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When a Good Oil Painting Goes Bad, is There a Cure?


Even experienced artists can tell a horror story of getting stuck half-way through a new painting. I can still recall that heart-sick feeling when you know: ' this painting just isn't working.' Worse still, you don't know what to do next. If you've ever had to face that situation, you'll want to know if there's any cure for it...

What possible 'cure' might you find for a half-finished oil painting you realise is 'terminal'? Begun with such enthusiasm, it had you feeling on fire with inspiration. Now it hangs, dull and somehow lifeless on the easel and you wonder: 'what to do next?'  In truth, the best answer is: 'dump it and start over.'
To destroy it after all the hope, the hours of work you've put in, is a gut-wrenching prospect. So, before you pull the last hairs from your scalp or resort to the whisky bottle, you sink back in your 'thinking' chair – I do hope you have one in the studio – to consider the options:

  • You might move one element – a figure, a building or a tree – to a more prominent place in the picture, because you realise the painting lacks a strong focal point.
  • You might change the colouring of some element – the woman's dress to an eye-catching yellow, the roof of the house to a bright red, or the water in the river to vivid greens.
  • No. You won't do any of that, because you already know the dangers of over-painting in oils.
  • To de-mount the canvas and cut a bit off one side or another won't help. You already know enough about composition to realise such action would throw everything out of balance.

With that thought, you've reached the Eureka Moment. Your own mind threw up the clue. Composition. The word stings its way around your brain as you check through the basic rules of composition, learned when you were a student.

1. In a landscape, the horizon must never cut the canvas in half but be placed one-third or two-thirds down from the top.
2. The horizon should never stretch in an unbroken line from edge to edge of the canvas.
3. The focal point, or most important feature of the painting, must always be placed off-centre.

You followed the rules. So why does this painting look 'wrong?' Well, that flash of inspiration you had, that enthusiastic rush to get started on this painting is the most likely cause of your problems with it now. Sad to say, friend, you'd better face facts.

Be prepared to scrape right down to the primer or else get some trusted person to destroy the failed thing. When you've dried your eyes, please open your ears to an easy way to avoid feeling this anguish ever again.

You know The Golden Rule but do you know the carpenters' rule? It goes like this: Measure Twice, Cut Once. You can apply the concept to every new, blank canvas you face in the future. Of course, you're not going to take a saw to that new canvas. You'll use a ruler and take some measurements.

On the new canvas, mark the centre with a piece of charcoal. Using a *T-square and a ruler, draw horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines, through the centre point to each edge of the canvas. You've now made what I call 'The Star.' So, how does it help?

  • It reminds you not to place the focal point on any of its arms. For example, you'll avoid placing the eyes of the subject in a portrait, the head of the lead horse in a group, or the most interesting feature of a landscape on these lines. This way, the viewers' gaze is directed around the painting, always drawn back to your focal point, as planned.

Other artists will have their special 'cures' for a painting gone wrong but in the case of an oils-on-canvas painting, this is the one I know to be reliable in avoiding problems before you even start your next painting.© Dorothy Gauvin

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