I have recently embarked on a mission to fix or rework failed paintings. About three weeks ago I found myself sitting in my studio staring at a wall of paintings that I just couldn’t bring myself to exhibit yet hoping that I would eventually figure out what those weak pieces needed to reach a state of resolution. I had to search deep for the courage to begin this process of facing the inevitable.
These pieces didn’t work and never would. Ever.
As painful as it was to admit this to myself, this was going to be another battle with ego and I needed to win. I got my nerve up and unsheathed my industrial scraper tool and began to peel back the colorful layers of paint that had mostly dried on the surface but were still soft and yielding beneath. It was a tough step because each piece had at least one redeeming quality: a particularly effective composition or a color scheme that was tantalizing to the senses. On the other hand and of equal import, each piece had a major flaw: poor knife work, muddy colors, overworked paint, overzealous use of medium, clashing colors, or stagnant composition.
They needed to go.
I didn’t scrape them all at once, I scraped one or two and began the process of editing right away. There were some pieces that had elements I could incorporate into new paintings; this was particularly serendipitous on a portrait piece entitled “Spirit Moves Through” (pictured with article) where what was once a pedestal became the dark hair of a mysterious woman. Other pieces morphed from abstracts to impressionist landscapes, and other pieces failed a second time, to my chagrin. One piece went through five different permutations, with copious amounts of wasted paint and a rising sense of frustration.
But eventually, with patience and tenacity I prevailed.
What I gained from this process was of immeasurable value: every artist needs to have his or her own editing method, one that compliments his or her process and approach. For me, this was about first letting go of these failed pieces and admitting there was a problem with them. Sometimes I was unsure what to do with them but convinced that having an additional panel to paint on was more useful than a half-formed or unsuccessful work. I had to let go of my nostalgia for them as well. I found this process liberating, having pieces that would never see the light of day be transformed into the signature piece for my next show or finally figuring out exactly what was wrong with the initial work and correcting it with confidence.
Every artist needs to have a redactive process that brings to bear an objective assessment of the work’s quality. In my exploration of editing, this practice had to be completely separate from the creative process, as I have found that the “critical” or “ego mind” is a block for me. I had to don the critic’s hat and be effective in judging which pieces could stay, which needed to be tweaked, and which needed to be totally obliterated. The growth that can be achieved by being honest with one’s self and one’s work is very important and can be realized by applying the basic tenets of design, color theory, composition and theme.
As a result of this editing process, I have 22 new works that came from what were the resigned, dark recesses of my home studio. It also has forced me into one of the most prolific periods in my professional painting life. These pieces will now be exhibited and I have a new arsenal of “process tools” that I can use when faced with a less than satisfactory work. I no longer fear starting over or destroying marginal work. I am empowered to improve them and make them something that not only I am proud of, but that others may be able to enjoy in their fully realized state.