Dealing with Problem Paintings, Part 2: The Hyperactive Overachiever
In the last post, I gave some ideas for dealing with a “too boring for words” problem painting. The one you were never excited about in the first place.
Our “problem child” this time is the opposite of boring, it’s trying to do too much. When I’m running into trouble with one of my own paintings, 99% of the time, it’s one of these. Like this one.
I love the brilliant backlit greens of the treetops, I love the heavy greys of the approaching clouds, I love the sparkling light on the water, I love the reflections. But the painting as a whole just isn’t working. No wonder. It’s like hanging out with a pack of 4-year-olds, all jumping up and down, yelling, “Guess what? Guess what?”
The key here is to remind yourself that you can mine the same concept, the same scene, the same references for many paintings. If there are three or four things vying for attention in this painting, then there are three or four paintings (at least!) here.
Okay, but what about the one you’re working on, that already has a lot going for it?
I’m not going to suggest you just scrap it and start over with better focus.. I know better; most of you would just stop reading now. Instead, here two quick fixes for the painting you’re working on right now.
1. Crop it to isolate the best of the good stuff and eliminate some of the distractions. Cropping is easy when you are doing it to get rid of an area you don’t like. It’s tougher when you’re trying to choose between two (or more) areas you’re happy with. Sometimes you can get two great small paintings out of a crop, but more often, you’re going to have to sacrifice something.
How do you choose? A couple of “L”-shaped sections of mat board or posterboard are a great tool to have in your studio. Move them around to isolate different sections of the painting and see if there is an area that clearly stands out. If so, there’s your new, improved painting. (Tip—Leave a little extra around the edges so you can fine-tune later.)
If you find a couple of competing areas, and can’t salvage both of them as smaller paintings, then you either have to choose which to keep, or try suggestion 2, below. When I have to make a decision about what to keep, here are some of the questions I ask myself: Which would be the easiest for me to reproduce again? (Sacrifice that one, knowing I can paint it again later.) Which one’s styles/colors/subject fit best with my other work? Does one work better than the other at several distances or in different kinds of light? Sometimes turning the question around and asking Which would I most regret losing? is easier for me to answer than Which one do I like best?
Back to our example.
I was actually pretty happy with this painting when I finished it. I framed it, hung it in a couple of shows, but there was something about it that bothered me. It took a couple of years for me to realize there were at least three or four paintings here. When I started this painting, I was searching for a way to capture the sparkling light on the water. After struggling through 6 (yikes!) previous drafts, I felt like I’d nailed it with this one. Look at that sparkle! You almost have to squint!
However, I bet at least some of you didn’t notice that first (maybe not at all). Some of you were too busy looking at the intense greens of the backlit leaves, some of you were too busy taking in the storm clouds, or the reflections. And I labored over all of that, too. A lot. I really didn’t want to let any of it go.
In the end, though, I convinced myself to crop it down.
Now the sparkling light on the water is really the start of the show. I didn’t want to lose the rest, but I’m glad I did. I love this little piece. It’s become one of the pieces that has to live for a while in my studio before I’ll be able to let it go.
Some of you are probably lamenting that crop. If the backlit yellow-greens were what you loved best, you may disagree with my decision. That’s why I don’t ask for the opinions of others in a situation like this. I knew how lucky I was to get the conditions just right to get that sparkle, how many failed attempts I had, how many hours I spent experimenting. I may never get that effect to turn out that well again; there’s no way I’d sacrifice that bit, no matter how much someone else liked another bit better. The backlit trees, the clouds, the reflections, I was confident I could do all that again.
Sometimes, though, you just can’t stand to crop. Or you want the piece to be a particular size and cropping isn’t a good option. Luckily, there’s another way to deal with this sort of problem piece.
2. Knock back some areas and enhance others (or leave them alone). Choose one thing to be the star of the show and letting the rest be the supporting cast.
How do you “knock back”?
The attention-getters in a painting tend to be bright, pure colors, areas of high value contrast (light/dark) or color contrast (complementary colors), hard edges, geometric shapes amidst organic or vice versa (e.g. a building in a landscape painting), as well as animals and people, especially if their faces are visible. In a watercolor, the pure white of the paper is also a very strong draw.
You can add attention-getters by pushing the colors a bit brighter, adding a little of a complementary color, sharpening up an edge or adding small, strong calligraphic strokes (in a watercolor, these are usually darks, but if you are using opaques, calligraphic strokes of light colors can be very effective as well).
In areas you want to “knock back”, try glazing a bit of complementary color over too-bright colors to grey them down a bit, soften some edges or reduce value contrasts. Often you only need a little change. Sometimes, all that’s needed is to swipe a damp brush across a too-hard edge.
One of my favorite tricks is to put a “dirty-water wash” over pretty much everything except the area I want to preserve as the star. A dirty-water wash is just what it sounds like: about as pale as dirty rinse water (in fact, I often actually use my dirty rinse water for this). This is especially effective if the problem is that there are some too-white areas. They’ll still read as white, just not too white.
If you have some areas where there are heavy applications of paint, you may not be able to run a dirty-water wash over those areas without lifting and moving paint. In that case, you can try misting the area with clear water and tipping the painting to run the paint just a little. Use a hair dryer before the paint has a chance to puddle and make hard edges as it dries. If clear water moving the paint isn’t going to knock it back enough, misting on a pale wash with an atomizer is a great trick. As long as you don’t get things too wet, you can slowly build up a subtle color change without disturbing the underlying work.
Computer software like Photoshop is a great tool for planning these changes. The full version of Photoshop is pretty expensive (and a lot to learn) so if you want to give this a try I recommend starting with Photoshop Elements. This version is a LOT cheaper and does just about everything you could possibly want unless you’re a professional photographer or graphic designer. Here’s our example painting with some subtle changes to make the sparkles on the water the “star of the show”. If you wanted to enhance something else you might make different changes, but I think you can get the idea.
Oh, remember me saying there were at least three or four paintings in our example? Here are two more that came from the same reference.
And just for fun, the reference they’re all based on, a pen-and-ink sketch I made standing under the County Rd C bridge on the Red Cedar River near Downsville. Does this give you an idea why I keep saying a field study is worth a lot more than a reference photo?
Next time: Dealing with Problem Paintings, Part 3: “Perfectly nice, just not my type”