Should I Paint Over a Painting?

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Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953.
Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953.

I am an artist, curator, and administrator. I am constantly handling and presenting art. Sometimes my team and I recontextualize pieces or alter them for presentation (frame, mount, etc.) but generally with the artist’s consent. I have a painting that I acquired from a show and the portrait in the foreground is to die for, but the background is a really awful color. Is it okay for me to alter the piece to suit my own taste or is that a total no-no?

Dear Meh,
Oh boy, this is quite a question! In fact, it’s one I spend a lot of time talking to my artist friends about, and we seemed to land all over the place on the ethics of this.
First, let’s clarify this situation for any readers who might be confused.
You have a painting. You like the portrait painted in the foreground but the background color repulses you. So by “alter the piece,” I’m assuming you mean that you want to repaint or retouch the actual painting so that it aligns more with your color tastes. Intriguing!
There are several things you need to consider before you go putting your DIY-loving paws all over this painting. So let’s walk through some of my concerns, as they may help you make the right decision.
First consideration: authenticity. The moment you start to alter a painting without the artist’s consent, it’s no longer a work of art by that artist. I don’t know if the painting was made by a significant artist, or someone who might make a name for themselves down the line, but if you ever want to brag about it, resell it, or exhibit it in the future, you won’t be able to. If you’ve painted on it, you’ve essentially destroyed it in the eyes of collectors, museums, and galleries. So think carefully about its future life.
That said, if it is at all possible to contact the artist and ask them to repaint the background, do it! That way, it still stays attributed to them. Explain that you love the painting but the background color is not jiving with your aesthetic. See if they would mind making the change for you. It’s kind of a brazen question, but I know a lot of artists who are flexible when it comes to that stuff, and would be willing to alter it, especially if you paid good money for it.

David Irwin paints into found thrift store paintings
For his “Redirected Paintings” series, artist David Irvine finds old and discarded thrift store paintings and alters them by adding characters sourced from pop culture.

Which brings me to my next point. (One that was argued over quite a bit.) Quite frankly, if you bought it, it’s yours. No one can tell you what to do with your own property. So, if you want to paint it, hell, go for it. No one can arrest you for it; no art cop is going to beat down your door. However, if you know the artist personally or if they GAVE the painting to you, you might really piss them off by repainting their work. If that’s the case, they might be the ones who come beat down your door.
Next consideration, if you DO decide to repaint it, you’re going to have to match the materials. Not just whether it’s oil or acrylic or watercolor, but different brands of paints have different sheens/density/opacity/etc. Depending on what the artist used, it could be tricky to match. Not to mention, is it varnished? If so, painting on top of the varnish could look weird, and would potentially require a second varnishing. Also, is it an oil painting? If it is, be aware that oil paints dry and darken at different paces, and as years go by, overpainting can completely mismatch the original, depending on how much time elapsed between the applications.
I’d also be concerned with the relationship of foreground to background if you DO paint over it. You can tell when paint has been applied on top of other paint. So you don’t want your background to be pulled up to the front because of the order in which it was applied.
Last consideration, my dear sweet Meh, I don’t know you or your artistic background, but please don’t pull an “Ecce Homo” on this painting you seem to (overall) love. You know what I’m talking about: the botched conservation job that turned a fresco of Jesus into a some weirdly hilarious monkey-mutant. Well, that disastrous downward spiral all started with one little “fix,” just a little dab here, a little dab there, and BAM! Destroyed.
In general, I’d say if you care about the artist and the work, don’t alter it yourself. The artist chose that color for a reason, maybe it’ll grow on you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen overpainting removed in the conservation lab, and 9 out of 10 times, the original painting looks better. I don’t know what that means for you, but usually that artist’s original vision for the painting was spot on. After all, it’s their painting.
Got a question for Sara? Send an email to [email protected]
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space Threesquared. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow.

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