Don't fuss endlessly with passages you’ve already laid down. This sucks all the life out of your painting.
|Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, oil on canvas by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, contact Karen Giles. |
“Don’t nullify,” wrote watercolorist Stewart White. “Know the mark you want to make before you make it. And once it’s made, don’t try to erase it; it just gets muddy otherwise. Watercolor reveals everything.”
That’s excellent advice. Nullification is bad in every medium, not just watercolor. It leads to weak painting.
By nullification, I don’t mean just scrubbing or wiping out. I also mean repeated overpainting and reworking of the same passages.
|Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, watercolor by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, contact Karen Giles.|
Francis Bacon scrubbed intentionally, using the technique to depersonalize his portraits. You could say he’s the exception that proves the rule, since his technique points out how badly we view nullification.
In most cases, painters nullify because:
- They haven’t planned sufficiently, or
- They don’t like their brushwork.
Process protects us from the need to nullify. By working out errors in a study phase, you avoid splashing them out on a big canvas. But even the most carefully-conceived paintings will have errors. Unless it’s a real whopper, just leave it. The human mind loves mysteries, and what happens between you and your paint is sometimes the greatest mystery of all.
|Clark Island Rocks, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Carol L. Douglas Gallery, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport, ME.|
Yes, you can lift watercolor with a scrubber, but it leaves an unpleasant softness in the paper. (Frank Costantino reminded me recently that scrubbing works better on hot-press paper.) In oils, you have more leeway: you can scrape with a palette knife and then wipe off the residue with a cloth. But even so, any alterations in alla prima painting will result in softening the line and contrast.
Nullification is not to be confused with the subtle modifications we do at the end of a painting. That’s often where real artistry comes in, in the heightening of contrast or subduing of less-important passages. One of the reasons I hate hearing students tell each other, “not another brushstroke!” is that it doesn’t respect these critical, end-of-the-painting choices.
But painters do sometimes endlessly fuss with passages they’ve already laid down. This sucks all the life out of their painting. Sometimes we do it because we haven’t got the color right, and we want to modulate it. If the value is right but the hue is wrong, it’s probably best to just leave it alone.
|Bracken Ferns, oil on canvas by Carol L. Douglas, available through Carol L. Douglas Gallery, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport, ME.|
Just as often, painters nullify because they don’t like their brushwork. The basic requirements for good brushwork are as follows:
- You’re using decent brushes (that doesn’t mean expensive);
- You’ve amply experimented with all the directions your brush can travel and the ways it can make lines;
- You know how to properly marry edges where appropriate;
- You can draw with a brush as easily as with a pencil;
- You’re not dabbing or poking dots with the point of your brush;
- You can make both long and short strokes.
Brushwork is as unique as handwriting. If you can do the things noted above, the problem may be that you just don’t recognize the good qualities in your own brushwork. In that case, “not another brushstroke” is actually appropriate. You need to give yourself time to become accustomed to your own mark-making before you can see its beauty.
Your assignment this week is to do a small painted study that takes you less than one hour. The subject is immaterial. Then, set it aside for two weeks. After that, I want you to look at it and analyze it against the requirements for brushwork above. And ask yourself, do you like it better than you did the moment you finished it? If yes, then learn to embrace your own brushwork. If no, then figure out why.