How to Destroy (and Recover) a Painting in 10 (or so) Not-So-Easy Steps

"Mollycoddling the Collywobbles" Oil on canvas 18" x 18" © 2012 Marilyn Fenn
“Mollycoddling the Collywobbles” Oil on canvas 18″ x 18″ © 2012 Marilyn Fenn

This painting started out very differently than it ended up.  In a month full of daily interruptions (far more than the usual tolerable level of daily interruptions), I had a hard time keeping the same frame of mind while I worked sporadically on this canvas.


I actually began with a painting I had started a while back, based on a microscopic image of spider eggs, but I now wanted to get away from even this little bit of representation and move to pure abstraction.  I painted out the eggs by turning them into ovals, but as I worked on making compositional sense out of what remained, I ended up painting out most of the ovals, and then eventually, removed all of them.

I will say that in the animated gif below, I was initially quite happy with the painting as it was happening in frames 3-5 (with the peachy-colored tree-like shape on the left, and the rosy gourd-shape on the right).  But in the process of trying to resolve the composition with that gourd-like shape, I eventually decided the shape was too disruptive to the wholeness of the painting and painted it out.  The swirl that attached itself to the gourd-like shape remained, however.

I wish I had documented all the stages this painting went through as it evolved, but sadly, I did not, so we are left with only seven of the stages from the beginning to the end of the process.  See the abbreviated evolution in the gif below:

 Which Way is Up?

Once I finally decided the painting’s composition was finally working and was done, I realized it could be viewed as satisfactorily from at least two orientations, if not all four!  (I do tend to turn the canvas and paint from several sides as I work on a painting).  When I posted the studio shot of this on my G+ page and asked my followers for their opinions on which orientation they preferred, I got several responses preferring 3 of the 4 possible orientations.

See what you think:

“Mollycoddling the Collywobbles” Oil on canvas 18″ x 18″ © 2012 Marilyn Fenn
original orientation
“Mollycoddling the Collywobbles” Oil on canvas 18″ x 18″ © 2012 Marilyn Fenn
90 degrees right
“Mollycoddling the Collywobbles” Oil on canvas 18″ x 18″ © 2012 Marilyn Fenn
180 degrees
“Mollycoddling the Collywobbles” Oil on canvas 18″ x 18″ © 2012 Marilyn Fenn
90 degrees left


Comments from GooglePlus:

I’m including some of the comments I received from my followers on G+, so you can see just how confusing it can be to ask for this kind of help.   🙂  Here are the responses to the question “which of these 4 orientations do you like best” (and why):

Original Orientation:
"Mollycoddling the Collywobbles" Oil on canvas 18" x 18" © 2012 Marilyn Fenn

  • The first one.  The ones with the horizontal break between the dark and the light invoke a landscape interpretation, with (probably unnecessary) repercussions.  But between these two, the one with dark above looks stronger.  I cannot really explain why I prefer the first one from two vertical orientations, but I do.
  • Clicking through quickly, I thought #1 was best.  I then clicked slower while looking away from the screen during the change.  I now like #1 and #3.
90 Degrees Right (clockwise):

“Mollycoddling the Collywobbles” Oil on canvas 18″ x 18″ © 2012 Marilyn Fenn - 90 degrees R

  • Interesting.  The second orientation feels most ‘right’ to me – after looking at it, all the others felt rotated to me.  I think that’s because I end up seeing it as a landscape with the wobbly shapes acting as figures and the horizontal lines acting as features on the landscape.  But that’s coming from a guy who predominately photographs landscapes, so it might just be the way I’m wired.  Funnily enough, I loved the first orientation a lot when I first looked at it.  Either way, a lovely piece.
  • (I pick) #2; #1 and #3 feel like falling or streaming through veins, but maybe that kind of dynamic is what you are looking for.  #4 feels upside down and floating in clouds.  You probably will never get a majority to agree on this!
  • I like #2, the main reason is the spiral, which in this case is at the bottom, at least for me it looks very nice that way!! Btw this painting is beautiful!!
  • #2 — I like the way my eye travels through it, it has flow.
  • I like #2 the best. To me, it reads like the ocean filled with mysterious wondrous creatures. The textures and lines read like waves, with the lighter area a tiny patch of sky. What’s that swirl at the bottom? He seems a little menacing like maybe I should try to avoid him.
  • I’m gonna pick the spiral in the bottom left right… then I read the light shape as distant terrain and the figures either hovering over or interacting with a landscape.
90 Degrees Left (counterclockwise):

“Mollycoddling the Collywobbles” Oil on canvas 18″ x 18″ © 2012 Marilyn Fenn - 90 degrees L

  • Excellent piece Marilyn. IMO Swirl top right = Anger, Swirl bottom right = Oppression, Swirl bottom left = Drowning, and swirl Top left = Discovery. I prefer the later Swirl Top left. I recently signed all four corners of an abstract piece to give a prospective client options, regardless of the integrity of my final decision on which way to hang the piece. 🙂
  • I prefer the 4th one, with the spiral “eye” in the top left. In that orientation the image kind of reads like a face to me – which you might not want?
  • I feel that #4 is the strongest and #2 is the next preferred version, I feel that the weight of the dark spiral is best balanced when it is in the top left or bottom right by the other elements of the image. I’m basing my opinion on graphic layout and balance not perceived image. I actually copied all four images and set them side by each in Photoshop so I could compare them all at the same time. 4 comes across as the strongest option and therefore the most desirable, in my opinion.
  • Quarter turn to the left for me. And because I said so :p
My Preference

Personally, I like the original orientation and the 90 degrees right ones the best (see them again below), but I still can’t decide which way to hang it.  Here’s why:

  1. In the original orientation, the imagery behind the loops, ovals, and lines seems most satisfying to me: the right dark portion of rose-purple divides the canvas into vertical areas of about 2/3s (left) to 1/3 (right); then the left 2/3s can be further divided into areas of about 1/3 to 2/3s, with the purple vertical area on the left making up the first third and the lighter patch of blue making up the other 2/3s (more or less).  Then there is that triangle full of sub-divided triangles at the top between the dark line and the swirl, which I like quite a bit.  These interesting divisions are sort of fractal in nature and therefore visually pleasing, and they seem less pronounced or noticeable in every other orientation, at least to my eye.  The flow of lines, loops, and ovals seems to flow up or down in what could be interpreted as an underwater space as if some alien scuba diver was tethered from above.
  2. On the other hand, in the second (90 degrees right) orientation, there is a very pleasing landscape quality — it could still be underwater, or not, and the flow of lines, loops and ovals seems more dynamically positioned in the space and almost seems to be in movement from left to right or right to left. In this orientation, the “background” shapes recede more and become a stage on or in which the wobbly things play, rather than being a dominant feature in and of themselves.

Either way, one part — either the wobbly bits or the luscious colored space behind the wobbly bits — seems to be more dominant than the other. I guess I’ll leave it to the viewer to decide.

“Mollycoddling the Collywobbles” Oil on canvas 18″ x 18″ © 2012 Marilyn Fenn
original orientation
“Mollycoddling the Collywobbles” Oil on canvas 18″ x 18″ © 2012 Marilyn Fenn
90 degrees right

So, should you choose to purchase this painting, it will be your choice which direction it should hang.  🙂  It can be purchased from my online shop.


If you’re interested, you can read the initial Google+ post and comments here.

New Painting: The Woobie Contemplates Revenge

"The Woobie Contemplates Revenge" Oil on canvas 10" x 10" © 2011 Marilyn Fenn
“The Woobie Contemplates Revenge” Oil on canvas 10″ x 10″ © 2011 Marilyn Fenn

Painting white things is really fun and challenging.  For this painting, I placed a white rabbit stuffed animal in a white box and lit it from two sides: one a warm light, which casts a cool shadow, and one a cool light, which casts a warm shadow.  So in this white on white painting, the colors come mostly from the shadows cast by the lights.

I enjoyed this challenge so much, that I’m planning more work featuring “The Woobie,” as well as more white on white paintings.  Luckily, the Woobie has a little family, so they could keep me busy for a while.

New Painting: Hare Skin Rug (Bugs Bunny)

"Hare Skin Rug" Oil on canvas 8" x 8" © 2011 Marilyn Fenn
“Hare Skin Rug” Oil on canvas 8″ x 8″ © 2011 Marilyn Fenn

Until my painting of Marvin the Martian a few days ago, I went nearly two weeks without painting (argh!) — quite an interruption in this almost daily schedule I’m trying to keep to.

We went to Oregon for a week, which was wonderful!  We went for my brother’s wedding and then traveled around just a bit down the coast: walked for hours on beaches in Cannon Beach and Newport, and from the balcony of our hotel room in Newport, we watched whales surfacing off in the distance under a sunset.  We saw a lot of art in Eugene and Portland and ate too much pretty good food.

It was also the first time we took an airplane in 6 years.  We are trying to reduce our carbon footprint, and so have been traveling by train since 2005, but as much as we prefer train travel, it just didn’t make sense for this trip.   The plane trips were not as bad as I feared; no crashes, no trouble with the TSA, no lost luggage, and only one really late flight (storms in Denver), though we did have to forfeit a bottle of water and a Leatherman.  The clouds were awesome, which I really enjoyed (I take lots of photos of clouds from planes whenever I do fly).

I also came down with the worst case of allergies I’ve ever had, which I’m finally almost over after two weeks.

Plus, I got an illustration gig while I was vacationing that required me to spend two 14-hour days upon our return drawing illustrations for a book publishing company in London (and two days in recovery from staying up late drawing with a mouse!).

So, I’m feeling the interruption, but trying to get back into the swing of things.  For this painting, I decided to paint something soft.   This is a small stuffed Bugs Bunny toy.  I used only 4 colors in this painting: white, cadmium red, thalo turquoise, and—just for the eyes—black.  I attempted to use very few, yet descriptive, brushstrokes; standing as far away from the easel as possible while still allowing my hand and brush to reach the canvas.  I think I succeeded in not overworking it, but did I underwork it?  I’m not totally sure.

New Painting: Fifteen Minutes for a Quarter

"Fifteen Minutes for a Quarter" Oil on canvas 5" x 5" © 2011 Marilyn Fenn
“Fifteen Minutes for a Quarter” Oil on canvas 5″ x 5″ © 2011 Marilyn Fenn

This is the third and final little rubber robot toy; this one is kind of a speed racer.  He was both hard and fun to paint.  He’s very small and yet full of so much detail, but the detail is so tiny, it’s hard to discern.  His little face is actually not very detailed and kind of strange-looking.  Each of these little guys is in fact a slightly different color; one is more bright green, one more army green, and this one is in-between bright and army green.

I aimed again for looseness with these last two paintings; it continues to be a struggle to overcome 20 years of painting habits, but I’m not unhappy with these.

New Painting: It Was This Big!

"It Was This Big!" Oil on canvas 5" x 5" © 2011 Marilyn Fenn
“It Was This Big!” Oil on canvas 5″ x 5″ © 2011 Marilyn Fenn

This is the second of three little rubber robot toys that have accompanied me on my desktop computers for at least the past 15 years.  (Don’t tell the other two, but this guy is my favorite of the three).  His posture kind of reminds me of Kevin Kline’s character in “Dave,” hence the title.

New Painting: Et Tu Klaatu?

"Et Tu Klaatu?" Oil on canvas 5" x 5" © 2011 Marilyn Fenn
“Et Tu Klaatu?” Oil on canvas 5″ x 5″ © 2011 Marilyn Fenn

With last night’s painting I am asking myself if what I am trying to achieve is looser and better brushwork while standing at arm-plus-brush length from the canvas, why am I using little toys for models that are sometimes as small as 1-1.5 inches high?   I can barely see them from my vantage point, and find that I do have to move in closer from time to time.

On the other hand, I am really enjoying painting paintings of these little toys, even though their tiny size is not as conducive to my loosening up as, say, a basket of apples would be.  Well, it’s all a process, and with each new (almost) daily painting, I learn a little more or gain a little confidence.  Tonight, I was quite pleased with a few really good brushstrokes, and sometimes, that’s enough.  🙂

As with all of my small still life paintings here, it is painted on a 1.25″ deep gallery wrapped canvas with the sides painted black, so it is ready to hang on a wall, without a frame (it would also look great in a floater frame).

New Painting: Catfish (pepper shaker)

"Catfish" Oil on canvas 6″ x 6″ © 2011 Marilyn Fenn
“Catfish” Oil on canvas 6″ x 6″ © 2011 Marilyn Fenn

Finally, here is the companion to the Catbird painting!  I aimed to keep this as fresh as possible, trying to define each patch of color with as few brushstrokes as possible.  My goal was one brushstroke per patch of color, and I can’t say I achieved that 100%, but maybe 85-90%.  I think the fish lips came out particularly well.  🙂

I had this lit with two lights – one from each direction (due to my still life and palette setup), and I think that was one light too many, or the placement could have been better.  I would have preferred that the object’s roundness was better defined through light and shadow, as with the Catbird, but I didn’t notice it until I compared the two paintings after finishing this one (rolleyes).  Next time…