It’s often been said that writing is re-writing. Why then cannot painting be repainting? Because, for some silly reason — like a concert pianist’s reason — we have a need to get it right. When you think about it, a painter has permission to keep reworking a painting until she sees what she wants to see. Lines may be found by many passes. Colours by many swatchings.
Did you ever stop to realize that only the originating artist (and perhaps a black light) knows how bad or how different it is under there? Many of us think that the ideal is to make it look like nothing was ever wrong. We labour on the illusion of perfection. “Mine is the horny hand of toil,” said John Singer Sargent, and yet there was seldom an artist whose surfaces looked so effortless.
Here are a few ideas for effective reworking that you can live with: It’s generally a good idea to revisit your reference and run scenarios on the cortex canvas. Often, you’ll go for the simplest and most direct solution. Take the time to scrape off, sand down, re-prime. Don’t allow faulty underpainting or unpleasant texture buildup to jinx you. Do your reworking and overpainting with larger, not smaller, tools. Don’t noodle. Don’t panic. Know that persistence is the main virtue. Sargent was apparently a “ragman” — that is he kept putting on and wiping off until he thought it right. Further, try the simple habit of placing the brush at the beginning and moving your eyes to the imagined stroke’s end — then connect. Also, reconsider mixed media — what does it matter — is anything pure anymore? If you’re working in the sanctity of oils and all else is failing, consider the heretic miracle of acrylic — particularly if you change your mind a lot.
Isn’t that what it’s all about — changing your mind a lot?
PS: “I’ve always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have the light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labours it has cost me.” (Henri Matisse)
Esoterica: My friend Joe Blodgett has a rule to never repair unless he can cover his tracks. “In watercolor particularly,” he says, “it’s almost always better to chuck than fix.” Joe likes to quote Manet: “When you’ve got it, you’ve got it. When you haven’t, you begin again. The rest is humbug.”
This letter was originally published as “Reworking” on February 27, 2001.