Saving a painting


Dear Artist,

Last night, Bob Vorel of Shepherdstown, WV wrote, “I was wondering what you would have to say about saving a painting by reworking it. I do watercolors and when things go wrong, they usually head south fast. But I sometimes go in and try to save things. Does trying to save a painting ever really work? Have you ever gotten a great painting out of one that was on its way to the dumpster?”


Bob Vorel

Thanks, Bob. Watercolours are by far the toughest to save. The main thing is to be overflowing with benevolent desire — and have a few methods up your sleeve. A frequent problem with watercolours is overworking — so you often need to figure out ways to underwork them. If you’re prepared to compromise a bit, you might try one or more of the following:

Correct poor areas with opaque media
Obfuscate with spray or airbrush
Wipe down and off with a wet cloth
Scrape and scratch with knife or sandpaper
Reformat by cutting into smaller works

In opaque media — oil, acrylic, etc. — you have far more repair techniques available, including resurrection by total repainting. For those who would make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, here are a few things to think about:

Unify by glazing a mother colour
Obfuscate incompetence with a scumble
Strengthen elements by cutting down detail
Eliminate one colour–especially a primary
Look to subtract material more than to add
Improve compositions by using the classic rules
Shoot up the borinary by busting the rules
Return to reference for better understanding
Eliminate reference and get into your mind
Rededicate yourself to confidence and audacity

While you may often recognize the need to simplify, at other times the addition of further complication can help. Sometimes we err on the side of plainness and “unfulfilled space.” Judiciously putting more into the painting can be useful — a more complex sky, a metaphoric element, that sort of thing. In either case, change and improvisation are the lifeblood of art. When you continually ask the question, “What can be?” it’s amazing what you can make from what you already have. You can save practically anything from going to the dumpster — provided you are willing to turn a barn into a duck.

Best regards,


PS: “More of me comes out when I improvise.” (Edward Hopper) “The important thing is to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” (Charles du Bois)

Esoterica: Workshop instructors are familiar with the student who holds up a painting and asks, “How do I fix this?” Often the best advice is to drop it and start another. Even so, a glaze can sometimes be pressed into service. More bad paintings are fixed by glazing than this world dreams of. Learn to glaze by starting with thin washes of black — Carbon, Bone and Mars — to see the differences. Graduate to transparent whites, Phthalo blues and various transparent warms. Dump reality, let fantasy prevail — change the weather, the hour, the subject. In oil you’ll have to wait a bit. In acrylic it’s instant gratification. “A solitary fantasy can transform a million realities.” (Maya Angelou)


Never give up on a painting
by Bill Skuce, Sooke, BC, Canada


“Portal of Light”
original painting
by Bill Skuce

I never give up on a painting… I’ve reworked paintings that have been lying around the studio for years. An idea I would add to the ones you have suggested is to allow oneself permission to mix the media. Use the troubled watercolour (in Bob Vorel’s case) as a basis for developing a mixed media piece: apply collage, a bit of gouache, overwork both with acrylic then some pen and ink and finally oil pastel. It would be counterproductive to grieve the lost watercolour but helpful to commit to the evolving new entity and enjoy the ride. The result may not fit in with the body of work you may have been hoping to produce for an upcoming exhibition of watercolours but who knows? Down the road there could be a great mixed media show in the offing!


Non-absorbent surfaces
by Claudio Ghirardo, Mississauga, ON, Canada


“Nude with robe”
watercolour painting
by Burton Silverman

An interesting technique has been promoted by Burton Silverman. It involves doing watercolour on a plate (Bristol) smooth finish. Being smooth, the watercolour stays on top rather than being soaked through the grooves so if you make a mistake, all you have to do is wet it down and wipe it off.

(RG note) Thanks, Claudio. Burton Silverman’s excellent Breaking the Rules of Watercolor explains Bristol Plate technique and other useful devices. Ease of removal and similar effects can also be had by using the currently popular Yupo paper. See letter below.




Yupo paper
by Taylor Ikin, Tampa, FL, USA


“Days End”
watercolour painting, 26 x 40 inches
by Taylor Ikin

Yupo has been my watercolor surface of choice for the last eight years. You need only moisten and wipe… presto …back to a clean unruffled surface. Depending on how long the painting has been “resting” (I keep 20 plus paintings going at one time… so they all have a chance to nap between rounds) the lifting can be lightly done and leave some texture behind, or it can be a total wipe out with another wipe of the paper towel or another pass of the brush. The most important part of the process… no matter what surface you are using, is to constantly wet and wipe your brush in order not to be reintroducing the paint back onto the surface. I consider my least pleasing efforts to be only starts, knowing that on Yupo I have the freedom to change a landscape into a portrait or a waterfall into a vase of sunflowers. For myself, the daily coming together of brush, paint and Yupo is always a joyful experience… whether starting or “restarting” a painting.


by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“The Blue Point Crab”
oil painting
by Coulter Watt

I have to save every painting. I start out on a high — inspired — and run the course of an inverted bell curve of feelings toward a painting. Sometimes things “go south” because I’ve ventured into new territory or other times because I lose the vision thing and have to analyze where I fell off track. This is where the real work and discipline of painting comes on the scene. Thankfully, oils are the most plastic of mediums and turpentine is the great fixer — I often use a Q-Tip to make small corrections. The rare real loser is painted over, it’s called pentimento, Italian for “on top of” or it goes to the dumpster. In the later case that’s because the idea falls into the head scratching “what was I thinking” category.

One great advantage of using Golden’s archival acrylic varnish is that it’s removable. I’ve gone so far as to decide that something needs reworking after it’s been varnished, so I remove the varnish, repaint the area, then varnish that area.

The Blue Point Crab is a recently saved painting.


Face down in the tub
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, WI, USA

Put the watercolour face down in the bathtub and leave it there overnight. The color should be allowed to drop off the paper naturally. This results in a lighter version of the original image. Then the paper can be re-stretched and let dry. Reworking is made easier because the original color is much lighter and some of the washed out color may even provide a new opportunity or direction.


‘Once again, from the top’
by Blake W. Ward, Monte-Carlo, France

As a sculptor, and as difficult as it is to save a piece, often we get good work out of an error or mistake. The problem in most work is knowing when to stop. There is a fine line between finished and overworked, but I shall never surrender. I have never done a work as poorly the second time as I did it the first time.


Don’t worry, be happy
by Diane Morgan, Indian Wells, CA, USA


“Golden Reflections”
watercolor painting, 13 x 18 inches
by Diane Morgan

I used to think that saving a watercolor was impossible. In desperation I took a painting to the sink and “hosed” it off. A fainter image remained which I was able to paint over and save the painting. I have been able to save several this way. To remove strong colors, sometimes a sponge is necessary. I have found that a round foam dishwashing type sponge on a handle works wonders. With the painting shown here, the original background was overworked. I frisketed the pears to protect them and scrubbed out the background under running water. I was able to completely redo the background and save the painting. Never give up. The worst that can happen is you wash off most of the color and can reuse the paper for a new painting. Don’t worry. Be happy. Have fun. Mistakes can be your best learning experiences.


‘No stress’ system
by Helen Harris, Toms River, NJ, USA


“Dawn’s Mist”
by Helen Harris

My attempts at saving watercolors has led me on a fantastic exploration of mixed media. The first time I tried to cover an area that needed help was with rice paper. Other papers from paintings that just didn’t quite make it, but had areas of potential, came into my collection box. I became fearless in color application, brushwork and composition! There were no more “mistakes” in my work, just an array of useable material. Most importantly, painting was fun again! No stress, just playful, productive and no material wasted. Any painting can be resurrected and given new life… even if scraps of it are shared with the next painting.


Not trash in someone else’s eye
by Barbara McGee, Peterson, IA, USA


watercolour painting
21 x 14 inches
by Barbara McGee

A friend had a painting she had worked and worked and reworked and finally just hrew it in the trash. One day she was getting ready for a show and needed another painting. So she pulled it out of the trash and put it into a frame. When she put her display up, this particular painting was hung clear to the bottom, clear in the back. The first person to come into her booth said, “Why do you have your best painting tucked clear in the back?” He picked it up and bought it!





‘Free up’ with a fixer-upper
by Sharon Pitts, Montclair, NJ, USA


watercolour painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Sharon Pitts

I have been painting for 35 years, concentrating on watercolor since 1980. “Fixing” omes up often in class. Many times the fix requires an analysis of the value structure of the piece. If the piece is not overworked into mud, adding a gutsy dark can perk it up. I also use a scrubber or an old bristle brush to alter areas of paint or soften edges, etc. The process of painting requires constant adjustment, so in one sense we are always fixing our work. Also, I store paintings in need of fixing and try new techniques on them. Sometimes this fixes them and sometimes it provides me with new discoveries. There is a freer feeling when working with a fixer-upper.


Time heals all things
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada

On saving paintings, one thing you didn’t mention was time. When I have a painting that is “going south,” but which I feel has intrinsic worth (and it should, or I shouldn’t be wasting my time with it in the first place) I will often take it and put it aside for a day, a month or even longer. When I come back to it (ideally, having forgotten about it) with fresh eyes, I will often see instantly what it needs. Sometimes I am also surprised that it needed nothing but for me to stop fussing over it.


See the piece finished
by Sandra Meyer, NE, USA

When a student comes to me and thinks their painting needs to be tossed, it usually just needs to be finished. Many cannot see the finished piece in their mind and they think they are finished long before they are. There cannot be a good light without a good dark. Most can be changed from a so-so piece to a masterpiece by remembering that old adage.


Saving watercolors with pastel
by Julie Starr, Olympia, WA, USA

Saving a watercolour is easily done with soft pastel — the two mediums are naturally complimentary, and the result is usually worth the effort. Any ground with tooth will accept pastel, and watercolour paper generally has good tooth. What are called “hard pastels” (NuPastel and Creatacolours, mostly) work easily, and the “softer” brands — Sennelier, Unison, Great Americans go on like stroking butter on velvet. Because pastels are an opaque medium, they fully cover any “mistake” — that area of watercolour becomes like an underpainting structure, with the “correct work” on top.

Kitty Wallis (inventor of Wallis Sanded Pastel paper) starts her work with a strong underpainting done in Createx Pure Pigments, matching the colours to the values she sees — while this medium is not watercolour, the effect is about the same. Her underpainting looks like a blocky but colourful griselle for her coming work. I’ve seen some pieces which then nearly cover all of that underpainting with pastel, but generally, about a third to half is left still showing through — and even up close, it is difficult to tell which is who.


Dealing with dogs
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA

As a watercolor painter, I always have a large pile of failed paintings, which I refer to as “Old Dogs.” The fatal mistake that is usually beyond correction is a problem in the drawing or design discovered halfway through the painting. Save the paper and do one of the following:

Paint over the Dog with a couple coats of gesso and try painting in watercolor on the gesso surface.
Turn the Dog upside down and look at it non-objectively, using an opaque media such as acrylic, gouache or casein to make a new painting.

Select one section that does work and cut it out for a smaller painting.

Cut the Dog up into equal sized pieces, which become several small non-objective paintings for cards or bookmarks. Embellish with metallic paint.

Tear or Cut out interesting sections to collage into a new painting.

(RG note) Thanks, Nina. For some time now I don’t call them “dogs” in my studio. Dorothy gets upset. I call them “pussy cats,” (the easy ones) or “bloody squirrels” (the ones that get away).


‘Lifting’ watercolours
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada

Lifting the paint is the best way to overcome watercolour errors. Of course some paints will not lift. Organic pigments that are fine dispersions do not lift readily and Phthalocyanine Green as well as greens of other names containing Phthalo, like Hookers Green, Winsor Green, etc. are absolutely the worst to lift. They stain all papers and clothes as well. Therefore it is a good idea to avoid the use of these greens. Use viridian, make greens… but not with Phthalo Blue as it is difficult to remove as well. If you must use staining pigments save them to the end when you are confident the work is working.

There is no medium where the characteristics of the paint vary as greatly as in watercolour. A new watercolour painter should test all the paints in their palette for tinting strength, hiding power and ease of lifting. I have had classes paint a stripe of a reasonably dark colour on their paper and when it is dry paint a graded wash patch of each colour with the most intense part of the patch on top of the darker colour. They discover that Cerulean Blue hides, phthalo blue, for all its intensity, is rather transparent, some yellow ochres hide, Naples Yellow and Turner Yellow are rather opaque, many yellows can best be described as of low tinting and hiding strength. One can improve the hiding power of a yellow with a touch of Naples yellow and not mute it too much. The next step of the test is to try to lift paint from your patches with a 1/2″ flat brush. Some colours will lift without a trace. These are your friends! The second key to lifting is to use good quality paper of reasonably heavy weight. Right now start using one weight heavier. As a demo I have run water from the tap all over paintings done on d’Arches 300 lb. and removed every trace of the painting. A good trick when your demo is a touch brutal, all evidence is gone.


The ‘curing’ process
by Jenny Arntzen, Vancouver, BC, Canada


pen and paint, 15 x 22 inches
by Jenny Arntzen

I was in my third year at art school and I made a plein air painting during one of my classes. I wasn’t sure what I had done, although I liked the piece well enough myself. At one of the student art shows, I put the piece up for sale and although it was admired by a few, no one made an offer and I had to cart it back to my studio space for storage. At the end of term came the grand housekeeping and everything had to be judged, its fate determined by a simple rubric — keep or toss? There was a huge dumpster out in the hallway for students’ disposal and I hemmed and hawed over this piece, finally deciding to toss. Which I did, flying the work over the high edge of the dumpster. That night I was telling my friend of my activities of the day and mentioned throwing the painting away. She exclaimed, “But I loved that painting! I didn’t buy it because I didn’t think I could afford it!” First thing the next morning I put a step ladder beside the dumpster and dove in. Sure enough, the painting was there, slightly damaged, but intact. I repaired the damage and sold the painting to my friend (she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse!). The painting now hangs proudly in my friend’s front hall. It is the first thing she sees when she comes home each day and she still tells me how much she loves it. When I have gone over to her house I have been struck by how well it hangs. It was a good lesson for me. There seems to be a curing process that my work has to go through and, for some of it, I need an outside opinion on whether it is worth keeping or not, exhibiting or not. Hmmm. Curing, curating. Coincidence? I think not.


A hefty inheritance?
by Paulo Jimenez, New York, NY, USA


oil on wood, 60 x 40 inches
by Paulo Jimenez

Are there any successful and famous painters who started from the bottom? In other words, someone that did not come from a rich family, or received a hefty inheritance or was supported by parents. It seems to me that most well known painters received some kind of help in order to get their careers started. Not that anything is wrong with that, God bless their hearts, but I would like to know if there was or is someone that started from zero, with nothing but talent or the eagerness to make it.

(RG note) Thanks, Paulo. In the case of many of my successful and famous friends — the only thing that they got from their parents was approval. And some of them got disapproval — and that worked too. Becoming a physician involves an investment as well. Many are able to put themselves through med school.






watercolour painting
by Tony Couch, Cumming, GA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Amy Beebe of Malvern, PA, USA who wrote, “I use the ‘stocking trick’ for saving watercolors: Get an old nylon stocking wet, wring it out, then gently rub the area you want to change — alternating rubbing and blotting with a paper towel until you lift off enough color.”

And also Merv Richardson who wrote, “I have had some very interesting and successful paintings occur when I have used a sponge brush under the laundry tap to scrub off a failed painting, dried the paper and painted a new effort on top.”

And also Alan Soffer of Wallingford, PA, USA who wrote, “Even watercolorists can use their disasters as the nidus of a new painting, or collaged into another painting, or better yet, as the start of an encaustic painting, for which it is excellent.”

And also Ann Heckel of Lambertville, NJ, USA who wrote, “Artists are problem solvers. That’s what we do. There are always solutions. I let the adult in me take over. I take a walk. I ask the universe.”

And also Sue Tregay of Rockford, IL, USA who wrote, “I have just finished a book called Master Disaster, 5 Steps to Rescuing Desperate Watercolors by Susan Webb Tregay. It will be out in April of 2007 with an accompanying DVD. I can cure anything.”

And also Vona Marengo of Worcester, MA, USA who wrote: “With great quality paper such as Arches 300 to 400 pound, the image can be completely — well nearly — washed off! What is left can be used as the inspiration for another. The paper is saved. So are your spirits!”

And also B. J. Adams of Washington, DC, USA who wrote, “Borinary? Can’t find it in two dictionaries.”
(RG note) Thanks B.J. And thanks to everyone who asked about ‘borinary.’ It’s a combination of boring and ordinary — it’s a made-up word, made up by me. I say it quietly between my teeth when looking at my own and other people’s stuff. Try it.




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