Sunday, 2 June 2013

Secret History of a Painting, part 1.

This is a two part post about the removal of a painting from a piece of vellum and the emergence of a new work on that same surface.  The piece I'm removing was a small 8 x 10 study of Aquilegia vulgaris with a nectar robbing bee, painted from observations in my garden in Scotland in 2008. It was part of a set exhibited at the RHS Gardeners World show in the same year, for which I was awarded a silver medal. I'm going to replace it with a painting of a decaying leaf  and lichen encrusted twig, found near to my new home at Queens Park, Longton in Staffordshire.
 I used to visit this park as a child and so both paintings have some significance to me .... The old painting has gone.... I know it used to be there and if you look very closely tell tale signs of the impression remain.  I may have put a lot of work into the original painting  ...but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's worth hanging on to.

This June it will be almost a year since I moved back home and time to knuckle down to more painting. Sometimes it feels like I've wasted a lot of time.... but with painting, the thinking time in between productive times can be just as important. In rethinking my approach to work it's apparent that I've barely scratched the surface in learning about light, colour, form and composition etc. I feel  at times that my work has become driven at by the desire to participate in certain exhibitions, joining societies and striving for awards and the 'approval' that seems to accompany botanical art. Not that these things aren't important but of late I find I'm painting things for the sake of meeting some criteria or brief, rather than the things I set out to do when I first started painting plants. So it's time to  remind myself that the work comes first, then if it's good enough it can be entered for an
 exhibition, rather than painting for these shows. Sounds obvious and a bit silly but it's easy to get caught up in this system and for the balance to shift, so it's time to pull things back to the start! For me I can only progress by regular painting and self -exploration of techniques with no particular goal in mind. For others it may be a different story.

 With all of this in mind I've been having a look through some of my older paintings and looking at what I feel is right and wrong with them. With a few of the vellum works I decided to reclaim the vellum and give it a new lease of life. These paintings, some of which are unfinished or gathering dust....have been banished to the work cupboard for a reason....I simply don't like them!
  The fact that paintings on vellum can be removed, altered or corrected is one of the things I love about vellum. The reason for this is that unlike paper vellum is non-absorbent and the paint sits on the surface, although this property makes it more difficult to paint on in the first instance it also makes it easier to remove or correct. 

Some might think it's a shame to remove a painting because it's part of your history as an painter but if it's something that I'm not happy with - it's better to make good use of the vellum by hopefully creating a better painting.
I always enjoy a painting more if it has a bit of a story or personal association with place or person, rather than painting a plant for the sake of a likeness.  I've always been intrigued by corrections and hidden paintings, makes it so much more interesting because it demonstrates the thinking process! I recall reading about a visible correction to the stem position on one of Rory McEwen's tulips in Shirley Sherwood' s book Contemporary Botanical Artists, until I read that I didn't know it was so easy to erase from vellum. 

The work that I'm removing is a relatively small study of Aquilegia with a nectar robbing bee biting into one of the spurs. It's an interesting enough 'story' for a painting, in which the bee effectively 'cheats' the plant out of the nectar reward without offering any service as a pollinator.
But I was never happy with this piece, also it has a mark bottom left over the painting that needed to be cleaned up. The dissection etc. on the left hand side is satisfactory but the right hand side painting of the plant could have been much better, particularly in composition, it looks too stiff and lacks depth....and it's just a bit lifeless and naive.  The decision I had to make was whether to remove the right side and repaint it or to start again with something completely different. Given that there were a few issues, I chose the latter option.

A word of caution: Some colours are easier to lift than others be careful with paints that have staining pigments always check your paints to for staining properties. Cadmium red, cadmium yellow and Winsor violet dioxide are a few of those that stain. Doesn't mean they can't be lifted but they can be difficult.
Also removing large areas of work from larger paintings can be difficult because of warping of the vellum from the original painting.

I use a fine grade pumice powder 240mesh, the type used by jewellers is fairly easy to find online.
A little goes a long way! I start by sprinkling some on the area I want to erase. I also create a small bag of pumice using an old stocking filled with about a teaspoon of pumice and use circular movements to erase the paint.   

Rub gently in circular movements to remove the image.

Once the image is removed, go over the entire piece of vellum with pumice  to ensure the surface is even. For the final smooth finish you can add chalk to the pumice although I haven't found it necessary on this piece. Any stubborn marks can be carefully erased with a scalpel. Sometimes a slight indentation is left but pressing the vellum flattens it out.

Going....going....almost gone!

Once completely cleaned and flattened under some heavy books,
it was time to start the new work.

 The next blog post will be about the emergence of the new work.


  1. Such a fascinating process Dianne and I always enjoy reading your thoughts on making art :)

  2. Dianne - thanks for writing such a fascinating post - I had no idea you could do this with vellum, but then again I know nothing about vellum! I loved reading what you said about old paintings that you feel don't really serve a purpose any more and about painting for exhibitions. Sounds like you have done some serious thinking Dianne and really getting to grips with your path as an artist. It's a beautiful process to watch.

    1. Thanks Jess, I didn't know that a whole painting could be removed either! just thought that I'd give it a go because I read about the alteration on the Rory McEwen tulip painting in Shirley Sherwood's book, and I'd also removed bits and pieces from my own works over the years so I figured it was perfectly possible.
      About the exhibitions - I know it's important to exhibit and to do the 'botanical rounds' but sometimes I feel that it starts to dominate the type of work that an artist produces and for me this isn't a good thing. For example, the RHS 6 paintings ( 8 up until last year!) if you want the medals you need to paint a series, now I might have a series of good painting but there's only 5 good subjects, so I start to try to 'force' another one in because of the quest for the carrot. That's not really right to me, and so the 'prizes' start to dominate the direction of the work. I'm not opposed to awards and prizes or the fact that there is criteria to meet, I'm just very aware of the path it can lead you down if you don't have it all in hand. Better to work on projects then if they're fit for the job they can be entered.
      I always remember an RHS judge saying to me ' you're only as good as your worst painting' still rings in my ears... and that's another very good reason to get rid of the paintings that you're not happy with ;)
      With regard to thinking.... I'm afraid I think way too much Jess;)

  3. Wow--this is fascinating...both your process as an artist and removing the old painting. I have been thinking similar thoughts since I graduated. I look forward to seeing where your path takes you.

    1. Thanks Janene, I think often people have the same thoughts because they go through the same processes ....albeit in their own way but usually, if a person questions something .. they can find a whole host of others wondering about the same thing. That's the good thing about sharing information online... you find the answers collectively.
      Hope you're enjoying the freedom after graduation although it takes a bit of adjustment for some people, strange when you're not being told what to do. You think it would be easy to get on with new work. But I found I got on with lots of extra work while I was studying ( or maybe that was instead of studying!) but then when it came to a halt I blanked for a while.

  4. Dianne, thanks again for a truly informative read. I totally get what you are trying to say. I think we get too caught up in the preciousness of our own work and what motivates us, and that can really inhibit creativity. So well done for taking a bold and audacious step and clearing our that closet! I look forward to reading your next blogpost!! Shevaun

  5. This is a really good read Dianne and thanks for sharing your knowledge of this surface. I was particularly interested in reading your insights about painting purely for exhibition rather than for own satisfaction, so true. Enjoy the next phase.

    1. Thank you Jarnie :)Hope you're enjoying the botanical alphabet work, looks very exciting!

  6. So you use the chalk to make it more smooth? I really loved this post and also admire your choice to do this. I think you're right. Vellum is too expensive to have a painting on it that doesn't satisfy you. If it's paper it's a different story but when I see how easily you can erase a painting on vellum... I always enjoy your posts about vellum. I really should work on it a bit more often.

    1. Yes Sigrid, I think the chalk added makes it even finer powder for smoothing the surface. But I don't think its necessary really with the Kelmscott, seems enought to use the finest pumice.
      Yes you should work on it more. I think I would do all my work on vellum if I could afford to. It's the perfect surface for me. I think it comes from my early painting experience working on china. There is definitely some similarity, I guess because it's non absorbant.
      Worked on a piece of Arches paper today....horrible. I really indents where you paint....very strange.

    2. Sigrid, also forgot to add you use a chalk wash on the vellum if needed but the Kelmscott is already prepared so doesn't need it if you don't disturb the surface too much, but you can add a chalk wash if you want to. But that's why you have to use the finest pumice. Hope that makes sense? :)

  7. Thanks for your informative posts of vellum Dianne. I hope to be brave enough one day to do a painting on vellum.

  8. Denise Walser-Kolar10 October 2014 at 06:15

    Very good post. I especially liked the part where you talked about painting for exhibits and awards. I'm in a bit of a slump right now, and that was a good thing to read. And the fact that sometimes thinking about it all is just as important as painting. Thank you.