Fun with retreads

Dear Artist, The other day Verna Marie Campbell of Mission, Kansas, wrote, “Say you have a painting around for a few years and all of a sudden you see something to make it better. What do you do?” Thanks, Verna. I often try to fix it. I call them “retreads” from the days when I used to have new treads applied to my old tires. “Genn’s Law” states, “The longer the time from the original production, the more likely you will find things wrong with it.” There are times to resist doing anything, of course, but very often works can be made better.  A few things to keep in mind: Some are more easily reworked than others. Some growl when you try to do it to them. Some have permanent, fatal errors and need to be dumped. I habitually recall unsold paintings from one gallery and send them to others. Being nearly always in acrylic, my stuff is relatively easy to work on. I remove the varnish first. Glazing to a lower tone and laying in more lights is a frequent ploy. Sometimes elements are added, but more often they’re removed. Colours are sometimes adjusted or changed completely. One of my other laws is to avoid having all three primaries in one painting. Sometimes I pick a redundant primary and smite it. When the main fault is in the composition, errors may be unfixable without a loss in surface quality. Sometimes it’s worth the sacrifice. Oils are a bit tougher to fool with and watercolours even more so. But both can still be tackled with sufficient contemplation and a minimum of strokes. The greatest thing in the world is desire. If you have enough of it you can fix anything. Paintings can languish for a year or more before the light of desire turns green. Sometimes the needed epiphany is right in your face. Faith in your own procedures and abhorrence of overworking are keys. Some painters can sit down and do a painting all at once and it’s seen to be just fine. I’m a fixer-upper. I like the puzzle of it all. I like to get myself into trouble and try to work my way out of it. I’m never going to run out of substandard stuff. Best regards, Robert PS: “It is often the easiest move that completes the game.” (Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton) Esoterica: Recently we were doing some bookkeeping and we found three paintings were out with a dealer we had not heard from in 15 years. By phone he confessed that two of them were sold and he would pay right away. I asked for the third to be returned. Out of its packaging, it made my eyes bleed. Although I didn’t think so when I painted it, it was now definitely awful. The power shredder came to mind. Then, after some stressed contemplation, I got an idea how it might be improved. At its next gallery my revived prodigal will be given another chance to find a discriminating connoisseur.   Verna Marie Campbell

“Auiquiu Country”
oil painting


“Fantastic Storm”
oil painting


“Clouds over Sandias”
oil painting


oil painting

          Fun with retreads

“In the Mawhinney’s” 1980
acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches –This one was done in an area of New Brunswick where everybody seemed to be named Mawhinney. Every postbox was a Mawhinney. Even the graveyard was full of them. I thought the painting altogether too jumpy and lacking in heart. Also, I couldn’t stand that small garage-like building over there.


2010. To give it a mood and pull down the tone I glazed the whole thing with Phthalo blue. I redesigned the offensive garage and simplified the ‘wandering colour,’ particularly the redundant reds in a lot of areas. Turning it into a counter-light seemed to give it more presence and power. I don’t know. Sometimes I think I just like to change things.

                  Chopping up turtles by Abbie Williams, Nobleboro, ME, USA  

“Wrinkle in Time”
oil painting
by Abbie Williams

I was very glad to hear you talk about reworking paintings after they were “done.” With the group of painters I get together with twice a week we often critique old “turtles” (slow movers) and manage to help resurrect them much to everyone’s surprise. One of the techniques we offer to each other is to cut off part of the painting to see if it improves the design. Amazingly, it very often is the cure for a failed painting. Being “Cheap” New Englanders, saving a painting is priceless.   There is 1 comment for Chopping up turtles by Abbie Williams
From: Brigitte Nowak — Apr 09, 2010

“Turtles” = slow movers – I love it! So much more evocative than “duds”. May I borrow the term?

  Play time — after a time by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA  

“Ten Views of Milford Sound”
mixed media
by B.J. Adams

I have found that sometimes just spending a couple of days with work, out of sight, at a point where I think I am finished but know something is wrong, causes the second sight to announce itself quickly. More often than not, if composition is OK, then it seems there is a need for added contrast. When that second sight doesn’t recover the piece, then I put it away for a long time. I may at some point, usually when stymied to begin a new piece, bring out the old work, cut it up and use in collages or use bits of it to convert to greeting cards. This I find to be fun… my playing time.     Loss of interest in old subject by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA  

“Lapis Lazuli”
(Original: top)
acrylic painting
by Alan Soffer

I rework paintings quite often. I find the underlying painting is a great source for the creation of the new idea. Usually, I am no longer interested in the subject of the original piece and want to blend it into my new topic for a show if possible. Acrylics are pretty easy to handle, but I am quite ready to move from the first medium to oil, or even collage. Watercolours are wonderful starting points for acrylic, or oil, or in my case encaustic and then oil if it is still not there. It is important to know what can go on top of what. Personally I think it is a wonderful technique and all part of the conservation of resources we are dealing with these days.       All art a story of development by oliver, TX, USA  

mixed media
by oliver

I just returned from a trip where museum tours played a lot of the last few days (British National Gallery, Tate Modern, Tate British). I was struck by the number of pieces that were a) called unfinished and presented, b) reworked over a time, and even c) a new version made or d) studies were made for the development of larger final pieces and for obtaining the commission. There is a quote from a song: “Don’t get too lost in all I say, but at the time I really felt that way.” Rework vs. new vs. previous being a study vs. whatever is a personal artistic decision and I reserve the right to change my opinion. I don’t sign things unless I think it is “finished.” I don’t rework pieces, but rather create a new similar one, because at the time I signed it I thought it was finished. An artist’s work tells a story of development when viewed as a whole (it’s like a diary and sometimes it is helpful to review one’s own diary). By reworking things it makes it harder to understand the artist’s or your own development. By creating new from the same theme it allows us to study the artist’s or your own development and changes.   Reworking obsession by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France  

“The Hudson”
original painting
by Jeffrey Hessing

Though I tend to go for the “alla prima” I often rework canvases in the studio, weeks, months, or years later. When one large piece was sold to a restaurant I noticed that unconsciously I had taken it out every spring and reworked it four years running making major changes in both color and composition. Here’s a technical note to oil painters: You must first wash a dried painting down with turpentine and let it evaporate to reactivate the surface. Then give a coat of retouch varnish over the whole painting and a little in the medium to be sure the new coat will be well adhered to the old. There is 1 comment for Reworking obsession by Jeffrey Hessing
From: Carol Morrison — Apr 09, 2010

Thank you for your notes on preparing oil paintings for reworking. Is it necessary to do this if you are working on a painting after only a few days or weeks? I had also heard that a light sanding of the surface works, and would like anyone’s opinions on this, but your method sounds less messy!

  Then was then, now is now by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA  

“March Reflections”
acrylic painting
by Paul deMarrais

I have no interest in retreads at all. I feel each painting had its own time. A painting done ten years ago reflected my interests and skills at that moment. I can look back at it and reflect on what my interests and skills are now. That is really all I would wish to do. To paint on them again would be to revise my history. It’s like taking an old photo of a girlfriend and putting in a different face years later. Uggh. Old paintings are like old friends to me. Sometimes I shudder for an instant when I see them, but then I smile in the end. We need to respect our journey and let the old be old and the new be new. I throw out many of the paintings that have hung around or have returned from exile from galleries, unsold and unloved. It’s only a painting and it’s MY painting to keep or reject. There is 1 comment for Then was then, now is now by Paul deMarrais
From: Dianne — Apr 09, 2010

Well written Paul! I’m in total agreement with you. Each painting tells a story and we use only our knowledge and skills at the time to produce one. A painting completed, I feel, is a success. Nice acrylic painting too!

  The thrill of making them better by Nancy Teague  

“Window Light Geranium”
acrylic painting
by Nancy Teague

I say “Here, here!” to your post on reworking old art work. Sometimes I’ve come across an earlier painting and think I can’t believe I thought that was any good! But when there’s opportunity to improve it I find myself stirred with excitement and the challenge to make it better. Plus I’m encouraged realizing I am ‘seeing’ better and know how to express that! So it’s a win-win situation! I must add though that it is satisfying to have those golden oldies in collections or a few in possession as they are part of a history of growth.         Losing conviction with retreads by Alfonso Tejada, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

“Spanish Court, Lisbon”
watercolour painting
by Alfonso Tejada

I was reflecting on how valid it might be for some artists to try retreads. The retreads in life sometimes work in favor and sometimes create the habit to never gain conviction or self assurance in beginners and perhaps in some well advanced artists. The method is a common approach through the history of art. There are interesting “forensic” studies on the integrity of art works and not surprisingly they have found under an electronic x ray procedure (infrared reflectogram) the parts that have been removed or added on the image and the date of the rework done, even covered and used as a new surface for a new painting. Monet, Renoir, Cassatt, Seurat to mention a few in this study by the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany. The approach of “re-treads” is useful but to what extent the learning becomes successful in developing that integrity or sincerity in a piece of art. Cezanne got tired perhaps for the 40 intents on Mont San Victoire. There is 1 comment for Losing conviction with retreads by Alfonso Tejada
From: Win Dinn — Apr 09, 2010

Gorgeous painting, Alfonso – it’s got me yearning for the sunlight in Spain!
  How to remove varnish by Rita Bower, South Williamsport, PA, USA   How do you remove varnish from acrylic paintings? And by the way, what type of varnish do you use….? is it sprayed on or is it brushed? Gloss, satin, matte? (RG note) Thanks, Rita. And everyone else who asked. Acrylic final varnish is removed with household ammonia. Do it outside and rub the surface well with a cloth, then clean it off thoroughly with water from a garden hose. For a final varnish I use Golden Final Acrylic Varnish with UVLS (Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers). I prefer gloss but shine or lack of it is up to you. There is 1 comment for How to remove varnish by Rita Bower
From: Dennis — Apr 09, 2010
  Re imagining work to a different format by Jack Aaron Coggins, Nashville, TN, USA   Re-imagining is the buzz word in Hollywood nowadays. I would like your opinion on re-imagining one’s own work. I have just finished reading the “Retreads” letter, so I am in a quandary about my own retread questions. I have been painting again the last 5 years or so after a 30 year layoff from it. Since my return I have produced around 65 paintings. The first 15 or so were all 8×10, 9×12 inches or right around that size, to get my feet wet again so to speak. Well after re-learning skills, techniques that I had not used in half a lifetime, I look back at some of the smaller pieces from 5 years ago and wonder about re-doing them in a larger size. I have been very fortunate in that I have sold quite a few of my works, some of these being images that I would like to retry in a larger scale, say 36×48 or whatever. However, I feel if I do this, I am not being fair to the wonderful people who have the smaller pieces. Is there an etiquette to this that I would be abusing? I am curious because I have folks telling me they would love to see me paint this one larger or that one larger. (RG note) Thanks, Jack. The convention of making large paintings from sketches and smaller finished work is indigenous to art making. I’ve not yet had a complaint from anyone, and if I did I’m sure the process could be well explained by either the dealer or the artist. There are 3 comments for Re imagining work to a different format by Jack Aaron Coggins
From: Lorraine Khachatourians — Apr 09, 2010

That is reassuring to know. I have just done that, redoing one that was 6 x 6 inches as a larger 30 x 30 inch piece (the biggest I have worked on so far). It was great fun to change the scale and gives a very different feel to it. There are a couple of other ideas I have had, to change the size and the medium as well, so I will now feel comfortable to just go ahead and do it.

From: Jim Oberst — Apr 10, 2010
From: Anna — Apr 12, 2010

As long as the artist didn’t sell the copyright for an image, it belongs to teh artist. You can do whatever you like with it – copy it, change it, reproduce, print on ashtrays…it’s yours and there is no law to dictate othervise.

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Come to the River

acrylic painting by Rose-Marie Goodwin, Vancouver, BC, Canada

  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 Loraine Wellman of Richmond, BC, Canada, who wrote, “A few years back, Jack Shadbolt had a show that was called “Double-dated” — all pieces that he re-worked and then added the new date to. Both dates were on the back.” And also Pierre Duceppe, who wrote, “If you don’t get it right the first time, you won’t never do it.” And also Johan Sandstrom of White Rock, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I hope you found your eggs.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Fun with retreads

From: Dr. Ron Unruh — Apr 05, 2010

Thanks for this affirmation. I have more than a few paintings to which I now want to make some fixes. I am always pleased that some that I think deserved some help have already pleased a buyer well enough to go home with them. Yet of the ones I still have I am seeing numerous areas where an adjustment will make a positive difference. I am often nervous about tackling this. How do you remove the varnish Robert?

From: Trish Booth — Apr 05, 2010

I don’t re-tread, I re-build. I keep the old one for reference and start a new one entirely. I’m able to change the composition if needed, nothing is too dark or thick to paint over — I cannot abide that ‘painted-over’ line of paint showing up through the top layer. If I don’t get a winner after that many tries it goes into the bin and I get on with a new one. Some paintings seem to paint themselves, some will only fight you, and most are somewhere in between.

From: debbie — Apr 06, 2010

verna marie..awesome work

From: Darla — Apr 06, 2010

Robert — A lady in our art group has started coating watercolors with mat medium and painting on them in acrylic, with amazing results. This is one way you can rework watercolors.

Sadly, my oils reject being reworked. Generally it’s a major flaw in composition that does me in. Usually I just recoat them and do a different painting on top.
From: Dwight Williams — Apr 06, 2010

Sorry Robert, but this particular retread is different, but no better than the original. The first has no character and the second has too much. It’s gaudy and too dark. Suggestion: keep the sky change, lighten the building and the road, gray the overly gaaareen ground some and you’ll be OK.

From: Mary H. — Apr 06, 2010

I’m a watercolor painter, and re-using old paintings is something I do often. I like to work in mixed media — semi-abstract landscapes. What do I do with old paintings? Scrub out colors, add gesso to areas, build up layers with colored pencils or pastels, cut or tear areas and rearrange pieces to make collages…

From: Jane S — Apr 06, 2010

If you rework an older painting, can you consider it a new painting for submissions to competitions?

From: Kathy Hunter — Apr 06, 2010

Boy, the topic of this letter really hit home with me. I seldom stay “in love” with my art renderings. I’m amazed at how I find flaws with paintings that I originally believed to be rather decent and worthy of sharing with the world. On the side of rework, I definitely think it’s worth the effort; however, one must be willing to part with the possible failure that certainly could result. Thanks, Robert, for the wonderful free advice that is constantly packed with encouragement and new ways to increase personal creativity.

From: Theresa Bayer — Apr 06, 2010

I redo my paintings all the time. Some of them do growl, but others sit up and beg to be redone. Hopefully, the redo makes them all more fetching. So, does that make me a perfectionist, like you wrote about a few letters back? If so, I willingly accept my plight. It’s better than chasing my tail.

Austin TX USA
From: Lida van Bers — Apr 06, 2010

I was looking at one of my older paintings (Oil) which I really like but can stand some corrections to give it more light. I was hinking of writing to you this morning. Talk about telepathy!

From: Liz Walker — Apr 06, 2010

I paint mostly in acrylics on paper and I love recycling/reworking old failed paintings. Unlike Robert’s example, I tend to completely change the subject matter so that very little of the old painting is recognizable. Best example of this was an old self portrait I did in 1991 on 300 lb wc paper; 15 years later, I fished it out, turned it upside down and turned the head into a colorful pear! It was accepted into a juried Art About Agriculture show here in Oregon. I’m a big believer in reworking!

From: Georgeana Ireland — Apr 06, 2010

Bravo! I always love it when a “retread” heads off to a new gallery and then sells. It is like found money when a painting that has been kicking around in the studio or closet finds a happy home.

From: Pog Summers — Apr 06, 2010

i love the before and after of you painting that you glazed with Phthalo blue; I think the change was powerful and unified the terrific little landscape. I am having a show on 23rd st and 9th ave in a cafe starting April 23rd and running for three months. A friend of mine said, Pog you have to go to galleries. I said no I don’t. I am very excited. I will take invitations around to galleries since it is the major gallery area in the city. The paintings are all oil on canvas.

From: Thierry Talon — Apr 06, 2010

Please tell me what the problem is with re-working oils.

I have done it many times. Generally, I cover my error with an opaque pigment, and the correction begins. Sometimes, all I need to do is glaze over, as Robert illustrated. I didn’t know it was hard.
From: Sharon hazen — Apr 06, 2010

I had just sent this response to a buddy yesterday:

Busy creating stuff. I am REPAINTING right over the old images on canvasses. For example I have a lovely landscape view of Waterton Lake right over the top of an old lady dressed in Klondike clothes, seated on a chair, with plant and mirror at the side giving the composition a double image. I set the Prince of Wales Hotel right on top of her head. She has trees growing on her feet. The mirror has become a mountain. FUN! It makes me chuckle inside as I paint. . . Here. . . take that. . . Klondike hat! from THE MAD HATTER.
From: Raynald Murphy — Apr 07, 2010

Your statement, “Oils are a bit tougher to fool with and watercolours even more so.” is correct but I would have said ” … and watercolors should be left alone less they loose their freshness.” Having said that, I must admit that I have “corrected” a few “commissioned” pieces where some element did not satisfy the client. In every case I swore once returned to the client that I would never do another commissioned piece in watercolor again if I felt the client would ask me for adjustments. Briefly, any adjustments in watercolor, at least the way I work, is HELL.

Montreal, Quebec
From: Dick Sherman — Apr 07, 2010

Knowing that you can always “come back” is dangerous to alla prima quality. Artists need to think things out so works are as close to fully realized as possible on the first pass. Early laziness generates substandard retreads.

From: Erica Kane — Apr 07, 2010

My retread story: I had done a successful little (8 x 10) pastel of an arroyo, and decided to do a much larger version. Framed it. After a couple of years, I decided I didn’t like it and made substantial changes to the sky, shifting the lighting and the colors to be more dusky. Framed it. After another couple of years, I decided I didn’t like it. This time I went after the middle ground. Eventually, the painting lost its middle ground and foreground and background and changed moods and colors completely. Oh, and it was cut back to 10 x 14 from 16 x 20. Framed it. Sold this one, to a couple who are both artists. Moral: Pastel may seem fragile, but you can keep fooling around with it until you get it right.

New Mexico
From: Alice Helwig — Apr 08, 2010

I like to glaze over the entire painting with a transparent pigment like Red Iron Oxide. Sometimes I thin out gesso and put a “gesso Float” on the surface. Then I react to the image as it now appears. Sometimes I’ll collage paper or fabric over the old image and then rework it.

There are times that I add more detail, other times I remove detail. I also have moved mountains and trees to strengthen the composition. Its about the idea of deconstruction and then reconstruction. Of letting all of the painting go-even those little bits that previously pleased you. After wrecking a painting its interesting to see where you can push it. When I teach painting classes to people, I always tell them that sometimes a painting has to go through an ugly duckling stage. Without that stage the painting can’t achieve what it needs to. And of course there are those paintings that I can’t stand and get a new lease on life with a thick coat of gesso. That also feels good.
From: Sell Owen — Apr 08, 2010

Genn’s rule of never have all three primaries on one canvas must be a hard road to walk; especially in the daylight.

From: Gina Lento — Apr 08, 2010

I paint in pastel and watercolor. Watercolors can be tricky at times and I found that the best way to resurrect a bad watercolor is to use it as an underpainting for pastels. I either touch it up with pastels or I paint over it with a clear pastel ground to add grit and use the watercolor as the underpainting…a bad pastel can be scrubbed out, or if you use Ampersand pastelbord, you can wash it off, hehehe. Been there and done that.

From: Krista Hamilton — Apr 08, 2010

I love retreads. Because my work relies heavily on texture I can change an piece completely while still utilizing the initial image. Just today I finished a piece that has mocked me for about eight months from the wall of my studio. It’s fun to see how things evolve!

From: Bob Ragland — Apr 08, 2010

About earlier paintings, I just do another version, that way I have a comparison. I am a big Georgio Morandi fan. I like his idea of working in series. I adopted the method of working in series long ago. This way I never run out of subjects to paint.

From: Jackie Knott — Apr 08, 2010

I am rarely completely satisfied with my work. I have one favorite I reworked twenty years later, much to its improvement (oil). I’m almost embarrassed with its first birthing. There are times you look back at a piece and wonder, “Why didn’t I see that when I painted it?” and wish you could get a hold of it again. Sometimes a simple wash will correct a value. Other times, major repainting is necessary. If you have grown in expertise, why not rework a painting? What is so sacred about leaving a mediocre painting as is?

Robert, your “before and after” are two extremes in contrast. I think I would have preferred a middle ground.
From: Sandy Bonney — Apr 08, 2010

That is why I LOVE pastels! I can un-frame one that I did twenty years ago and rework it.

Curator, Signatures Gallery, Brookings OR
From: Karen R. Phinney — Apr 09, 2010

I belong to a painter’s group, we meet over a day, once a week……it’s a fabulous way to get support, and to get help when things are tricky. But recently, there was suggestion to bring our “dogs”, paintings we didn’t like or had a problem for some reason, and we would rework them! It was fun to see what came out of the reworked piece. Often an abstract which left a small portion of the original……..and we didn’t do our own! It was a fun way to pass the time, and to see something morph into something else…….

From: Teresa — Apr 10, 2010

I have a unique situation. i was just about to complete my first oil painting on canvas several years ago when my brother was killed in a car accident. I have not painted nor touched that painting since. I now want to finish it. Can anyone give me tips on how to go back to it…do I wash it first, and how, and will there be any problem of just picking up where I left off? I know my brother will be there with me….encouraging me all the way. I’m ready for my therapy…..painting…thanks.

From: Victoria Borrosmith — Apr 11, 2010

Sometimes reworking is a mistake. Years ago I did a painting of a local light house which is attached to a keeper’s residence, the whole dating back to the 1870’s. The major difference was that I replaced the light tower itself with the image of a wooden match stick. I called it something like, Single Use Light House. Among the few people who saw the work, it was not highly regarded, so I put it aside. Later, I took a photograph of the SULH, and then repainted the work, replaceing the match stick with the original light house. The picture found a home. But at the remove of twenty years, one of my most prized possessions is the small photograph of the SULH. I should have held the painting for twenty years, and it’s likely that I would not have repainted it.

From: estellitasabanal — May 22, 2012

hi william this is tita fom cebu phils. good day

From: estellitasabanal — May 22, 2012

iam lookin william hedley morrish he is a good friend of mine when he was in cebu i think he will be back in the phils. this coming june

From: estellitasabanal — May 22, 2012

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