Burn The Past: Reworking an Old Painting

When I started this Patreon back in October, I decided to kick it off with a painting called “Survivor”. I painted this piece in just under a week, right before the Illuxcon convention.

With hindsight, I can see a lot of problems with this original painting that I just wasn’t really able to get past during that time. It’s a bit odd, because there are definitely some things I really do like about it. And, the painting is somewhat recent, so I can’t really blame a lack of technical skill for its shortcomings. But, when I showed it to an art director and asked a few other people for their opinion, it was universally panned. Here’s a brief run down of the defects of this piece:

The composition is too static and staged

The figure and the pose looks stiff. Something is not right with the left leg.

Overall, it looks unfinished

What’s the story?

I actually can point to a single reason why this piece was mediocre: I rushed it. Plain and simple, I didn’t give myself enough time to really think the piece through and with the impending deadline of my convention and the simultaneous launch of this Patreon, I bungled the execution.

So, I recently revisited this painting and realized that for all its flaws, I still liked a few aspects, mainly the strong female protagonist carrying a crossbow in front of flames. My original idea was that she had survived an ordeal and this was her literal baptism in fire. OK, crossbow, flames, check. But how I would paint this piece differently if I only kept those elements?

The idea above is just some initial playing around in Photoshop with some elements of the original and a background I quickly found in Google image search. I liked the burning building at first, but then I realized she just looked like an arsonist. There’s not much narrative interest in a simple portrait of a criminal.  I then stumbled across the idea of her being a pirate… and the moment I thought of the word “pirate,” new story ideas came to mind.

As I thought about it more, I came up with the idea of the heroine standing in front of a burning ship. When I showed it my wife Laima, she immediately gravitated to the ship idea. Burning ships feel epic and otherworldly – burning buildings, on the other hand, just feel like a disaster.

When I thought of the burning ship, another story nugget popped into my head: she has shot a burning arrow into the ship with her crossbow. She’s burning the pirate ship that represents the life she no longer wants to lead.

This little discovery finally cinched together the disparate elements and gave me a framework upon which I could hang the painting.

I’ve decided to title this new version, “Burn the Past.” (get it?) The above image is a work in progress, but I’m feeling much stronger with this version so far and can’t wait to work on more 🙂 In particular, I’m having a lot of fun designing her costume and accessories and will be writing more about that process in another post.

Every idea starts somewhere, but some ideas can get stuck in a cul-de-sac of mistakes and delusions. It can take a while to pull that idea out, dust it off and set it back on the right path but it’s worth doing. Mistakes are the raw materials required for improvement!