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June, 2008 - Lemons to Lemonade

I’m not sure how many painting casualties I’ve had in my painting career, but I’m pretty certain I’m into four figures by now. Early on, I would agonize over each and every one. It was like each failure hurt and there was no place to rub. I would sulk for a while, pitch them in the trash and ultimately begin planning my next endeavor.

It took some time, but eventually I began to notice that these failed attempts were not complete disasters. There were spots in the paintings where my mind checked out and I actually got some things right. I began to find small areas that were miniature achievements, interesting color harmonies or potential designs for future works. I started treating my failures as stepping-stones to future successes.

Even to this day, I take paintings that don’t meet my expectations and explore ways to either salvage some part of them, or utilize a portion of the painting as a springboard for another painting idea. The following are just a few examples of how I try to make my castaway paintings work for me.

The first thing I do is look for a crop: some part of the painting that can stand alone as a finished work. I recollect one, less than satisfactory, 24x30” oil that ended up as a dazzling 12x16”.

I keep some “L” shaped mats in my studio, and I’ll move them around the painting until I find a section that is finished and frameable, could be finished with a bit of touching up or, at the very least, a potential design for a future painting.


In this example, I have a plein air piece that seems a bit humdrum. So I take my mats and find a section on the right hand side that isn’t really a finished painting, but contains a vertical design element that may ultimately prove to be a stronger piece.


demo demo

Click on any picture to see an elarged view


demoI found this old half sheet watercolor lying in the bottom of one of my flat files.

I was about ready to pitch it, when I noticed those floating specks in the trees on the upper right side of the painting. Something about them made me think of flowers. I put my mats over there and began to see the makings of a flower garden.




I took Hansa Yellow Light, Naples Yellow, New Gamboge, Viridian and various blues, and started orchestrating the foliage.


demo At this point, I still hadn’t touched the pure white specks from the initial painting. I needed those hard edges for a focal point. So with a little titanium white and a mixture of other pigments, I dabbed in flowers of various hues and values until I felt I had the proper movement through the painting. I like the final feel. The hard and soft edges of the foliage lend semblance of depth to the finished work. demo

Several years ago, a friend gave me a piece of newfangled, lightweight board to paint oils on. He thought it might be a good support to travel with. It ultimately turned out to be too brittle to be of much use. Nonetheless, I started a painting on board, and shortly after beginning, I was pretty disgusted with the start. So, in frustration, I grabbed an inch and a half bristle, picked up a gob of burnt umber, scrawled a huge scribble over what I had painted and tossed the board over in the corner of the studio.demo

About a week later, I headed off on a two-month painting trip to Indonesia.  Shortly after returning home, I went into my studio one evening to get something and noticed the board lying in the corner. When I took a closer look, I saw something interesting in the mass I had scrawled two months earlier. So I slapped the board up on the easel, and, about an hour later, I finished this sweet Balinese portrait in oil. You can still see the original scrawl behind the head.



The longer I paint, the more I raise my expectations about my finished work. The result is that I still end up with tons of paintings that don’t make the grade. What’s changed is that I now utilize those duds as a means to further my growth. Sometimes I paint over them in order to practice my values or color control. Other times I move mats around on them, looking for abstract designs that I can develop into other works. There’s a myriad of uses for those dead soldiers that we so cavalierly throw away.


So, next time you paint a lemon, see if you can find a way to turn it into lemonade.


Paint on!