How to Ruin a Painting in 30 Seconds

I will admit, I was riding pretty high.

After presenting my latest pastel painting of “Marthe” to the social media world, I felt pretty good about it and I was very grateful and pleased that he was so well-received by everyone. As an artist and designer, what others think of my work is so important to me. I know my fellow artists feel the same. It isn’t financial compensation that drives us, but rather that satisfaction that we feel when we have done something we are pleased with and it comes close to the vision we had in our heads of the finished piece.

As we grow artistically and learn, our personal standards grow with us. What we may have seen as an acceptable piece a year ago may not look the same to us now. We may see things that we know we could do better and sometimes fight the impulse to start picking at things in order to improve them.

Fortunately, we don’t usually act on them. I don’t, anyway. I look back at those paintings and they help me realize just how much I improved. I remember painting a picture of a tigress named Layla about six years ago and I thought that I would never be able to get better than that. I was so proud of her and she was received very well by my followers. Creating her was definitely an important milestone in my artistic life. She gave me the confidence to keep going and instead of giving me a sense of satisfaction and making me complacent, it made me want to push harder and learn more. It was the boost that I needed to know in my heart that I was on the right track in pursuing my artwork.

About four years after painting Layla, I painted a Sumatran tiger named Hutan. I hadn’t looked at the Layla painting for several years, as it was stored away. One day I was going through things and I came across it. I was rather surprised when I saw it at how – well – differently I felt about it.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like it anymore. But I saw a definite difference in the level of realism that it portrayed. When I put the two paintings side by side, it was apparent to me that I DID improve and I WAS still actually fine tuning my skills. It was very empowering.

I am starting this story with this because I want those of you who follow to realize that this entire ‘art thing’ that I do is a process. People often say to me, “You were born with talent!”, and while I appreciate the compliments very much, I do in my heart believe that it isn’t the ‘talent’ that we are born with, but the ‘desire’ to build our skills and improve on them. As a teacher, I saw this to be true first hand. I can’t count the number of students that used to say to me, “I can NEVER paint like that!” and those who had the desire to at least try to learn – step-by-baby-step – usually were the ones who flourished. Just like training an athlete, we are able to train ourselves to look at things in different ways and kind of break them down into. “How would I paint or draw that?” We begin looking at the sky and thinking what colors we would use to recreate the subtle tones of painting it. Or start calling things in the names of our favorite brand name colors (“OH! That is Desert Turquoise” or “Look at the Van Dyke Brown on that mushroom!”) Our non-artist friends and family members look at us like we lost our minds. But it is part of the artistic thought process that slowly takes over our brain.

So that brings me to the present issue at hand.

As you may recall, in my last post I was very proud to finish the pastel painting of “Marthe” the beautiful caracal wildcat. As I mentioned, I was happy with him and felt he followed the artistic progression of my improving skill level. I really love doing pastel paintings. It is a fun and relaxing process to me and I find that I am able to achieve a nice level of realism in the process. While my rendition may not exactly match my reference photo, it comes pretty close and realistically, it will not be shown side-by-side with it anyway. After all – it is a ‘reference photo’ – used for reference. I take what I call ‘artistic license’ and emphasize the things I like in it and minimize the things I don’t feel are as important. That is what artists do.

So I was ‘done’ with the painting and getting ready to frame it. But being created with soft pastel pencils and PanPastels, it has a chalk-like finish to it which means it can be volatile to the elements like dust, dirt, and smearing.

As a pastel artist, we are constantly in search of preserving our creations and protecting them. We make sure that our materials are acid-free and archival. That our media is light fast meaning it won’t fade over time. We take every measure possible so that our artwork will last long after we have departed from this world. But it isn’t always easy.

In my previous pastel paintings, I had found that using a ‘fixativ’ spray over them would help protect them. Those of you who create artwork know that putting a layer of clear varnish or fixativ is a great way to preserve and protect your pieces. When varnishing over acrylic paint, the varnish seems to bring out the colors, as it intensifies the colors and they seem to become a bit more brilliant. This is true for other mediums as well. When I spray my oil pastels with the fixative, it not only ‘sets’ the oil pastel (which otherwise would remain movable and pliable) but it also gives the a bit of a sheen. This can look striking on a paper background, as it makes them look like traditional oil paint on a matte surface. If I were to not want the sheen, I could allow the fixativ to dry completely and then spray a layer of acrylic spray in a matte finish to tamp down the sheen. It is very controllable.

But with the soft, chalky-type of pastel, there are other factor to consider. Any type of spray or fixativ tends to darken the chalk a bit. In the previous paintings I just mentioned, this occurred to a very, almost unnoticeable extent. While it darkened things slightly differently with each different painting, it wasn’t enough to make a huge difference in the overall outcome. It seemed negligible to me and I saw no risk in applying the spray to my caracal.

Boy, was I WRONG!

When I was getting ready to spray Marthe with the fixativ, I had my usual nervousness. But this was more due to the chance of a ‘splat’ coming out of the can instead of a fine mist. I carefully made sure there were no hairs or particles on my painting, and I checked in full sun. Then I test sprayed the can to make sure the nozzle wasn’t clogged and it would indeed come out as a mist. All systems were a “go”.

I proceeded to spray the painting very lightly and with in seconds of starting, I saw that it turned it MUCH darker. Not just a bit darker. But it went from the caracal standing in the sun to standing at dusk on a cloudy day. My heart nearly stopped.

I spent the next two minutes or so holding my breath. I was telling myself that maybe once it dried it would lighten up. I hoped that it looked so dark just because it was wet. I set the painting down and left the room for a while, hoping I would come back and it would be back to where it was. When I returned, it looked just as dark as when I left. I was heartbroken.

I truly wanted to cry. I probably had about 30 hours into the work. I didn’t really keep count, but it was several long sessions of painting. I felt foolish for spraying the darn thing in the first place. Why could I not just leave the thing alone? Hadn’t I seen and heart from my teacher (Jason Morgan) that this could happen? But it didn’t happen on my previous paintings – at least not this much – so I thought I was safe. Talk about being knocked off my pedestal – and landing HARD!

Below is a comparison of the before and after. I tried my best to keep the colors as true to life as I could:

The painting looks flat and – well – dark. The sky is much more grey than it was. The cat has lost all of its highlights and details. The blue highlights of the black areas are nearly completely gone as are the highlights and the glossy look of his eyes. The nose and darker areas are a muddy mess. It is as if someone but a black piece of sheer gauze over it and it has lost all of its fine detail. How sad and angry I was at myself.

So after a few hours of sulking, I decided either I was going to bin the painting or try to salvage it. After all – what do I have to lose?

I tried to wait long enough until the emotion simmered down and then I once again pulled out my pastels and began to rework it. On the positive side of things, the spray caused the paper to once again have more ‘tooth’ so that it would at least hold a few more layers. That gave me hope.

I have about four more hours into re-working it and I will tell you that it is looking ‘better’. It is probably fortunate that I ran out of time over the weekend and had to work on “work” for the past couple of days, because it gave me a chance to get away from it for a bit. I am shipping out some orders today and after that I will have another go at it and see if I can make it presentable again and finish it up, once again.

So I am leaving you all with a cliffhanger here. I was going to wait until I was done with it to tell my story, but things kept coming up and I feel like taking a break from it may have been a blessing. I haven’t looked at it for two days and we will see when I look at it today which direction I will head with it. After the (so far) four hours of repair work, I do have hope that it is salvageable. Either way I have definitely learned from this painting.

I will post again as soon a it is ‘done’. Hopefully it will not be too long. In the meantime, I have resolved myself to the reality that it may or may not work. I will certainly share my thoughts that I had while doing the repairs, as there were many. It is my hope that you can also learn from my experiences here. I do believe our best teachers are experiences.

Until next time . . .

6 Comments Add yours

    1. Yes. It was not a happy moment. But it will be OK. (I think!) โค

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  1. Been there. But, it’s also a case of where it’s the artist who has the most invested in the outcome. If you had just shown me the after spraying version I would have said, “Wow, that’s great, I love how the colors came out.” Still, I get it – you have a specific result in mind and some simple like this totally ruins the vision.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My partner Keith kept telling me to leave it. I did wait a day to have a go at it. I am going to try to button it up again today and see what comes of it. I am not hating the result. I was surprised at how much more pastel the paper now will take. So I do have a clear hope that I will be happy with it. I will post again when I am done. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. We have all been there Sheila no matter which creative art we work on – the learning experiences we will never forget! Looking forward to seeing the completed fix๐Ÿ˜˜
    You have come a long way. I loved both Layla and Hutan when you originally did them but seeing them side by side is awesome๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Anna. I know that my creative friends understand. While it was a shock when it hit, I am now in ‘correction mode’ and tackling the repairs with (somewhat of) a smile on my face. ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope to get it back to ‘finished’ today. โค

      Liked by 1 person

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