Susan Webb Tregay: Crossing the Finish Line

Susan Webb Tregay doesn?t like an unfinished painting. “Unless a painting gets finished, it usually gets tucked away and chalked up as another failure,” she says. “Taking a painting to completion is by far the hardest part.” But she has some good strategies for pushing through those last few stages and making each piece one you can be proud of.

First, she determines what parts of her watercolors she doesn?t like and gets rid of them. Murky areas, boring shapes, areas that don?t make sense?they all can be removed with scrubbing, and for tricky areas you can use packing tape and an exacto knife or razor blade. But don?t take off too much. “Scrub off only the amount of paint that?s necessary so that you?ll leave some showing,” she says. “Why start from scratch if you don?t have to?”

Adjusting Square (watercolor, 22×30)

“Most unfinished watercolors just don?t have enough midtones or darks,” Tregay says. So she often adds two or three extra layer to her (transparent) colors and pushes the background layers back with a wash or two. It helps with these adjustments to view you painting under different lights and compare it to other finished paintings. She also adds texture to her works, both in the form of scratches, splatters and the like and by complicating the composition or directing the viewer?s flow of vision.

Finally, a good way to make a painting special is to add a surprise. “You may think it?s too late in the game to think of surprises, but it?s never too late, and it may save your painting from boredom,” she says. Try to ensure the your surprise, and everything else in the painting, contributes to the painting?s unity, however. Consider the overall temperature and any distracting elements. Be careful to pull everything together into a unified whole, and you?ll finish your paintings with style.

I Grew Up Surrounded By Republicans (watercolor, 22×30)

Ross Merrill is chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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