Righting Wrongs

“Wrong Turn”, 43 inches by 24 inches, oils on canvas.

I recently reworked a painting from last year, “Wrong Turn”. Revising old pieces is never as satisfying as starting something new, but I often find that I learn more by the time I’ve finished. This piece was no exception!

Left: The original painting. Right: Original painting with new changes mocked up.

The biggest problem I dealt with in this piece was the two merchant characters who are having a bit of rough day. I showed this piece to some colleagues whose opinions I hold in high regard, and they all said that these characters’ poses were problematic. Too stiff, the proportions are strange and the gestures were not telling a story. I started by completely reworking their poses, and made a quick and dirty mockup in Photoshop of how it would look with those changes.

Maureen O’Hara and James Stewart in “The Rare Breed” (1966)

It can be tough to reimagine a failed painting when it holds a strong precedent in your mind. I needed to brainstorm how I could make those poses stronger, so I turned to some old books on classic Western cinematography. A good Western is all about strong composition and gestures that telegraph emotion. I knew I’d find some gold and pored through the pages looking for a distraught couple and when I came across this image, a light bulb went off in my head!

The shot from “Rare Breed” really got me started because I realized that I could channel the distress of the couple completely through the emotions of the female character. Her husband’s been shot, she’s surrounded by danger on all sides but she’s still desperately trying to protect him. The husband is in his own private world of pain, totally unresponsive and deaf to her cries for help. I quickly put a crossbow quarrel through the heart of my husband character and positioned the wife in a protector role. Now it’s got something going on!

Compare it again to my original painting. These characters are lifeless by comparison. Their poses are oddly symmetrical and their physical separation is not adding to the overall story. At the time, I justified it to myself with the concept that they were frozen by the danger in front of them and powerless to take action. Indeed, they look frozen… and totally devoid of emotion or narrative.

Painting out those old characters made for a dark evening. It’s never fun to erase hours and hours of work but it’s the initial band-aid that has to get ripped off before healing can begin. I then printed out my sketch at the same size as my painting, taped it on and used Saral transfer paper to transfer it to my painting.

Another thing that made this painting difficult with my first pass was the ridiculously tiny scale of the figures. Painting an expressive face the size of a quarter is just really hard. Also, the canvas grain begins to work against the brush at this scale, making tiny detailed strokes harder to achieve. It’s actually a large painting, but these two characters are the smallest in the entire composition so they were the hardest to pull off. When I finally felt satisfied with how the faces were coming along, I took the above photo and posted it to social media with a triumphant caption. Nothing like the encouragement of your peers to keep on going!

I am so much happier with this painting now! As I reworked these characters, I noticed other things that needed fixing, such as details on the wagon, parts of the landscape, etc. Those got a redo as well, but the distressed couple was the lion’s share of the work. Ironically, I decided to leave the painting’s title, “Wrong Turn” the same. My own personal misstep is now a part of the piece but I went back and corrected it the best of my ability, and that has made all the difference.

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