During our Members’ Critique Webinar last Saturday, we discussed updating or reworking older oil paintings. The subject was on the top of my mind because I’ve been revisiting old paintings lately. While listening to the Realism Live Convention I heard Daniel Sprick say “there’s no expiration date on reworking oil paintings – sometimes years later.”
I agree! The painting Sunday Drive was finished in 2014 and shipped off to the Broadmoor Gallery where it sat for a couple of years. Getting the painting back was bittersweet. It’s always nice to sell a piece, but I was happy for the chance to work on it again.
Even though it had some weak areas, it was a painting I personally loved. So, I was excited to see what more I could do with texture (there’s a great blog post about texture here) and color while hopefully not losing the essence of what I loved about the painting.
Here’s the reference photo for the painting:
What I loved in the photo were the twisted, contrasting trees, the textures, and the feeling of driving or walking through a tree-lined road. What I didn’t like was the boring pavement color taking up so much space in the composition. So, I changed the composition and focused on those things I found intriguing.
Here’s what the painting looked like when I got it back from the gallery a year ago:
What I loved in the painting were the foliage and tree trunk textures and contrasts.
What I didn’t paint well was the road – it didn’t feel like it fit in with everything around it and the lines were too obvious. I also felt I could push shadow and light in the mass of foliage much more effectively. There was too much sameness from left to right and top to bottom through the middle of the painting.
That sameness caused the dark twisting tree to stand out more than it should. Also, the trees on the right created a barrier to the rest of the painting because they were overly dominant in size, contrast, and interest.
Here is what the painting looks like now:
The trees on the right have been integrated into the rest of the painting with more foliage. The big tree on the right near the road was broken up into two distinct trees, with one being pushed to the other side of the road. I did that with the idea that it would help move the viewer into and through the painting.
The field in the background was modified with light ochres and lavenders to subdue the color so it would pull the viewer into the painting while not popping forward or distracting from the areas around it. I added a lot of colors into the road from the surrounding plants to help the road feel like it belonged.
The sky was darkened with more saturated Ultramarine and Manganese Blues, gradually shifting from darker reddish-blue to lighter yellowish turquoise blue as it moved down.
Light and shadow, textures, and warm and cool colors were greatly enhanced throughout the painting.
This painting is now one of my favorites. It took a while to get there, but fortunately, it’s not a race. Each painting is its own unique puzzle and sometimes it takes years to develop each of the pieces, so they feel ‘right’.
Tell me about your experiences in reworking older oil paintings.
When you reworked the painting did you put a medium on first before adding more paint or painted right over the old paint?
Great question Sharon. In this case, I painted straight away without any prep. For other paintings, if they have any matte or sunken looking areas, I will brush a thin layer of walnut oil on top to help all the values look fresh and vibrant. Sometimes, especially when darker colors dry, they look lighter in value and that can make it difficult to know what value to paint over it because once it all dries again and is varnished all those sunken values will look like they did while wet. When I do add a layer of oil to the dried paint, I use a paper towel to wipe off the excess, leaving just enough to bring back the original values. It is possible for a thick layer of paint to dry so glass-like that new layers have a tough time attaching, but I haven’t found that to be a problem.
I have a painting I started several years ago. I had no idea how to really finish it. It’s totally different from anything I had done before. But I brought it out and started working with it and then decided to add some floral elements to it. It’s not finished yet, but I’m already liking it so much more and may be the start of a series if I like my finished work.
I really like how you did the road. It added warmth and made the painting ‘inviting’. -Liz
What a change! I took an old acrylic painting of a horse that was too close to the edges, turned it into a digital painting where I made the back ground bigger around the horse (actually made it into a couple of repeating continuous patterns for fabric/wallpaper). I changed it from bright to more moody teal and purple with a darker horse. I also digitally fixed some minor problems with the horse.
I got a lot of help with this info on reworking an old painting. It is funny how you don’t see things that are wrong until much later. I have reworked some of my paintings in the same way. It was helpful to pick out the problems of your painting.
I would like very much for you to show the 2 pieces side by side. M y mind wondered as I tried to read then go back to “before” so if they posted side by side I would be able to actually see the difference. Please consider this suggestion.
I have quite a few paintings with boring pathways or roads. This blog is very helpful. I’ll work on my paintings using your insight. thank you.
This is my first day being a member and I am very interested to read members’ comments on starting to repaint old paintings.
I have a closet full of paintings I just hate, not sure if it is worth the effort to do any salvaging.
Can you repaint a 1 year old painting which is lacking blending of edges?
From BIll: First, if it’s varnished I remove that with mineral spirits if it’s Gamvar or similar – old school damar required turpentine. Then I sometimes do as Dyanna suggested and cover the painting with a thin layer of walnut or linseed oil (oiling out). If so, keep in mind that conservators suggest removing as much oil as possible since excess oil contributes to yellowing and might cause sagging or wrinkling of the paint. Oiling out isn’t necessary, but it can help create a uniform sheen so values appear accurately – darks tend to dry matte, especially when mineral spirits are involved. The one thing to watch for would be spots that are overly shiny or glass-like. If the surface is too slick the new paint might not form a sufficient bond with the old paint. As far as cleaning the old paint beforehand, that would depend on how dirty it is and how important that is to the overall look. Since I paint outdoors a lot, I often get dust or bugs stuck in my paint and I leave those if they don’t detract from the painting. If you’re removing a varnish layer then anything that accumulates after that will come off with the varnish. If the painting wasn’t varnished then just use your best judgment and decide if any dust, fly leftovers, or other sediment is distracting and only remove those spots. Too much cleaning might cause more damage than good to the painting. The primary thing is to make sure the new paint bonds with the old paint. If the paint is less than a year old you probably won’t have any problems. The older oil paint gets the more it oxidizes and the greater risk of new paint not bonding, but in my experience oil paint on top of oil paint still has a strong likelihood of bonding. I’ve reworked paintings that were more than 10 years old and didn’t have any problems with the new paint adhering well without any special preparations.