Reworking an old canvas

When it comes to the art I make, I’m easily my most harsh critic. It’s rare that I outright say that I like something I’ve done. This isn’t so much because I dislike what I’ve made, but because more times than not I don’t see the final mark I made at the end of the day as the end of that piece.

Last week, I pulled two old oil paintings from a corner in my room and took a sander to them. By the time I was done, there were small holes in the canvases and the images were all but gone, only leaving traces of color that had soaked into the fibers. Then they sat for a week. I stared at them most days. If you spend a lot of time making art, you start to understand that the time you’re not actually working on a project can still be productive. By staring at those canvases, however strange it sounds, they started to develop a certain personality. They were imageless, but there were still images in them regardless of how abstract my thoughts were as I looked at them.

On Tuesday, I went and grabbed one of the canvases and just started laying some graphite marks down. It turned into a landscape after about three hours of work. There were no trees or hills or sky, but the distinct horizon line down the center of the canvas and the way I kept viewing it horizontally seemed to be pointing in that direction. In the evening of that same day, I worked on it some more and I realized what it was taking the shape of. There was a mass of dark on the lower right hand corner, with contrasting white vertical lines and a softer tonal scale on the ‘sky’ portion.

I’d seen it before because it was essentially the same as a photo I took a while ago. This isn’t a photo I think about. I didn’t like it, and I only scanned a print of it to use in this blog. It doesn’t show, but it’s not a sharp image. It looks alright from a few feet away, but when you step in close, it falls apart.

Because of my dissatisfaction with this print, I sanded down the canvas again in certain areas and started new.

Wednesday rolled around and as soon as I woke up, my mind was ready to get going. Some things came up and I couldn’t get right to work on it, but when I got home later that day, I spent about five hours working on it. I used, ink, gesso, graphite, charcoal, watercolor, oil paint, china marker, watercolor crayon, anything I could get my hands on. I painted with my fingers, used a stick for a pen, scratched with sandpaper, burned with a woodburning tool.

All this happened without a direction, and then I noticed a shape. A splash of white gesso arched like the curve of an egrets neck. At the nature reserve I frequent near my house, there are always two egrets that I can never get close to. I see them from a distance and their radiant white outshines everything around them. They are always the most profound image I have of the place and I think that came out in that mark on the canvas. At this point, I realized how mentally and physically exhausted I was.

Art has a way of absolutely wiping me out. My muscles were drained. I had a headache. My fingertips were raw. I was cold, thirsty, hungry. By all accounts, I should have been miserable, but I was completely content.

I’m not sure if I’ll like what I created today tomorrow, but that really doesn’t matter. It was just that act – that creativity that boiled over the edges and down my fingertips – that I needed so badly. For my fellow artists, I know you understand. For everyone else, there’s nothing better I could hope for you than to find this equivalent in your life – just remember, it can take many forms and odds are, it isn’t your day job.

4 thoughts on “Reworking an old canvas

  1. I love all the scraped back layers and textures in this piece. Haunting and beautiful.
    I had a chance to photograph some egrets not that long ago. Four of them in fact. It was magical. I will post them at some point.

  2. I love that painting. It is so gorgeous. And I do know what you mean. I paint too but don’t talk about it because I am terrible at it. But I love doing it and at the end of day I feel just like you described. And like you I like to look at the empty canvases and imagine what could be there. You describe it all so well.

    1. I am not good at painting in a traditional sense. When I use oil paint or acrylic, it almost never works out well – my brain just doesn’t work that way. Maybe you’re just trying the wrong techniques? Or maybe your work isn’t bad at all. It’s too easy sometimes to be overly self-critical. But none of that even matters so long as you’re enjoying it!

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