Do you have some paintings that didn't work and are never going to work. Or maybe, some old works that you loved at the time but no longer excite you? Compared to your current work the old work is weak but with a rework could it be given new life? If the composition is not strong enough for reworking, then how about doing a new work over the top of it?
Recently, I dug through some of my old work. I was awaiting the arrival of some stretched canvases and wondered if I had some old work that could be given a fresh life. Several (actually more than several) were found to be suitable candidates. Some only needed a partial freshen with slight adjustments to contrasts plus a bit of softness here and vibrancy there. Others needed a complete freshen with thicker, more vibrant layers of paint all over and just some slight adjustments to contrasts. One was subjected to a complete rework and changed from a multi trunked, fan shaped tree on an abstract background to a more vibrant, abstract bushfire.
This started me thinking about artists who rework an old artwork and artists who destroy or dump their old or failed artworks. Even the old masters faced the decision of what to do with failed or old, unsold work.
Some artists, old masters included, reworked their artworks purely out of financial needs. They simply couldn't afford more canvas or support material. Old works that hadn't sold would be worked over regardless whether the original work was a failure or not. When inspired, the artist needs a support on which to paint and if the only supports on hand are old paintings then so be it. The process of painting is more important than any perceived preciousness of old work.
When undertaking a painting, changes may be made at any time, either when the artist has fresh inspiration about the work or some aspect of it isn't working. Sometimes, this reworking occurs when the painting is finished and has dried ready for varnishing/framing/exhibiting. The artist suddenly sees it with 'new eyes' and is driven to rework the painting to fit the new vision or correct an aberration.
Modern x-ray technology makes it possible to 'see' what is under a painting. Using this technology researchers have discovered completely different paintings under famous artworks and have also been able to trace the changes made by the artist.
Pablo Picasso's 1902, oil painting, La Miséreuse accroupie (The Crouching Beggar) was painted over a landscape painting made by another Spanish artist. It was also discovered the beggar woman was originally holding a piece of bread in her hand. (Picasso painted over another artist’s work—and then over his own, new imaging reveals By Katie Langin Feb. 17, 2018, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/picasso-painted-over-another-artist-s-work-and-then-over-his-own-new-imaging-reveals)
Left: The Crouching Beggar Right: landscape under 'The Crouching Beggar'
Rembrandt's Old Man in Military Costume is painted over a previous portrait. The original portrait is aligned 180⁰ to the later portrait. (Hidden portrait under Rembrandt masterpiece revealed: Mysterious figure may be a painting of the Dutch artist himself By Richard Gray, 3 September 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3219756/Hidden-portrait-Rembrandt-masterpiece-revealed-Mysterious-figure-painting-Dutch-artist-himself.html)
Left: Old Man in Military Costume Right: painting under Old Man in Military Costume
Van Gogh's Patch of Grass is painted over a portrait of a peasant woman. (Secrets found by x-raying old paintings By Melissa Brinks, https://www.ranker.com/list/secrets-found-by-x-raying-paintings/melissa-brinks)
Many artists prefer to destroy or dispose of failed or old artwork. The reasons vary - they want to keep their reputation intact - think that keeping a failed or old artwork has a negative impact on moving forward - reducing clutter and freeing storage space - their style has changed and they want to leave the old style behind - too much emotional baggage tied up in old work - cathartic, liberating to remove the yoke of unnecessary attachment to the past - etc.
Gerhard Richter destroyed a large amount of his work, especially early, post WWII, photo realistic, black and white work that referenced German war events. These artworks had appeared in exhibitions, but later on Richter considered them to be unworthy and is reported to have felt liberated by their destruction. Richter was extremely critical of his work and continued to destroy whole bodies of work that didn't fit his ideals at the time. (Why Gerhard Richter destroys his own art. By Allison McNearney, https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-artist-gerhard-richter-destroys-his-own-art)
It is suggested that Claude Monet destroyed between 15 and 30 of his Water Lily series of paintings before a 1908 exhibition. He felt they didn't match the quality of the other canvases. (Why these 6 artists destroyed their own art. By Jon Mann, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-6-artists-destroyed-art)
John Baldessari turned the destruction of a large body of his unsold, abstract paintings into an event called the Cremation Project (1970). He incinerated his paintings at a crematorium and even had a bronze plaque made to commemorate the 'burial'. (Why these 6 artists destroyed their own art. By Jon Mann, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-6-artists-destroyed-art)
I find it interesting to research the art practices of other artists. Their propensity to rework or destroy their artwork gives insights into their processes and also into their characters. In modern times where we are concerned about waste I find it difficult to dispose of or destroy an artwork. I would prefer to hold onto it as a candidate for reworking. Also, I do not mind who sees my early or failed works. They are part of the process towards producing successful works. It is not often that I go back through my old work but when I do, I find fresh inspiration to keep moving forward.
The important thing, whether keeping, reworking or disposing of old work, is to keep moving forward. Keep challenging yourself, keep finding fresh inspiration and keep pushing the boundaries.
Until next time
17/6/2018 02:09:15 pm
Lovely article Anne. I to find myself to also paint over old work. Reasons are either I’m not happy with colour, or overall style, mostly though if the spark is not there for me, the spark is not there.
19/6/2018 03:43:48 pm
Thank you, Sabina. Yes, if the spark isn't there, the best thing is to paint over it and turn it into something you are happy with. By doing that you replace a feeling of discontent with a feeling of satisfaction. Also, you are not wasting an otherwise good support by destroying it or throwing it into the garbage.
20/6/2018 04:56:52 pm
20/6/2018 05:22:17 pm
That is for sure, Sabina.
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I have had a lifetime passion for drawing and painting. Realistic with an impressionistic touch is an apt description for my work.
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