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.
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
Fun with retreads
Chopping up turtles
by Abbie Williams, Nobleboro, ME, USA
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.
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Play time — after a time
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
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
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
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.
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
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.
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Then was then, now is now
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
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.
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The thrill of making them better
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
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.
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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.
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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.
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Come to the River
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.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Fun with retreads…