valued at $millions, I’m sure. I figure if he can do it, so can I.

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 09, 2013

Jackie K – I, too, get pulled by the coller by guards for looking too closely at the art in museums. Sargent (as well as many other greats) took great pains and multiple tries to get that “just dashed off ” look. He would make the same stroke many,many times, wiping it off until it had the bravora feel. That was part of his genius

From: Sonja M. Frey — Sep 09, 2013

You can also lift dry acrylic paint with rubbing alcohol. not perfectly but the affects left behind tend to be rather interesting! Put the alcohol in a spray bottle, spray the are you want to remove and let sit for a few minutes. The longer the acrylic has been dry the more you have to work with it. You can scrape off or wipe off the paint – before the alcohol dries. reapply if you want to remove more. Cheers!

From: Brenda Gail Pon — Sep 09, 2013

I quite liked the idea of overlays, I sometimes use tracing paper for that very thing. I have a canvas that I am working on now that started out as a canola field with a barn, than changed to a couple of groups of aspens with swathed fields. That was when I was living in Alberta, Now that I live in BC it has been reborn to alders and is taking shape as the boat launch at Kennedy Lake. This particular canvas has been a form of yearly report card. Each layer has shown me what I have learned in the year gone by. My only regret is not taking images of each incarnation. I have included a pic of the unfinished alders. There is hope for all canvases.

From: Russ Hogger — Sep 09, 2013

Acrylic covers up all your sins.

From: Marilyn Z. Kahn — Sep 10, 2013

Obviously, you are working in oil or acrylic. I needed no acetate when exploring in those mediums. But now I work in watercolor. I also teach watercolor. You cannot be as aggressive in your explorations in watercolor. So I use and show my students to use gel coated acetate in order to explore color and design factors. It allows people to explore more and gives them confidence. l always enjoyed seeing the coverups when shown in museum exhibits. Sometimes another piece of canvas is sewn onto a painting to permit a change in design. Masters got away with it. Can you or I.

From: John F. Burk — Sep 10, 2013

A powerful message, including some great advice.

From: Sarah Atkins — Sep 11, 2013

Lest someone be lead astray, while it is true that many mistakes in watercolor can be corrected there are some that absolutely cannot be. Try getting rid of a staining color sometime or getting back to the absolute white of the paper. It is simply not possible unless one is working on something like Yupo that isn’t paper at all. And there are some colors that can’t be wiped away even on Yupo. Shoot from the hip with oils….OK. Shoot from the hip with acrylic……OK. Shoot from the hip with pastels……OK. Shoot from the hip with watercolor…….you are likely to waste a lot of expensive paper and paint and live to regret it.

From: Mike Barr — Sep 11, 2013

Jackie and Rick – I set off the proximity alarm while taking a close look at one of Monet’s haystack works while on tour in Adelaide.. how embarassing!

From: Sylvia Hicks — Sep 12, 2013

That was oh so true. I always told my workshop students not to “noodle around and just go for the gusto”. Lots of twitters and giggles always ensued!. Hudson FL

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Raindrop symphony

oil painting, 36 x 60 inches by Melissa Jean

  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.”