Re-evaluating an Image

The artist encounters a younger self and a springboard to the future by re-entering an image from the past and refining it.

Petals, a figure painting by Judith Reeve
Petals, oil on linen

Over that past six weeks I have been pulling older work out of the racks. These images I have never shown because they were somehow not the fullest expression of my work. In many ways, they felt incomplete. There are several reasons for this: the image remains unformed because of a technical flaw in the color or drawing. Or the image moved away from its initial inspiration- its root- and diverged. Or sometimes one becomes plagued by the specificity of the model thereby weakening the larger, more important reasons for forming the image. Or one looses the thread, the deep emotional connection to that initial inspiration that compelled you to grappel with this specific image. Or one found that the difficulty of creating the image went beyond the technical ability one had at that moment. All of these reasons were present to some degree in the images that I drew out from the past.

Some images, I found, I had entirely moved beyond, mentally and emotionally and chose to leave these images incomplete. But there were others that I felt still contained a powerful germ that just needed to be released. They were calling to be fulfilled and completed. When one lets an image go, abandoning it for awhile, and then re-approaches it with new eyes, the solution that seemed so elusive is now laid before ones feet. And this is an exciting moment. One becomes entirely free from all the past frustrations. Those visual battles between what one desired and what was unfolding in the moment. Many of these images failed to idealize the model enough, carrying her to an archetypal level that was evocative. Now free from the model, and the specificity of the situation, I could see where I had failed to grasp the essentials. The emotion was still present and activated but it yearned for a dynamic unity that I could not give it at that time. Now I could see the flaws and the path to finish the image.

Luckily, I have kept excellent records of my process. Each painting is coded with a number that contains the date I last worked on it. These codes are recorded sequentially in my color/chord notebooks. So I am able, quite easily, to go through my record books and find all the information on how I developed the image, the specific palette I used, color combinations, mediums, whether it had been varnished and whether there was a color study and a initial drawing and whether I scaled the drawing up or not. The hardest part was finding the drawing in my flat files because I have about 300 drawings that I have saved.

Pulling out the drawing and comparing it to the painting helped re-evoke the memory of that image. Mixing the palette I had used, which sometimes contained colors I had moved away from, was challenging and at the same time reassuring. It is amazing to see where I have come from and many times, what I have forgotten. But all of the work somehow still resides in me- it is me. And it is enlightening to look at oneself in the past as if it was a mirror- seeing oneself as the younger, inexperienced artist and simultaneously, the present more experienced and mature artist. Memory is a powerful messenger, revealing more about who we are detached from past circumstance but yet emotionally potent still.

Images are independent entities that take on a life of their own beyond the confines of the artist. These images, in my rack, waited patiently for fulfillment, to be set free and released into the world. It has been a turning point in my artistic career. I finally have the freedom and the ability to accept that I cannot control the image and that I am just a midwife standing by to bring them to birth. Their life and vitality is not my own doing but comes from someplace beyond my understanding. I am here to set them on their way as they find their place in the world.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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