X-ray technology has helped reveal hidden secrets beneath the paint of several famous works of art. We know that there are portraits hidden beneath famous works by Degas and Leonardo. Recently the New York Times ran a story where closer examination of a portrait of Lenin revealed a preserved portrait of Tsar Nicholas II. The 1924 Lenin portrait hung in a primary school. On the other side of the canvas, facing the wall, Tsar Nicholas survived the waves of Soviet destruction. [Goncharova, Masha; 'Portrait of Tsar Nicholas II Discovered Beneath Portrait of Lenin'; New York Times: Art & Design; 11.14.17.] While it is intriguing enough that these hidden works exist, we can now muse over what causes these original works to become hidden. Was the artist unable to afford another canvas, were the paintings deemed too poor quality, too politically volatile, or was it just the whim of the artist. I find the speculation particularly intriguing because I am an artist that has painted over my old works for any number of reasons.
So, in order to better articulate why I find this article fascinating, I decided to pick a piece and take you on a journey through its development. I chose one of my favorite recent works, 'Snapdragon Delivery'. This piece was a work in progress that started in late 2015.
Really, it begins with bargain bin stock-piled artwork... A local construction company uses a stock photo printed on stretched canvas to stage their model homes. It is a black and white snowy landscape image of a lake surrounded by trees. I found it a decidedly unremarkable photo. I'm sure that the construction company saw it as safe, guaranteed not to offend or dissuade buyers who were perusing a model home. The company scored a stockpile of these prints, and they hired a local frame shop to put a solid wood frame on them to dress them up. The frame is worth more than the canvas or the image.
The construction company ordered too many prints and tells the frame shop to keep them. In walks artist, me. The framer doesn't need them, and wants these canvases out of his way. For a 22" x 40" canvas I typically pay around $30. Frame shop owner sells me the free canvas for $20.
About three months later, I did a wine and paint class, where the host paid for supplies. The gracious host did not want the paints after the class was over, so I took my free paint and mixed it into my personal art supplies. Over the next year, on top of that snowy lake photograph, I painted 'Snapdragon Delivery.'
The painting needs a frame to make it look more finished, so I pop into another frame shop. This shop had recently done a large frame job for a university, and the school bought oddly sized prints. The framer was left with odd length scraps, too long to throw out, but also of strange dimensions. In walks artist, me. I hear about these unwanted leftovers. Perfect. They make my frame from the university scrap wood. For $60 I have a beautiful wood frame that should have cost me closer to $200.
Over the course of 2 years I have acquired supplies, created and framed 'Snapdragon Delivery' on a limited budget. Each material has a story that goes beyond stopping into Michael's.
The frog lady with a drink only exists beneath the paint of the lily pad frog to the right. I decided to paint over her because I didn't particularly like the piece.
The green frog was erased to make room for the umbrella wielding frog on the right. I had an idea, but lacked the funds to buy more canvas. So I painted over my least favorite piece, which happened to be the poor green frog.
I have painted over pieces because I disliked them, because I needed the canvas and could not afford to buy more, and because the canvas itself was more valuable to me than the cheap stock photo image stamped onto the piece at the factory. When I read an article about hidden art, I can't help but muse over all of my own hidden images, and all the motivations behind painting over artwork.
Each of my works has a story behind the character, deeper than the subject, all the way down to the very wood and canvas. 'Snapdragon Delivery,' of my favorite pieces, was originally a stock photo printed on canvas that was meant to decorate a model home in Ohio.