The reinvention of prior art


Dear Artist,

When winter comes, it’s time to look again at summer. Reinventing the experiences of stellar times, particularly plein air or live model events, can be a rich mine. Second-generation thinking refines images, facilitates better design and draws out creative truth.

Even third-generation work can take on a power and presence that initial efforts don’t have. I’m not talking about taking field sketches to studio works. Field sketches often have a delightfully rough and uneven quality that eludes later pieces. I’m talking about capital works to capital works.

It’s valuable to cruise earlier efforts — even online after they’re sold — and try to think of ways to make them better. New feelings and dramas evolve, often merely with the passage of time. Changing size or format is generally a good idea. You need to think of your prior picture as a montage of often inadequate actors. As well as adding and removing bodies, feel free to shuffle them around. Get out your director’s chair. While appreciating what you did right in the past, free your mind to reinvent and refine in areas previously not thought of. Here are just a few of the opportunities:

Simplify the cluttered and clutter the simple.

Mystify or abstract areas for greater interest.

See where softening or hardening would help.

Come further to light or to dark.

Come further to colour enrichment and sophistication.

Reinforce or reinstate negative areas.

Be more patient in areas where you were less before.

Be more flamboyant in areas where you were previously tight.

Look closely at focus areas with the idea of taking them further. Look around and try to identify timid areas and run scenarios of their improvement. Very often the addition of glow or the further development of activation and eye control re-jig to superior work.

Contemplate and philosophize on your prior work. Look around for new possibilities of metaphor, elegance, angst, synergy, syntagma, etc. Just because you’ve previously brought the mystery to a satisfactory conclusion does not mean the file has been forever closed.

Best regards,


PS: “Invention breeds invention.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Esoterica: Complacency, satisfaction and the ringing of the cash register are three devils that hinder creative growth. The perpetual student does not stray far from the path of invention and re-invention. That’s where real satisfaction lies. That’s the real motivation that keeps you at it. “We are created creative,” says Maya Angelou, “and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.”


Living the dream
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada


acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

One thought about your suggestion to go back to summer subjects in winter. In addition to your arguments, that also sounds very practical. If you use the winter to paint summer subjects, you will have a nice collection of new summery paintings ready to hit the galleries in the spring. Fall feels appropriate for painting wintery subjects (while I am still not sick and tired of the cold). Although this kind of planning usually doesn’t work for me — l prefer to just paint what my heart desires unless there is a specific request or a deadline spoiling the fun into a work. I suppose in a perfect world everyone paints what they like, when they like it, and we all get rewarded — what a wonderful dream!


The challenge of fixing art
by Jeanne Rhea, Raleigh, NC, USA


“Floating bubbles”
original painting
by Jeanne Rhea

I just read Master Disaster, Five Ways to Rescue Desperate Watercolors by Susan Webb Tregay. I am not a watercolorist, but dozens of her techniques apply to any media. Usually I use a failed painting for experimentation. I had often tried to get a dimensional effect of floating bubbles using alcohol inks. With nothing to lose, I was free to experiment and was able to discover how to make this happen.

I had two paintings that I thought were good, but still something was not right. By using what I learned in Tregay’s book, I reworked one and it sold within 30 minutes of being in a gallery. I am currently reworking the second and I love it. It is difficult for me to start a new painting like one that I have already made as it never seems to be as fresh and I am not excited about it. Something always seems to be missing in one that is trying to be like the first. However, when I have reworked a painting, I seem to connect with it easily. Maybe I feel good that I have not wasted so much time and materials. Or maybe I just cannot stand the thought of a painting being worth nothing and relegated to the trash bin. Or maybe I just love a challenge.


The perfectionist
by Russ Hogger, Edmonton, AB, Canada


pen and ink drawing
by Russ Hogger

In reply to your suggestions regarding reinventing prior art, I feel that when a painting reaches the stage
when everything comes together and seems right, then it’s time to leave it alone. Don’t look back and don’t fiddle with it anymore because you might end up throwing it onto the bonfire of redemption. I can relate to that all too well.





Learning to save work
by Dominique Gaillard, Montreal QC, Canada

Funny how great minds think alike. A few days ago I was contemplating a very early painting of mine, a 12 x 24. Some areas are good and lively, others not so successful, a bit stale. I thought of using an 8 x 10 visor to isolate the good from the not-so-great, then cut up the whole painting after removing the canvas from the stretcher bars into three to see more smaller paintings. What a revelation! I also learned how to save a work of art I couldn’t sell as it wasn’t consistent with something I can now safely put out there.


Waiting for the awakening
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA


“Valley Aglow on Thanksgiving Day”
oil painting
by Dyan Law

I received your email just before entering my studio to reinvent a prior painting… how coincidental! I had been analyzing a foggy plein air landscape painting of mine for well over a year. It had a beautiful subject; dreamy fog, rolling mountains, but not one thing that said this painting was a meaningful work. Yesterday full golden sun broke through the dark clouds and fog hovering over my studio and I was riveted to the view! Pure light at the height of impact!

Sometimes we need to patiently await that kind of precious awakening for an action (or re-action), to take place. I fixed that amazing image into my mind and heart and now I am ready to take the plunge. Reaction triggers reinvention and reinvention will undoubtedly invite new reactions! I suggest that whenever a painting/drawing remains in the “not-there-yet” file for any length of time, sit before it, liken it to an unsolved puzzle and go after the missing piece. It can take only minutes, sometimes months or years, to break the mystery of mastery, but the ultimate satisfaction is worth the struggle.


Profitable repainting
by Ron Unruh, Surrey, BC, Canada


“Tying the Raspberry Vines”
original painting
by Ron Unruh

I can profitably repaint a scene. I did a watercolour of a bike on a beach in Guernsey, Channel Islands last May, sold it; repainted it as a larger acrylic showing more of the English channel and a distant shoreline and found it far more impressive and sold that too. Presently as a personal experiment I am doing the very same Point Roberts (Washington) shore with piles of dried on shore logs in four different mediums, all 16×20, oil, acrylic, watercolour and graphite, and each provides its own interpretation.


Embracing the process
by Aleta Pippin, Santa Fe, NM, USA


“In motion”
oil painting, 40 x 30 inches
by Aleta Pippin

Periodically, I go through what seems to be a complete upheaval wondering about my paintings and whether I should move to different imagery. As an abstract painter, there are times when I wonder whether the next “image” will be there for me and yet, it always shows itself. I’ve been doing a great deal of introspection (again) about the imagery and recently revisited past techniques. As a result I turned out a new body of work using fired resin surfaces, painting on metal, using metal leaf — all in an exploratory effort to re-inspire me. Yet, this didn’t seem enough. After reading your letter, I felt some relief realizing that it’s my overreaction to this process that is giving me pause. Rather, I should embrace the process and appreciate that I’m striving to improve my art.


The growth of goals and abilities
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA


“In motion”
oil painting, 40 x 30 inches
by Alan Soffer

This is a subject that has involved my attention the past several years. Art that looked just fine I now see in a different light, and I begin to rework the piece in my head and then I actually take brush, torch, sandpaper, gesso, or can of paint and look to move to a higher level. One of my first endeavors resulted in an immediate sale, which was very exciting and has made this a way of thinking. Over time even good works appear incomplete sometimes. Of course, sometimes the adjustments are ill conceived and I am forced to totally rework — this is not a catastrophe. Then there is the fact that our goals and abilities grow over time; so the work that was wonderful 10 years ago looks only passable now. Nowadays, I try to keep my options open on everything.

There are 2 comments for The growth of goals and abilities by Alan Soffer

From: Cristina Monier — Dec 08, 2009

I loved your work.

Encaustic is a very difficult media but you seem to have mastered it beautifully, congratulations!

From: Marty Gibson — Dec 10, 2009

My motto is “no painting is ever complete until the check clears the bank”.


Second and third generation paintings
by Phyllis Tarlow, Hartsdale, NY, USA


“Sugarloaf Mt., Hudson River”
oil painting
by Phyllis Tarlow

I really related to your letter on reinventing prior art. In the last few years, I’ve gone from changing the size of a second painting, to playing with doing the painting in a different format. In some cases, I’ve chosen to crop out a small square section of the painting. That really works well with some paintings. The subject takes on a whole new look. I usually try these square as small paintings but then see such possibilities in them that I sometimes decide to try a third time and do a larger version of my second try.

An example of still another way I’ve taken a painting the second time I’ve painted it is to change it from a more traditional rectangular format like the 12″x16″ oil Lawrence Farm and crop it as a long, narrower, horizontal, in this case a 12″x24″. I named my second generation Nature’s Bounty. I felt that the new, elongated version created a dramatic difference and I felt freer to push the colors farther than I had originally. It has since sold while the original is still in my possession.


Timely guide
by Krysteen Waszak, Albuquerque, NM, USA


“The Bridge”
original painting
by Krysteen Waszak

I can only thank you and sincerely try to express what you and your twice-weekly letters have meant to me and my work. No one thing contributes to success and none better or worse, but the pillar of support that I find twice weekly has been an enjoyable, timely and indispensable guide for me. I commend you for the journey you are on and I thank you for bringing us along for the ride. It is so far-reaching, heartfelt and generous.

(RG note) Thanks, Krysteen. And thanks to everyone who included a note with their book order. Today I’m realizing more than ever what a privilege it is to be connected with so many folks who are in the same boat. It is indeed a Brotherhood and Sisterhood. Today we were looking at time zones and realizing that in every hour of our day someone is walking into their studio and cranking up the muse. I’m thrilled to be with you if only just a bit.




9 cock-and-bull stories

oil painting
by Mike Center


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 Gai Swanson of Denver, CO, USA, who wrote, “I’ve been feeling irritated by my apparent inability to finish anything… let alone start something new. Your letter has me visualizing some of this year’s unfinished “starts” and imagining their possibilities. I feel enthusiastic!”

And also Carol Barber of Gainesville, FL, USA, who wrote, “I have been thinking about this lately but thought I might just be repeating myself. I feel my sketch books have a wealth of information and if I repainted the pictures they would be totally different this time. I hadn’t thought about using the paintings and the sketches as a source. Thanks, permission given.”

And also Janet Morgan, of Brooklyn, NY, USA, who wrote, “The Georgia O’Keeffe show now up at the Whitney here in New York has a number of examples of this, four images of the same idea, from close to realism to softly abstracted to essence. You can see how her images evolve.”



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The reinvention of prior art



From: Faith — Dec 03, 2009

Good advice, Robert, and I think it might be useful to apply it to the unborn works, too. I have an exhibition running at the moment. After much pondering I picked about 50 paintings – arguably my best available ones. I had to put hangers on some, retouch others, and generally get them ready for their “outing”. And that really put me on the line. I kept asking myself questions like Why didn’t I see that before?, Did I really think it was finished?, Why the …. did I paint that? and not seldom How on earth did I paint that? the last question being directed at the abstract paintings, which make up two thirds of the collection.

And that’s where the reinventing gets complicated for me. My reinventing would have to start with something prior to the image in front of me, since what is there has a disconnected life of its own and has escaped from its creator (or perpetrator?).

But what was it that kept me brush-pushing into the early hours? How do you explain and even reconstruct or improve on something when you are baffled by it? Those been-and-gone “mysteries” don’t promise “successful conclusions”, so maybe I should ask a different question, namely Does what I did before tell me anything about what is to come?

I’m envious of artists who are motivated to paint the same notion over and over again with only slight “conversions”. They probably have their ideas all sorted out. Maybe one day…..

From: Rene Blackmon — Dec 04, 2009

Since I have a short attention span, when I’m done with a piece, I’m completely through with it. I’ve found that when I try to go back, I have no patience with the second generation work. It bores me. I understand your point logically. In practice, for me, it doesn’t work. I can go back to other source material, but generally have to ignore or tuck away the first piece or any photo of it. Why? It’s a mystery. Why are our brains such black boxes?

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Dec 04, 2009

I have always felt that when I finished a subject, it was done, finished, never to go back. But this is a very interesting idea to take a subject and re-do it differently in a new way and hopefully, better. I started doing this yesterday on a painting I have had some success with. I took the same subject, thought of a new way to present it in a more interesting way. I could crash and burn, or it could be better than ever!

From: Darla — Dec 04, 2009

When I’m done with a painting, I never want to go back to redo it. I’ve already given it my “all”. However, painting one thing usually generates ideas for several new paintings, or different ways to paint. I always come up with many more ideas than I can possibly use, except when I want them — then they melt away like snow, and I have to refer to my sketchbook. Kind of like a wild animal that may approach if you ignore it, but run away when you look at it.

From: Ron Unruh — Dec 04, 2009

I can profitably repaint a scene. I did a watercolour of a bike on a beach in Guernsey last May, sold it; repainted it as a larger acrylic showing more of the English channel and a distant shoreline and found it far more impressive & sold that too. Presently as a personal experiment I am doing the very same Point Roberts shore with piles of dried on shore logs in four different mediums, all 16X20, oil, acrylic, watercolour and graphite, and each provides its own interpretation. Perhaps this is a bit off your topic but you got me thinking anyway.

From: Isabel Benson — Dec 04, 2009

Yes like to try same subject in different medium. Down to just watercolour and acrylic now. Get a totally different picture each try. Not much in oil any more except a few icons. Egg tempra there still most of the time.

From: N. Skidmore — Dec 04, 2009

The important thing here is not to try to work on the actual canvas, but rather to start a brand new painting based on the same original idea. Very often it is better to completely abandon a previous work than to “try to fix it up.” The number of times this ploy can actually work is miniscule. A brand new start with fresh thinking and fresher painting is better.

From: Richard — Dec 05, 2009

There is the most amazing variety of information in the new LETTERS book. Something different on every page, and valuable.

From: Susan Warner — Dec 06, 2009

A refreshing concept! I often ‘go back’ to a piece after letting it rest. It may be a week or a year. 90% of the time it becomes a more powerful statement. The other 10% is a toss. I currently have a solo exhibit and the piece that sold out of ALL is the oldest and a reworked one at that.

From: Lori Twiggs — Dec 07, 2009

Your article was timely as I was just commissioned to do a piece “similar” to a piece already promised to an auction. The debate was whether or not it was ethical to repaint a painting for a second sale and would it devalue the original. Or maybe the question I should ask is how different should it be.

From: Susan Hotard — Dec 07, 2009

Usually all my energy goes into the painting and I try to paint it all in one session. But I do set it where I can look at it or turn it to the wall so I can get a fresh perspective. I find it hard to return to the painting with the same feeling and same hand. But have revisited similar subjects at a later date.

From: Brad Greek — Dec 08, 2009

I’m recently painting the same plein air scene over and over for different effects to enter into different shows. My approach are pretty much the same, but the sizes and materials that I’m painting on are changed. I couldn’t repaint it exactly if I wanted to so I don’t even try. It’s meerly a direction in which to get started.

I often paint in the same location, which really challanges the imagination to see something different. So I’m not so much looking at the finished painting for what can I change, but the muse itself.

From: Joan Brancale — Dec 08, 2009

I am so drawn to the immediacy of Tammy Callen’s fresh expressive work. Starting to paint around 50 I j9ust wanted to agree it’s never to late to develop your art and find a career, imagine all you have stored inside over the years!

From: Aleta Pippin — Dec 08, 2009

I was 43 when I started painting, taking lessons from the local artists here in Santa Fe. After years of painting and discovering my voice, I have had the good fortune of finding the perfect business partner (Barbara Meikle, another artist) and opening a gallery (2006). We show our work and the work of several other outstanding artists. I am truly blessed…

From: Carita Gould — Dec 08, 2009

A year ago I rented a house in Paris for two months. A dream for a long time. I wanted to spend as much time in the museums as I cared to which I did. I am very impressed with Tammy Callens work. It was like being back in the D’Orsay again.

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 08, 2009

I am dismayed when I hear artists say they are done with a work or an idea or concept after only one or two attempts. Your brain is a muscle and needs repetitive exercise. On some works I repaint it until I feel I get what I want. There is no reason to abandon even a successful work. I had a work in a show that sold and another client wanted it, I told them that I had photo references of the scene and would be happy to attempt to recapture the mood and feeling from the photos. They were willing and loved the result. The painting and the scene were in me and the photos helps bring me back to do a new painting.

The two are not exact, but they loved it and bought it. I go back to the same places at different times of the year and paint the same scene. I’ve painted the same model countless times with better and better results each time. For me no subject is ever off limits after one painting. Subsequent attempts are usually better because I’m more familiar with the subject and inject some new thought or feeling about it. Try it. Paint a simple still life five times, different days and see for yourself the results. Do them small 8×10

From: Sandy Askey-Adams — Dec 08, 2009

One never knows what will happen when returning to a past painted subject. A particular pastel painting that I had done and even won a national award on, I had decided to do it over again thinking maybe I could improve upon it by changing various elements of the subject matter. Anyway, I ended up selling the second painting very fast, while the first one that had won the award has not yet sold. I found the second one much more interesting and learned much.

From: martha — Dec 08, 2009

Tammy, as you know, age is relative. If you think back to your 20’s or 30’s you may have had moments when you felt “old,” but now you reflect on that time as young and full of possibilities. Take it from someone who is 64, your excellent work is ‘young’ and full of promise and a future. Delight in the foundation you have already made. These are extraordinarily beautiful paintings – thanks to Robert for pointing out all the reasons why.

From: Percy Modredski — Dec 08, 2009

Speaking of age. I’m now in my mid-senior years and finding that I want to tackle new motifs, not revisit the old. In many ways it’s convenient not to depend on art for most of one’s income. I do not have to sell. In fact, mostly I sell in order to socialize, and it works wonderfully for that purpose. But when I’m done with something it’s finished. Either it goes to storage, to a gallery, to a friend and/or collector, or to the trash bin. Then in my next outing I’m on to something fresh, or a completely new shot at the source material. I have X days left, and they will be spent doing precisely what I want, and what I’ve wanted so far, since I’ve been in this situation, is to paint new challenges every time. I’m blessed. (Who did the blessing is up for grabs, but it’s a dead cert that however I got to where I am now, I’m tickled to have arrived.)





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