“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”– Albert Einstein
As we last saw our majestic male caracal Marthe, he was in the process of weathering what looked like an approaching storm. (See my previous post as to the back story.) The beautiful, bright day that he was born into had faded, and dark, ominous clouds had rolled in. While some aspects of that painting were dramatic and in their own way attractive, it wasn’t the fate that I had intended for him when I envisioned my painting. It was quite disheartening.
Would I be able to rescue him from spending eternity in the shadows of clouds and darkness? I had to try!
It took a couple of days before I could muster up the ambition to even attempt the repair. As many of you who create art know, we aren’t just ‘drawing and painting’, we are emotionally invested in our artwork and it means much more to us than just putting paint or pencil to paper and scratching lines. We put our hearts and souls into our work and (hopefully!) it shows in the finished pieces. We start with a vision in our heads as to what we want to depict and our goal is to bring that vision to life. It doesn’t have to match the reference photo exactly. I look at my reference photos as just that: reference. To me, they are a starting point for my artwork and I am able to take what some call ‘artistic license’ and emphasize the parts I like best and minimize the parts I don’t. I do the same with cooking. I follow a recipe the first time and then I adjust to my own tastes. That is what creating things is all about.
I had Marthe in a good place and I was ready to call him ‘finished’. Then I got the (not so) brilliant idea that because he was created in soft pastel, I needed to “fix” the painting by using a fixativ spray. I had previously done this to three other paintings that I did of animals with very minimal change in color.
So while I had the usual nervousness of spraying anything on any of the art pieces I created (due to the possibility of spattering, splotching, or anything of that nature), after test spraying the can of Krylon Gallery Series UV Archival Varnish and seeing no problem at all – it came out as a fine mist – it seemed like it would be good to go.
It went alright. There were no splotches or spatters, but much to my horror, it immediately darkened the entire drawing significantly and killed all the beautiful highlights. I was sick to my stomach.
Soft pastel by nature is very similar to chalk. I suppose that is one reason why I felt the urge to ‘fix’ it. While most fine-art pastel paintings are preserved by putting them under glass (with spacers to hold the glass off the painting), having come from acrylic painting beginnings and being taught to apply varnish to everything we painted, there was some tick in my brain that failed to register that this is something that not only isn’t necessary when displayed properly as I just mentioned, but would actually damage the painting. And it did just that.
If I would have really thought things through, I would have realized the flaw in my plan to ‘fix’ this painting.
Let’s go back to childhood when we used to draw on a chalkboard. As I mentioned, soft pastels are similar in feel and share many characteristics with chalk. We would make a picture and then when we were done, we would use a damp sponge to clean the chalkboard. What would happen when we wet the chalk? It would absorb the water and darken considerably. Eventually, as it would dry it would lighten up a bit and eventually get to the original color. But it would also ‘move’ again and any residual chalk on the board could again be moved and pushed around or wiped away.
Now let’s think about using the fixativ. The spray not only contains moisture, which will darken the pastel, but also chemicals to (for lack of better terms) freeze the pastel into place. So what it does is darken it and then hold it in that state (in theory) for all eternity. So once it is sprayed and darkened, it will not dry and lighten up again. It is a done deal.
Since I only use high-quality and archival materials, this is a totally unnecessary step. The pastels and paper that I use are UV stable and won’t fade over time. Once mounted and covered with glass, it should have been good for the long haul.
I am not telling you my story to gain sympathy, but in hopes of you also learning from my mistake. I had over 20 hours of work put into this painting when I sprayed it, and while some expressed they liked the deeper colors that resulted from the ‘fixing’, I knew it wasn’t my vision for the piece and it broke my heart.
But there is good that came of this.
I am not the type of girl to roll over when something goes wrong. I will admit that I sulked a bit about things. I even fought the urge of tossing it in the bin. But instead I walked away from the painting for a couple of days and put it in my cabinet where I couldn’t see it. I just needed to let things sink in and come up with a plan of action and take a break. That was the best thing I could have done.
I came to the realization that because of my foolishness, I still wasn’t finished with it. After riding high here on social media and hearing all the lovely comments and receiving so many virtual pats on my back, I felt that not only did I owe it to myself to try to make things right, but I owed it to everyone who was cheering me on. While I was smart enough to take photos before I sprayed it and ruined it, I felt that I needed to bring it back to the best painting possible. It may be a little ‘different’ but I hoped that I could at least improve on it as it was in its current state.
As I began working on it, I realized that there were some positives that were rather interesting. Yes, it was darker, but one of the issues with pastel is getting the dark shadings dark enough due to the ‘chalkiness’ of the pastels. The eyes, nose and shadows were beautifully rich and deep in color: far deeper than previously. This would be a good thing for me, as the undertones of most animals are usually much darker than the top layers. It would give me even a better starting point to build upon and hopefully, give me even more depth and contrast in the end.
The second significant trait that I noticed after spraying the painting was that once again, there was plenty of ‘tooth’ in the paper. While using the Pastelmat paper allows more layers than any other paper I have tried, even it reaches a point of saturation – where it will no longer accept any more pastel. This comes from filling up the pores in the paper and causing the surface to become too smooth. The pastel just slides over the paper rather than grabbing on. But after spraying, it seemed as if I had gone back to square one regarding the tooth of the paper. So now my dark tones were in place and I was free to add layers on top without having the under layers shift or turn my top layers muddy. THAT was a really good thing.
I was extremely concerned about the sky, as it looked so dark and muddy that I thought it wouldn’t be salvageable. I had used Pan Pastels on it though, and it had only required a light layer. After spraying, you could see the rusty background showing through on the blue, and the orange-ish spots showed throughout the sky and especially near the trunk of the tree and near the back of Marthe. However, I was able to very carefully fill the sky back in with lighter tones without much issue. The Pan Pastel is extremely opaque and very little is needed to cover what is underneath. The worst part of this is that I spent about $100 on purchasing MORE Pan Pastels yesterday because I was so pleased with the way they performed. (HA!) Such is the life of an artist . . .
Below is the before (after spraying) and the “New After” :
Dare I say that this looks (to me, anyway) even BETTER than it did before I sprayed?
Those black tones are truly deep and dark and the contours of the animal are quite nice. While it took several hours to correct the painting, I must say that with the renewed surface and improved ‘tooth’ of the paper, it was not difficult and actually very relaxing. I was even able to add some more color to the eyes, as in the reference, Marthe has a beautiful combination of yellow, rust and a smidgen of turquoise. At the previous stage of the painting (prior to spraying) the tooth of the paper was filling and it was difficult to keep adding those colors without it starting to turn muddy. Not to mention the highlights.
So my story has a happy ending after all. I am seriously considering spraying in between the base layers and the top layers on my next painting. I believe that it will depend on what I am working on, but I can see this as an effective tool that will allow me to set the undercoats and build on top of them. I would have never thought of or attempted this if I hadn’t seen it first hand.
But . . .
When I am ‘finished’ with the painting, I will leave it be. I plan on getting some non-glare glass cut for when I frame Marthe. He will be matted, so that will hold the glass away from the painting sufficiently. I am really pleased at how he looks now and I am calling him ‘done’.
Thank you so much to all of you who cheered me on. Your kind comments are always greatly appreciated. Thank you for joining me on my journey of learning!
Until next time . . .