Don’t Toss That “Failed” Painting… Turn it Into a Pentimento Instead!

by Leslie Miller in Painting Techniques


What the heck is a “pentimento?” According to the Oxford Dictionary, a pentimento is “a visible trace of an earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas.” In other words, it’s a painting peeking out through the layers of the newer painting on top.

Painting right on top of another painting — without covering the original one with gesso — can create some fabulous and intriguing effects.

I’ve had students tell me they threw their finished painting right into the trash bin, they were so unhappy with it. This is a shame on many levels… First of all, I’ve also had students tell me that they hated the painting until they saw it the next morning, and then they thought, “Oh, it’s not so bad after all!”

Have you had that experience? I know I have… but even if you still hate the painting the morning after, don’t toss it. First, study it without emotion. See what you can learn from what you did, how you might improve it, or how you might have done it better. Every painting can be a great learning experience, no matter how long you’ve been painting.

And then… drumroll… create your pentimento!

You’ve probably guessed by now that the painting at the top of this page is a pentimento. Would you like to see the failed painting beneath and the steps I took to create the new one (which I’m very happy with, by the way!) Take a look:

Yep, still hate it, and had no idea how to proceed or even try to fix it. I was just getting into abstracts and had quite a few that just didn’t make it. Usually, I’d gesso over the piece and do something else, but in this case, inspiration struck big-time!

Mixing my Payne’s Grey with some Thalo Green, I covered the entire canvas using wide, choppy brushstrokes and making sure to lay the paint on fairly wet. Then, working quickly before it dried, I crumpled up a wet paper towel and carefully wiped away the rough shape of a vase and a bouquet, revealing some of the greens and pinks of the painting underneath.

Next I finger-painted in one large flower to be the focal point and carry some of the pink color that was on the right side to the left. Then I gave it a bit of white splatter, because I love to splatter.

I was already quite tickled with how well it was turning out… and the idea that I could turn this weird, unsuccessful attempt at an abstract into this moody, cool floral.

Here’s what I wound up with:

Pentimento, First Version

I liked this right away and even posted it to my Instagram, but after living with it for a week or two, I decided it needed just a bit more “oomph.” I got out my Neo Color II crayons and started emphasizing some of the colors and shapes. I used a light hatching of the white Neo Color to emphasize the effect of light reflecting on the glass in the bottom half of the vase. A bit more oomph turned into a lot more oomph, because once I get going with the Neo Colors, it’s so much fun I don’t want to stop.

I stepped back frequently as I worked, to make sure I was adding color where I needed it but not losing the loose, fresh feel of the piece that I liked so much.

I wanted to add another element as well, to fill some of the empty dark space and make the painting a bit more balanced. I came up with the idea for the vase to be reflecting in a mirror, which I added entirely with my Neo Colors. (By the way, since Neo Color II are water-soluble crayons, if you use them you’ll need to spray the piece with a fixative so that they are protected from smudging or running if any water gets on the piece.)

And here, again, is the final version of Glow in the Dark.
Mixed media, 11×14.”

I hope you are inspired to crank up your imagination and turn one or more of your so-called “failures” into a pentimento. You could wind up with something totally unique that takes your art in a whole new direction! Leave me a comment below and tell me how it turned out…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *