Saturday, November 26, 2016

Let the Dead Paintings Die

There is great power in the spoken word. As a lover of words - especially beautiful words - I've always known this. But the older I get, the more I realize what a responsibility we have towards what we say or don't say. Words have power to break resolve, crush hopes, or batter one's spirit. They also have the ability to encourage, motivate, and embolden.

Over the years I've been on the receiving end of some wise advice, and several of those conversations will always stand out to me as having changed my life in some way. While I won't burden you with every single life lesson I've learned, I will tell you about one recent conversation that helped tear down a huge mental block I was facing in my art (I've written about some of these mental blocks, or "fences," in this blog post).

It was nearly two months ago. I was one of the hundreds of guests (mostly artists) crowding into Gallery 1261 for the opening reception of Richard Schmid's retrospective show. This show in and of itself should (and will) be the topic of a separate blog post, but to give you an idea of the context, the place was packed and I had to speak at the top of my lungs to be heard by anyone standing more than twelve inches away from me. In this space, I crossed paths with the indomitable Rose Frantzen, one of my all-time favorite artists and someone I greatly admire. We were practically yelling in each other's faces to be heard above the chaos, and yet out of this noise came such wisdom from Rose, I find myself thinking about it still.

I don't remember how it came up, but I was telling her about a commission I had been working on for the past five months and how much of a struggle it was. I had repainted the face four or five times, and each time it only seemed to get worse, not better. Rose, in her unsympathetic but not unkind way, said, "Start over. Let the dead paintings die." She then proceeded to tell me about a commission that she had done from an old black and white photograph. She spent over a hundred hours on this painting, laboring to get every detail exactly perfect. Then, she started a second one and completed it in just six hours. It was different from the first, but no less perfect. She presented the clients with both paintings, not telling them which one she had spent more time on. The clients chose the six-hour painting. Later, they called her and said they also wanted to buy the other one.

I was blown away by Rose's story and realized that this woman does not let fear get to her. I think I'm confident but then after one conversation with someone like Rose, I realize I still have much to learn!

After that, I went home to my studio, and, with some dread, sent the clients an email explaining that I needed to start over and would need some more time. To my surprise and relief, they were very understanding and said they appreciated that I was working so hard to get it right!

I went back to the pose and setting that I had intuitively felt worked the best (but not the one they chose, originally), and started a brand new painting. These paintings were not small, or simple. The portrait was to be 40x30 inches, with an elaborate garden setting and bright sunlight bouncing all around. But I started the new portrait with fresh vigor and felt so much freer to make a great painting, not just a painting of what I thought the clients would want.

I was nearing the finish line when I decided I ought to start a third portrait. The clients were apprehensive about their daughter's stoic expression, which didn't really fit her personality. So I went back to the smile that they were drawn to originally, and started another painting in order to give the clients more options. The lighting was very different in this one, as was the expression, so the two paintings almost had nothing in common except for the subject.

Eventually I presented both paintings to the clients. They sat and deliberated, weighing the pros and cons of each one. We all agreed that I could have painted a hundred paintings of this sweet little girl and they still wouldn't capture every facet of who she is! But a painting tells so much more of a story than a photo does. It captures something deeper, something that grows on you every time you look at it.

Finally, the clients decided they wanted to buy both.

Grit and hard work do pay off, but not unless you have the confidence to carry through. Thank you, Rose, for the words of wisdom and for challenging me to let go of the long hours and miles of canvas in order to make my best work. Now I can deliver my finished portraits in full confidence that I did the absolute best I could do - without regrets. My clients and I are both the better for it!

I hope this post encourages you in some way to keep going. If you've been struggling with a project and it just isn't working, start over! Know that those hours were not in vain, because each time you start fresh, you'll have that wealth of experience from your previous painting to help you make more informed decisions along the way. Happy painting!

Commissioned portrait version #1 - Ended up here (above)

Commissioned portrait #2, 40x30", oil on linen

Commissioned portrait #3, 32x24", oil on linen



  1. Words of wisdom for us all. Thanks for sharing. I love both portraits and I can see why your clients did too!

  2. Thank you for this sharing Anna! It has struck a chord with me and movtivated me to re start another self portrait with vigor. I admire your work, which is infused with a living essence and Rose's work as well, where the spirt of the sitter shines through.

  3. Your words have come at a very opportune time. I can't restart the whole commission, but I have to restart the background...something I always struggle with. Just scraped it all off. It was very dejecting but there's nowhere to go but doing it over. It helps to know that someone of your caliber can have struggles, too. Thank you for sharing, Anna. It really helps. I love both of the paintings and can easily see why they wanted to buy both.

  4. Dear Anna,

    Your words could not be more timely. This summer I received my first major commission, a portrait of the governor of our state. I was both honored and humbled, but had so much to learn. I started with a photo shoot of a very complex pose and my photographer took 300 versions of the pose in order to have just the right one. Just as we were finishing p, I asked for a different pose for a painting I wanted to do of this governor that spoke to me about the challenges and sacrifices of becoming a public person. After two months of fighting with that first pose (and the wrong choice of canvas), I finally turned the painting to the wall, called in a few friends to sit for me in order to remind myself that I could indeed paint, and then did a small study of the second pose. I did it for myself and then wrote to the governor. I sent him the study as well as offered a restart with a whole new sitting and new pose. He was intrigued and we met so he could look at the study. He looked for a while, stepped back and said "I just love it". Four weeks later the painting, 28x40 is almost ready for framing. No need to beat ourselves up, just let those dead paintings die. Thank you for sharing. It's so important to know the challenges as well as the successes.

    1. Hi August, I've been meaning to respond to this... just wanted to say THANK YOU for sharing your story. Wow! What a humbling but growth-inducing experience. I'm so glad the governor entrusted his portrait to you - I'm sure that the resulting INSPIRED image is amazing. Thanks again for sharing!

  5. I really enjoyed this wonderful blog, I hope whenever I can, come back here.
    BRAZILIAN ART AND CULTURE. The art of Newton Avelino.


  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. It is really inspirational and gave me motivation to pick up my brush and start painting again. Your portraits are worthy of appreciation.

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