Saving a painting


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “I was wondering what you would have to say about saving a painting by reworking it. I do watercolours 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?”


“House at the Fort, Gloucester” 1924
watercolour over graphite pencil on paper
by Edward Hopper (1882–1967)

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:


“Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine” 1927
watercolour by Edward Hopper

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.


“Sun on Prospect Street, Gloucester” 1934
watercolour by Edward Hopper

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)

This letter was originally published as “Saving a painting” on September 8, 2006.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” (Dolly Parton)



  1. I’ve done a ton of watercolor demos while teaching. They usually look awful at the end of the session, but a few days of looking at them in the studio gives me ways of making them better. The ones that still don’t work get cut up and turned into artist’s books. I’m always surprised when I seem them in that form.

    Two of my teachers have adages about mistakes. The type designer Hermann Zapf says, “If you can’t fix a mistake, don’t make it.” and my sociology/painter friend says, “If you can’t fix it, feature it.”

    Thanks for your letters. Always inspiring.

  2. Sandra Donohue on

    I had one of my cats walk through my watercolour palette, and leave a few paw prints across a perfectly executed even wash of a blue sky. I was able to save the painting by gently wiping out the (thankfully ) non-staining colour and the sky in places to create clouds with shadows on their undersides. I learned to put the lid on my palette when away from my desk. The cat lived out the rest of her life happily and my allergies dictated no more cats.

  3. “What can be?” is my studio mantra and posted on my walls for my students and me to see and remember!

    I have bins of unfinished possibilities. Many may look like disasters. Yet, there is a spark of hope in each one. Maybe they won’t become a masterpiece, but they become opportunities to exercise bravado and experiment with glazes, temperature changes, unifying shapes, calligraphic marks, charcoal, black gesso, opaque, caran d’ache, Village, inks, …

    I feel these “unfinished” paintings are patiently waiting for me to gain the knowledge, inspiration and then courage to bring them to completion. They are just not ready because I am not ready.

    I remember years ago sitting up suddenly in bed. I knew exactly how to finish/redeem an unfinished painting of 10 years prior. Those final marks were incredible and I was now ready! The painting went on to become an award winner. Funnily, it is titled “Do Not Disturb”. It needed to wait until I had more knowledge and skill.

    Unfinished paintings are just that, unfinished. Like a teenager, they can’t grow up until we do! And when the painter is ready to see with new eyes.

    What can be? There are so many possibilities for these paintings…maybe use them with the intent to paint with gusto and no fear of making mistakes. Then it was worthwhile for what you have learned and you can gain confidence to do the same on a new painting. Don’t let fear rob you!

    Can you tell I believe in resurrection and redemption? Yes, in people and in art!

    • What a great way to relate to resolving so many unfinished gems that lie in the studio until one day ,maybe years later ,I realise that I can rehabilitate them with a new vision and allow my imagination to turn a reject into a winner . It has happened to me on so many occasions sometimes even cutting up the work and reassembling it as collage , painting over areas and reconstructing with glazes.Great letter so many possibilities…Take risks and enjoy the challenge

    • Robin Christy Humelbaugh on

      I so agree with Ann Watson Sorensen. I have taught watercolor for many years and I quickly disabuse my students about expectations of perfection. I think there is joy in having to improvise and also one grows in many ways learning how to rework and rethink. The funny thing is that the last painting that got into a show was an experiment using very few strokes and no washes to speak of.

  4. This is a good reminder to work through unsuccessful paintings and gain understand of our painting process. Mistakes are the best teachers. And in watercolour not much is lost….except that painting we envisioned and didn’t happen. But that’s not the end. My husband says “Work Hard and Play Hard” I think it works in watercolour too.
    Check out my latest Youtube: How to Paint Landscapes: Watercolour Sketch (Fast Motion) – Next Week is the explained version. Happy Painting (mistakes and all). Jane

    • Jane Appleby is quite right when she writes, “Mistakes are the best teachers.” I started out in costume design. When I taught pattern-making I would deliberately show students the wrong way to obtain a certain garment design. “Mistakes” make a bigger impression and the contrast between ” oops” and “success” makes an even greater impression.

      The similar idea is the importance of knowing what you do NOT want. I’m making a large art quilt. Two friends went fabric shopping with me. One often found very nice fabrics to go with my color scheme. The other found mostly fabric that was close but off a bit. She said was disappointed that she wasn’t helpful, but actually her choices confirmed that I was headed in the right direction. Being confident in your choices is so important in any art or craft.

      Finally, a grateful thanks to all of the artists here for their insightful posts.

  5. Ha ha…using 300 lb paper, I have been known to put the entire painting in the bath and scrub it. Not my original idea, but told to me by a demo artist at one time. It took out the mistakes, softened the colour but left enough to become an underpainting that made a nice effect. Have also done that with 140 lb paper although more gingerly and not totally in the water – just under a tap. Stretch it to dry and then start again. Resurrection and redemption possible…

  6. Claudia Young on

    All my paintings have mistakes. I wouldn’t have a single one if I threw them away when something went wrong.

    • Joanne Stange on

      You’re so right! Learning to live with our imperfections is a must in life, as well as in our paintings. Holding on to our desire for perfectionism can lead us to overwork our paintings. I once read a simple quote by Shakespeare that has been a guide ever since. It says, “Striving for better, oft we mar what’s well.”
      Do your very best and be willing to live with “mistakes.” Then move on. Real Beauty captures us but we can never capture it.

  7. Many of my watercolors have been fixed. Some turn out better than the intended original. In a landscape painting, most parts were out of balance. I took a 2″ flat and gave it some strokes top to bottom and side to side. It became an abstract with a landscape background.

  8. I learned to paint through water colours. I know. madness right? Unforgiving is an understatement. And I moved from that to cheep poor quality acrylics… painting with good quality opaque mediums is a piece of cake after that training. It’s like dancing with Fred Astare after learning to dance with a chair.

    • James Mathews on

      I walked the same path Catherine. I eventually came back to cheap acrylics. I found that I was glazing more and mixing with gloss, matte mediums or clear gesso. When I need opaque I mix in some gouache.

  9. Jamuna Snitkin on

    this letter and replies was so Timely and helpful. Thank you so much for this lovely art community. I recently allowed others opinions of An Unfinished work to give me permission to cut the bottom off an unfinished collage. After much reflection I dove into the wastebasket retrieved what I could of the scraps and pasted them back in and I am continuing. So there. I will now look at this as a process. And anyway collages and mixed media can have lots of different aspects and a repaste is pretty interesting actually.

  10. I’m tenacious and rarely give up on a painting. Its only a failure if I don’t learn something in the process of trying to save it. Many would be watercolor paintings become mixed media. I will go at it with gouache, acrylics and/or pastels. Worse case, there’s usually a few areas in a painting that has some appeal. I will cut out one or more sections and use them for greeting cards or thank you notes.

  11. Another way to salvage a failed watercolour: Cover the weak parts with tissue paper that has been wrinkled,
    sprayed with water, drizzled with acrylic inks, dried, then ironed. The designs are amazing, and after wetting the tear lines with a small brush, separate the desired sections by pulling apart. Glue them over the painting with acrylic medium.

  12. My new trick is to gesso over the failed painting! Gessoed paper is a joy to paint on. If you don’t like it, wipe it off and try again! It’s similar to YUPO, but way more fun. You have the gesso brush strokes that reveal wonderful texture. Recently I dug out a stack of 300 lb paper with old paintings, gessoed them and started over. I’ve also used 140lb hot press with great results. I finished an Urban trolley scene last week and sprayed is with Krylon (for watercolors). I’m going to mount it on board and prepare to frame it naked! No mat, no glass.


    Several people have already made suggestions I was going to make. For watercolor or drawing, I use gesso and then I draw over it, the tooth is great. Use it as under painting for a different media. Also, even if you are not able to adequately fix mistakes, the work of trying to is great training. Most important, remember that you will not make a winner every time, just keep doing/learning. Salvage what you can, fix what fixes, and move on. Worse case unfixable, I remake bad works on paper into new handmade paper, which I love to work on.

  14. I ofen change mediums or put the resistent painting away. I go back to it months later and add to complete
    the painting. artists get do overs. work in series. Hit singles. Home runs are difficult. I have watermedia works
    from years back, gained some knowledge to bring them to a finish. I make welded metal sculpture and take a break from painting. I do sell in all mediums. Maybe this helps all who post here. Cheers!!! and ART ON!!!!!

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

The Power of Paint; Creating the WOW factor in your paintings with Dutch artist Carole Boggemann Peirson
April 10, 2019 to April 17, 2019


Location: between Puerto Vallarta & Mazatlan, Mexico


Week-long workshop in gorgeous paradise retreat for beginning and intermediate students in oils (or acrylics with experience). You will learn how to create a painting with beautiful light that captures viewers’ attention and keeps them fascinated. Small group size guarantees personal attention.


While you’re busy creating art and exploring, your friendly hosts at Casa Buena will ensure that your stay is memorable. Outstanding accommodations, food, and field trips will satisfy your desire for both comfort and adventure. Spouses are welcome!


For more info, visit: or contact Carole at: or call: 001-757-678-3340 (EST).’s salvation
mixed media
60 x 122 cm

Featured Artist

Monique Jarry is a Canadian and a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.