Can This Surface Be Saved?

86-saving-a-surface.jpgWhen a painting just doesn’t work out, is there a way to salvage the surface?

Even with the best of efforts, some paintings just don’t work out. Whether due to an unclear concept, poor composition, faulty drawing, bad value relationship, lack of color harmony, or a combination of these, nothing we attempt can resurrect it from the mountain of failed attempts every artist produces. As frustrating and depressing as this can be, remember that more is learned from these attempts than from a safe painting.

Embracing this philosophy may help our artistic outlook but doesn’t negate the monies invested in materials. As a medium, pastel (compared to wet paints which dry out and have to be disposed of) can prove quite cost effective. Considerable investment might be made in the purchase of large assortments of colors and brands, but they last. It’s the surfaces we go through quickly. To justify working on the best supports, while still providing food for the table, many of us look for ways to recycle failed paintings.

Depending on the surface, most of the pastel on a failed painting can be removed, allowing for a fresh layer to be applied. To avoid inhaling the dust, however, it’s best to avoid brushing off the pastel. If extremely heavy layers of pastel need to be removed, place a trough under the bottom edge of the upright painting. Gently drag a painting knife or flat edge utility blade down the surface, allowing the dust to fall into the trough. The best way to remove further pastel dust is to make it wet and use a blotting action. But before you do, consider what the surface can tolerate: water can swell and leave a thin paper or surface wrinkled; alcohol can soften certain binders used to adhere grit to a surface; and mineral spirits can soften certain glues used to mount paper to a backing board. Experiment on a section before committing. Once you feel secure in your choice, lay the painting flat, wet a section and blot the pastel off. Do not rub, as this will inevitably leave fuzz from the rag. This wetting and blotting procedure can be repeated as much as needed until the pastel is lifted off the surface, leaving the paper stained.

Good quality papers and surfaces can take quiet a beating. Artists have described placing them under a faucet in their bathtubs or even taking them outside and spraying them off with a garden hose. What ever works! You’ll notice that certain pigments stain more than others. To avoid the distraction of the ghost image stain, turn the paper upside down so it is not recognizable, and then begin anew. This often leads to interesting possibilities. From something failed, something exciting may arise, and a dollar was saved.

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6 thoughts on “Can This Surface Be Saved?

  1. Robert Sloan

    One of the tips I picked up on WetCanvas led me to invest in a pad of Wallis Museum paper instead of the less expensive Wallis Professional. Deborah Secor mentioned that while Pro can be recycled by vacuuming or getting the dust off, Museum stands up to being washed — Kitty Wallis’s high end product is designed for pastelists who want to be able to change their minds.

    That left me less afraid to use the Wallis Museum because now I know if I wreck something, it’s more retrievable than when I’m using cheaper papers.

    Of course the fun thing with pastels is that I’ve also been able to retrieve good watercolor paper just by using bad watercolors as underpaintings for good pastels. A bit of Colourfix primer on it and wow, there it goes, good as new with an underpainting. I’d rinse off the old image or use an opaque color of primer if the painting was so godawful I didn’t want to do a new version or I couldn’t think of anything else to morph the tones into.

  2. Pamela Outersky Smith

    Thanks for the tip! Now I can go through a whole stack of "no-nos" and "oops" to try to revive my papers, thus not feeling so guilty about wasting such expensive and valuable paper, and still retain a valuable lesson somewhere without all the reminders.

  3. Mary McCoy

    This method should work on La Carte. I use a foam brush to gently sweep the pastel onto a piece of paper or glassine so I can save the dust. I then use a kneadable eraser to pick up loose dust,rolling it over the surface but it can be rubbed over it as well. Rubbing the eraser makes crumbs, I don’t save those. 😉
    I love using the dirty paper.

  4. R. Duane Hendricks

    Thanks for this Mr. McKinley, however, is there any advice regarding the Sennelier la carte surface which does not tolerate wet working? I love the feel of this paper.

  5. Elsie H. Wilson

    Thanks, Richard!
    Another good lesson!
    Sometimes just admitting that "ok, this is not working out" and knowing when to pack it in, is allowing oneself the freedom to move on. Sometimes I’ve found it I allow the mess to rest for a few days, I can see how to keep it alive. If not, you just move on!
    Pastel is a very forgiving media! We are lucky there.
    Thanks for the ideas on what to do with the paper to give it another life.